by Julian Spivey
Today would’ve been (if he’s actually dead) comedic genius Andy Kaufman’s 64th birthday. Kaufman might still be known today (and may always be mostly known) for playing the foreign mechanic Latka Gravas on the late ‘70s/early ‘80s ABC sitcom “Taxi,” but Kaufman should be mostly known as a one-of-a-kind performance artist who’s genuine wackiness made him one of the most important and most original comedians anybody has ever seen.
Today being Kaufman’s birthday reminded me of a conversation I had at work with two of my co-workers a few weeks back. I overheard these two co-workers talking about professional wrestling, which I don’t give a damn about, but something about the conversation made me think (and bring up) Andy Kaufman’s hoax feud with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler and his wrestling with women. The older co-worker knew what I was referencing, but the co-worker who was actually my age didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. This bothered me greatly. Kaufman is an American legend and despite being dead for almost 30 years, should still be a household name.
Now being the “Saturday Night Live” fanatic that I’ve always been I’ve always known the name Andy Kaufman for the iconic Mighty Mouse theme song bit he did on the show’s very first episode in 1975. To this day it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever witness and is one of the greatest ‘SNL’ bits of all time. I learned even more about Kaufman and developed a fascination with him after viewing the great Milos Forman 1999 bio-pic about Kaufman, “Man on the Moon,” which features Jim Carrey (who, by the way, shares a birthday with Kaufman) in maybe his finest film performance.
Kaufman was a comedic genius because he didn’t do comedy in the usual, typical way they most comedians do, in fact, Kaufman didn’t even like to be called a comedian, he preferred ‘performance artist’. Kaufman’s humor featured elaborate hoaxes and pranks and other oddities that had never been seen before and to my knowledge have never really been seen again.
My favorite Kaufman hoax was the wrestling one involving him and Lawler, which lead to the two getting into a brief altercation on “Late Night with David Letterman” in the early ‘80s. It wasn’t until years later that anybody knew it was indeed a hoax. But, Kaufman’s greatest hoax (if not faking his own death, which some fans believe he did) was his creation of Tony Clifton, an audience-abusing lounge singer that often opened for Kaufman. Many people believed Clifton to be a real, and really obnoxious, person, but he was actually played by a combination of Kaufman, Kaufman’s brother Michael and Kaufman’s friend Bob Zmuda. Another fantastic hoax perpetrated by Kaufman was that of the live on-set fight he started on the ABC variety series “Fridays” in 1981.
Kaufman famously disliked sitcoms, so it was a shock to many that he accepted a role on “Taxi,” but this led to one of the all time great Kaufman-esque moments, which (as with many of Kaufman’s great moments) are nicely portrayed in “Man on the Moon.” At his live show Kaufman would often be heckled by audience members expecting or hoping to see him perform as Latka in person. Instead of performing as Latka or doing any other comedic bits Kaufman would read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby” to the audience, it would receive a laugh at first, but Kaufman would continue to read the book. After a while Kaufman would ask the audience if they would prefer to keep hearing him read or if they’d rather him put on a record. When the audience decided that they’d rather hear the record, Kaufman would oblige with a record cued to the point of him reading “The Great Gatsby” from where he had left off.
I always get the picture from reading up on Kaufman and from watching “Man on the Moon” that Kaufman always did things to entertain himself and make himself laugh more than he did for the audience, which I find fascinating and in a weird way admirable. His original kind of zaniness and wackiness is something that has had a profound effect on me and really is a type of humor that I try to give off when I’m around people. Am I doing it for them or am I doing it for me?
Andy Kaufman was one of the funniest guys the comedy world has ever seen and is one of the best hoaxsters this country has ever seen. He’s an original and for that he should be known to everyone out there. He’s honestly one of the most fascinating individuals ever in pop culture.