A Look Back at Andy Kaufman: Absurd Comic Performance Artist and Endearing Weirdo

Andy Kauf­man had too much per­son­al­i­ty for one per­son, so he split him­self into sev­er­al, and nobody seemed to know which one of them was Andy Kauf­man. Andy Kauf­man prob­a­bly could have faked his death, then returned for the big ta-da twen­ty years lat­er, but he didn’t (prob­a­bly). Andy Kauf­man, ladies and gen­tle­men, was a genius. I don’t mean that in the idiomat­ic sense of “he was real­ly great,” no. I mean that he had a com­ic IQ of sev­er­al hun­dred points. Which is why so many of his bits are so baf­fling and rib-crack­ing­ly fun­ny at once: he played dolts, sim­ple­tons, and drool­ing, almost cata­ton­ic idiots so per­fect­ly that you might swear that there was real­ly some­thing wrong with him. Except that dur­ing a per­for­mance, you might also swear you’d caught a wicked glint in his eye—for frac­tion of a second—as if you’d almost, maybe, but not quite seen a sub­lim­i­nal ad flash over the screen dur­ing a movie.

Then there were the Kauf­man char­ac­ters so unlike­able, so ruth­less­ly obnox­ious and dan­ger­ous­ly unhinged, you’d swear that there was some­thing wrong with him, again. And maybe there was, but I’m con­vinced he was in full con­trol of it. In the clip above, from The David Let­ter­man Show in 1980, Kauf­man sends Let­ter­man into a fit of stam­mer­ing “uh, oh… ums” and the audi­ence into fits of laugh­ter by look­ing like he’s just stum­bled in from a psych ward and isn’t sure exact­ly where he is or why. When he final­ly opens his mouth to speak, at near­ly two min­utes into the inter­view, he seems lost, dazed, almost child­like. Which every­one thinks is hilar­i­ous, because, well, it’s Andy Kauf­man. It must be per­for­mance art, right? No mat­ter which Andy Kauf­man appeared before an audi­ence, they always had the sense there was anoth­er one, or sev­er­al, under­neath, whether they knew his act or not. But you could nev­er know if you’d hit bedrock. Joaquin Phoenix—whose attempts to stunt the pub­lic a few years ago most­ly pro­voked befud­dle­ment and pity—never came close to this lev­el of weird. If Char­lie Sheen had been hoax­ing, instead of just los­ing his mind… maybe.

One might say Andy Kauf­man invent­ed trolling, the art of ril­ing peo­ple up by imper­son­at­ing idiots, cra­zies, and abra­sive jerks. And he got away with it for one sim­ple rea­son; he was authentic—all of his char­ac­ters had some kind of endear­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, even at their most deranged. This was cer­tain­ly the case with the TV char­ac­ter that made him famous, Taxi’s Lat­ka, an immi­grant dri­ver of inde­ter­mi­nate ori­gin, whose naïve demeanor and unin­tel­li­gi­ble lan­guage nev­er smacked of mere, broad par­o­dy of “the for­eign­er,” although in any­one else’s hands, that would have hap­pened. But Kauf­man brought to the char­ac­ter a sub­tle­ty that made Lat­ka an instant indi­vid­ual. Watch the scene below, for exam­ple, in which Kauf­man, as Lat­ka, trans­forms into a swing­ing Play­boy mag­a­zine afi­ciona­do, then back to Lat­ka, all in under two min­utes of Char­lie Chap­lin-wor­thy phys­i­cal com­e­dy.

Lat­ka grew out of an ear­li­er per­sona of Kaufman’s who claimed to be from a fic­tion­al island in the Caspi­an Sea called “Caspi­ar.” This character’s ner­vous inep­ti­tude was charm­ing enough, but the pay­off, as you’ll see below, was when Kauf­man broke out of char­ac­ter into his swag­ger­ing Elvis imper­son­ation. It’s said that the real Elvis loved it, and it’s the bit that inspired the immor­tal lines in R.E.M.’s Kauf­man trib­ute song, “Man on the Moon”: “Andy are you goof­ing on Elvis (hey baby) / Are you hav­ing fun?” Below, see Kaufman’s trans­for­ma­tion into Elvis from an appear­ance on The Tonight Show with John­ny Car­son in 1977. Tell me if you think he’s enjoy­ing him­self.

The dark­er side of Andy Kauf­man comes out in such abu­sive char­ac­ters as vit­ri­olic lounge singer, Tony Clifton, some­times played by Kaufman’s friend and part­ner, Bob Zmu­da (watch Kauf­man and Zmu­da togeth­er on a kids show called Bananaz in 1979). Tony Clifton became Kauf­man’s evil alter-ego, an ali­bi for his more destruc­tive urges, and a char­ac­ter that out­lived him, res­ur­rect­ed after his death by Zmu­da, and lat­er by come­di­an Ben Isaac. Below, see Kaufman’s first per­for­mance as Clifton in 1977.

Clifton, and Kauf­man, got mean­er and weird­er over the years (or so it seemed). Any­one who’s seen Milos Forman’s biopic Man on the Moon is famil­iar with Kaufman’s obses­sive prank­ing of pro­fes­sion­al wrestling: his feud with wrestler Jer­ry Lawler (who was in on the joke), his relent­less taunt­ing of the South­ern Lawler and the most­ly South­ern audi­ence as red­necks and rubes, and his turns in the ring with female wrestlers. This part of his career is tru­ly bizarre, though sure­ly no less a con­trolled demo­li­tion than any­thing he’d done before. And the weird­er Kauf­man got, the more he seemed to con­firm some­thing many peo­ple had always sus­pect­ed. What­ev­er the stunt, the char­ac­ter, or impres­sion, the joke was on every­one, and nobody knew what was hap­pen­ing but Andy. In 1989, five years after Kaufman’s death from can­cer, his girl­friend Lynne Mar­gulies and friend Joe Orr fin­ished a doc­u­men­tary about his adven­tures in pro­fes­sion­al wrestling called I’m from Hol­ly­wood, after one of his sneer­ing, faux-elit­ist insults of Lawler. It’s the last piece of Kaufman’s lega­cy, and it’s avail­able in sev­er­al parts on YouTube. Watch and try to imag­ine, if you can, what the wrestling fans ring­side made of Andy Kauf­man.

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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