Shrewd and Knavish Sprite: Will the Real Andy Kaufman Please Stand Up?

What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is “art.” – Orson Welles

Art is a lie. – Pablo Picasso


The 1973 Orson Welles film F For Fake strings together several stories, including controversial author Clifford Irving’s biography of noted art forger Elmyr de Hory (whose works were a hoax) as well as his “authorized” biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes (itself a hoax). Welles reminds us that he himself burst into the public consciousness via a hoax – his 1938 radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. The broadcast was presented as a live news report detailing an alien invasion in New Jersey. It was so convincing people reportedly committed suicide in the face of the news that little green men from Mars were overtaking the planet.

F For Fake is not really a documentary or a narrative; nor is it really fact or fiction. The film is one big magic trick. Its genius lies in its relentless deception and refusal to be categorized.

By his own admission, Andy Kaufman was not a comedian. He was a performer. (Or performance artist, if you will, although Kaufman preferred the term “song and dance man.”)

From the very beginning, music played a key role in Andy Kaufman’s act and work. Whether he was accompanying himself with his guitar or bongos, or playing a record on stage from a portable turntable, music permeated almost every bit. Music and comedy are both utterly dependent on timing and setup, and Kaufman understood both devices instinctively. His entire oeuvre was based on trying the audiences’ collective patience. A few boos or walk-outs were almost necessary for the bits to work. But there comes a tipping point any time a performer intentionally manipulates an audience. Kaufman’s years toiling in the comedy clubs honed his instincts to perfection, allowing him to gauge just when an audience had had enough and required a payoff for their patience. Sometimes he let that moment pass altogether, allowing the palpable awkwardness to become the joke itself.

Kaufman first gained notoriety with his “Foreign Man” character, which later served as the basis for the Latka Gravas character on the sitcom Taxi. Foreign Man was a naïve, soft-spoken immigrant from the fictional island of Caspiar. Kaufman first developed the character, or so he claims, to ward off toughs on the streets of New York City. Incidentally, this was the very same reason Chico Marx developed his Italian immigrant persona; the difference being one went tough to blend in while the other went soft, to be seen as different and therefore pitiable.

One of his earliest and simplest bits utilizing Foreign Man remains perhaps his most endearing. The premise – standing in still silence while playing a record of the theme song to the 1950’s children’s cartoon “Mighty Mouse,” lip synching only the refrain – is by its nature so limiting the success of the bit depends entirely upon the subtly of the performer. Kaufman’s timing shines. The first refrain comes right away, a rare moment of mercy on the audience. The second verse is longer than the first, so Kaufman begins to get ready to repeat the chorus, then catches himself and quickly covers, looking down in embarrassment for his perceived timing misstep. It is such a subtle movement, it passed almost without notice when Kaufman performed this bit in front of a hip, late-night audience on the series premier of Saturday Night Live.

The whole thing creates this perfect absurdity. Just who is this guy with the turtleneck and the uneasy posture who is clearly not ready for prime time? Why is he standing here doing this? How did he get this gig? Of course, by the time of its television debut on Saturday Night Live, it is obvious that this is a comedian doing a bit. To have seen this in a club before anyone knew that it was a put-on would have been an entirely different experience. Anyone who has stood on a stage knows that the single hardest thing to do is to stand there erect, starring back at the audience, doing absolutely nothing.

From a modern-day vantage point, doing an Elvis impersonation in a nightclub or on Saturday Night Live – even a really good one – does not seem all that groundbreaking, or even interesting. But it wasn’t the mere quality of the impression that made it work (although the success of the bit was dependent on flawlessness). It was, again, all in the setup.

Knowing that Foreign Man was an entirely inept comic – but that there was a vulnerability to him that made him endearing on a certain level – Kaufman knew there was a limited amount of mileage he could milk from an audience, a small window in which to set them up for the pay-off. Like a pool hustler intentionally throwing his first few games Kaufman, as Foreign Man, would begin with a few blatantly incompetent impressions, creating the discomfort on which he thrived. Early audiences weren’t quite sure how to react. Was this part of the act? Or was this simply a horrible but somehow oddly loveable young comedian dying on stage? There were polite, awkward chuckles and, of course, boos, as Foreign Man stumbled from impression to impression doing Archie Bunker or President Carter. When he had pushed the setup as far as he could he would announce that his next impression would be Elvis Presley. At this point he turned around, slicked back his hair, changed clothes and faced the audience as Elvis – complete with stance and sneer – and launched into one of The King’s better-known hits with eerie perfection.

What made this bit work so well was not only the quality of the impression and the brilliant timing of the setup, but also the fact that in the mid 1970’s, while the real Elvis Presley was still alive and performing regularly, the art of Elvis impersonation was not all that developed or common.

It is true that people began impersonating Elvis practically from the beginning. As early as the 1950’s there were organized Elvis look-alike contests. Even Johnny Cash worked a comical Elvis impression into his early shows in the late 1950’s. In a 1959 performance from Town Hall Party – a Los Angeles-based country and rockabilly variety show filmed in Compton and televised locally in Southern California – Cash takes out a comb, mangles his hair into a wild Elvis pompadour complete with sideburns, and emerges as The King with a comical, almost surreal, rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.” Cash’s introduction explaining that he isn’t doing an Elvis impersonation but, instead, “an impersonation of a rock ‘n’ roll singer impersonating Elvis” is especially Kaufmanesque in its multilayered abstruseness.

