Andy Kaufman Creates Mayhem on Late Night TV: When Comedy Becomes Performance Art (1981)

While there are many styles of com­e­dy, the con­tract between come­di­an and audi­ence is a fair­ly stan­dard one. The come­di­an endeav­ors to get laughs. The audi­ence under­stands that sort of cur­ren­cy, and is eager to lav­ish it on deserv­ing can­di­dates.

The late Andy Kauf­man wasn’t much inter­est­ed in that sort of exchange.

His com­e­dy was exper­i­men­tal to the point of per­for­mance art, and often felt exper­i­men­tal in a sci­en­tif­ic sense as well. When he read long pas­sages from The Great Gats­by to com­e­dy club audi­ences, went after pro­fes­sion­al wrestlers twice his size, or insist­ed he’d found Jesus and got­ten engaged to a Lawrence Welk Show singer, it was as if he was con­duct­ing a stress test. How much dis­ori­en­ta­tion would an audi­ence put up with?

He was a gen­uine weirdo. The genius kid who seems hell­bent on win­ning the ani­mos­i­ty of his class­mates with his cryp­tic remarks and odd behav­ior.

Know­ing young com­e­dy fans who idol­ize prankster Sacha Baron Cohen’s shapeshift­ing stunts may find it hard to appre­ci­ate just how unset­tling the off-kil­ter Kauf­man could be.

Wit­ness his 1981 guest spot on Fri­days, a rival network’s short-lived attempt to dupli­cate Sat­ur­day Night Live’s suc­cess.

In the sketch above, Kauf­man wan­ders pret­ty egre­gious­ly afield of expect­ed con­duct. In an era where guest stars appeared not infre­quent­ly bombed out of their gourds, it wasn’t entire­ly sur­pris­ing that one might appear con­fused, or have trou­ble read­ing cue cards. But Kauf­man seemed to be mak­ing a delib­er­ate choice to scup­per his career, or at the very least, the good­will of Fri­days’ cast and crew, by refus­ing to play along in a sketch about restau­rant patrons sneak­ing off to the bath­room to get high.

“I can’t play stoned,” he breaks char­ac­ter to announce, mid-scene. Hmm. Seems like the kind of thing one might bring up dur­ing the table read. An a‑hole would wait till dress rehearsal, when such a move would for sure inspire the enmi­ty of cast and crew. Kauf­man wait­ed till the sketch was being taped in front of a live stu­dio audi­ence.

But then, Kaufman’s exper­i­ments need­ed an audi­ence to suc­ceed.

As with Sacha Baron Cohen’s elab­o­rate rus­es, it helped to lim­it the num­ber of peo­ple who were in on the joke.

Actor Melanie Chartoff recalled how she and Kaufman’s oth­er two scene part­ners, Mary Edith Bur­rell and Seinfeld’s Michael Richards, were tipped off fair­ly late in the process by producer/announcer Jack Burns, who was thrilled to snap up the live wire whose antics had per­ma­nent­ly burned his bridges with Sat­ur­day Night Live:

Andy’s gonna bust out of the show tonight,” he gleamed. “He’s gonna mess up and break the fourth wall from the top of the mono­logue. It’s gonna be great. It’s gonna kick our rat­ings through the ROOF!

And so it did, abet­ted by benight­ed crew mem­bers who sprang to pro­vide back up, when a furi­ous-seem­ing Burns stormed the set as if to kick the ornery guest star’s ass.

But the piece de resis­tance came the fol­low­ing week, when pro­duc­er John Mof­fitt went on air to sat­is­fy the public’s need to know, con­fess­ing that the stunt was indeed a fake and pious­ly sug­gest­ing they should take it as a reminder of the “spon­tane­ity of live tele­vi­sion, some­thing that rarely hap­pens in this basi­cal­ly pas­sive medi­um today.”

Then Kaufman—who gen­uine­ly hat­ed that his sleight of hand had been revealed—turned on Mof­fitt for the halt­ing, mis­er­able, and seem­ing­ly forced 4 minute apol­o­gy below.

When the live audi­ence laughed delight­ed­ly, he lashed out, insist­ing that his pre­vi­ous week’s actions were about to cost him his gig on the hit sit­com Taxi, all future roles, a num­ber of friend­ships, and his mar­riage.

Nev­er mind that he was unmar­ried.

This come­di­an played a long game, and easy laughs were nev­er the goal.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

The Improb­a­ble Time When Orson Welles Inter­viewed Andy Kauf­man (1982)

The Night John Belushi Booked the Punk Band Fear on Sat­ur­day Night Live, And They Got Banned from the Show

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this Decem­ber for the 10th anniver­sary pro­duc­tion of Greg Kotis’ apoc­a­lyp­tic hol­i­day tale, The Truth About San­ta, and the next month­ly install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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