Andy Kaufman was so skillful at his craft that 30 plus years after his death, some think the comic is still alive. Kaufman was known to be a bit of prankster. Many times, he would not let the audience in on the joke, often times leaving room filled with confusion and hatred. He thought of himself as a, “song and dance man,” as opposed to a comedian. Comedian or not, Kaufman is a game changer.
In the early 1970s, Kaufman honed his act in coffee houses and eventually comedy clubs, including New York City’s The Improv. His bits were characters like Tony Clifton, a lounge singer who was Kaufman’s opener. Meaning, he would be in full costume as Clifton to a point where audiences would not be aware that it was actually Kaufman. The act was Clifton telling jokes which were not funny. They were insulting and usually resulted with boos from the crowd.
The character which would bring Kaufman notoriety was Foreign Man. He was from Caspiar, a fictional island in the Caspian Sea, and he had an indistinguishable accent. A classic joke from this character would be impressions such as President Carter, “I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States.” Without changing any tone in his voice, he continued, “’Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States’. Thenk you veddy much.” Audiences did not know how to react, whether to boo him off or to politely laugh for trying. That would be the case until Foreign Man’s final impression, Elvis Presley. To the shock of everyone in the audience, he would nail it, down to the gyrating hips. The only difference between him and Presley was Foreign Man would ask for his jacket back after tossing it into the crowd. It was Foreign Man that earned him a spot on Taxi as Latka Gravas.
In 1979, he played Carnegie Hall. For the performance, he invited his “grandmother” to attend the show. His “grandmother” would later be revealed as Robin Williams in a wig. At another point in the show, a woman “died” on stage, and Kaufman danced around her while wearing a headdress to “revive” her. After the show, he loaded 24 busses with the entire audience of 2,800 to treat them to milk and cookies.
Kaufman also made many appearances on late night television including the first season of Saturday Night Live. He made 14 guest appearances on SNL before being banned by fans of the show. He asked the fans to call in to vote whether or not he should be allowed on again due to outrage from his public campaign to wrestle only women as the Intergender Wrestling Champion. The count was 195,544 to 169,186, and finalized on November 20, 1982. SNL announcer Don Pardo is quoted for ending show with, “This is Don Pardo saying, ‘I voted for Andy Kaufman.'”
Andy Kaufman was fearless yet mortal. Two years later, he fell ill to a rare lung cancer. While his comedy was immortal, his health was limited. It’s really no wonder that fans believe he is still around, enjoying a quieter life and watching the rest of us not be in on the joke. Wherever Andy is now—physically or cosmically—we’re all on the outside of this one.