Since Town Hall Party did not air on the east coast, where Kaufman grew up, and this footage was not commercially available until decades after his death, it is not likely he ever saw Cash’s impression. But the method is strikingly similar. As was the jubilant audience reaction to a phenomenon five years old or twenty-five.

So while Kaufman certainly did not invent the idea of a full-scale Elvis impersonation, one could argue that he did invent the modern explosion of the phenomenon. Not that the Elvis impersonator subculture is necessarily a fulfilling contribution to the American experience, but it is unquestionably a fascinating one. He would later do the same for wrestling theatrics as he did for Elvis impersonations. (While many saw his foray into wrestling as a departure from his comedy, it was more a logical, almost inevitable, extension of it.) And despite these works being obvious parody on some level, Kaufman had genuine affection for the subjects of his parody.

I was the only one I knew that liked Elvis Presley at the time, that’s when The Beatles were popular…and I would stay home most of the time and just play his records and imitate him, adopted him as a character, comb my hair like him, dress like him and all my friends would call me Elvis. – Andy Kaufman

Kaufman was a born performer and some of his appearances on shows such as The Midnight Special indicate that if the comedy bug had not grabbed him, Kaufman could have been at home fronting a rock ‘n’ roll band.

In a 1977 appearance on The Midnight Special – during the height of the punk rock phenomenon – Kaufman sings a song called “I Trusted You,” which consists of the same two chords and the refrain “I trusted you” repeated for over three minutes, accompanied only by two electric guitars. Kaufman’s energy overcomes any lack of bass or drums (or song structure) and it sounds like the New York Dolls covering an obscure Bo Diddley B-side. In a moment perhaps more profound than intended, one audience member holds up an enlarged photo of Harpo Marx, another unclassifiable comedic performer who could have easily had a career strictly as a musician.

A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician. – Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin

It is not all that original a stunt to create a zany alter ego character. Performers from David Bowie to Sacha Baron Cohen have found great success with the concept. But in typical Kaufman fashion, he took it to the extreme. Kaufman pulled off the ultimate coup d’état, having his alter ego – washed-up lounge singer Tony Clifton – perform at the 20th anniversary of Kaufman’s death. That’s coming as close to Tom Sawyer watching his own funeral as someone who is actually deceased is likely to achieve. (These latter-day appearances fueled rumors that Kaufman had faked his own death. After all, if anyone was capable of such a stunt, surely it was Andy Kaufman.)

Tony Clifton, a character created by Kaufman and his behind-the-scenes creative partner Bob Zmuda, was (is?) an obnoxious, abusive, untalented Vegas lounge singer. (The inspiration came from a real-life singer Kaufman saw performing in Las Vegas on a trip he took to meet the real-life Elvis Presley.) Clifton would come out on stage in a ruffled tux and bad hairpiece and begin to insult audience members, occasionally dipping into song for a few bars of “Volare” or “On the Street Where You Live” in between tirades. At some point, Clifton would single out one audience member (a pre-determined plant, usually Zmuda) and pour a drink over his head.

Clifton came to prominence after Kaufman insisted he be given guest spots on Taxi as part of Kaufman’s conditions for agreeing to do the show. The producers had no idea who Clifton was, but they wanted Kaufman so they agreed. Clifton showed up for his first rehearsal drunk, accompanied by two prostitutes, and caused such a scene he was escorted off the set by security. For Kaufamn, that off-camera performance was the whole point. It was Kaufman’s way of amusing himself and making the sitcom experience, something he detested, palatable.

Ever aware of the importance of the larger setup, Clifton’s early appearances were less disguised and obviously Kaufman playing a character. As the character’s costume incorporated sunglasses and more dramatic wigs Zmuda, and occasionally Kaufman’s brother Michael, sometimes played the part of Clifton, allowing Kaufman to show up as himself in the middle of Clifton’s performances after everyone – especially the bookers – had thought they figured out that Clifton was Kaufman.

In an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, Letterman engages Clifton (who he assumed was Kaufman) in a lengthy interview. Letterman did not find out until several years later that his interviewee that night was not Andy Kaufman, but Bob Zmuda.

LETTERMAN: When I first became aware of you, you seemed to actually come out of nowhere. You were working with Andy Kaufman, the talented comedian and actor…

CLIFTON: Well I don’t know about talented.

LETTERMAN: And there was some discussion at that time that you in fact were Andy Kaufman and that there is no Tony Clifton.

CLIFTON: I don’t know anything about that…Kaufman’s been using my name to get places. 

Clifton’s audience abuse is rooted in the insult comic tradition, dating back to Groucho Marx’s vaudeville persona and perfected for the modern age by the inimitable Don Rickles. Other musicians have blurred the concept of alter ego and audience abrasiveness. The actor Lee Ving, who fronted Los Angeles punk rock band Fear, would incite near riots in the clubs by hurling insults at the audience of young punk rockers too angry to understand that it was all a sham.

Did Andy influence comedy? No. Because nobody’s doing what he did…Follow your own drumbeat. You didn’t have to go up there and say ‘take my wife, please.’ You could do anything that struck you as entertaining. It gave people freedom to be themselves. – Carl Reiner

Just as Kaufman continued the enigmatic approach to celebrity practiced by artists such as Orson Welles, he broke down barriers for a slew of artists and performers who would follow. The 2010 “documentary” film Exit Through the Gift Shop tells the story of Mr. Brainwash, a self-proclaimed protégé of renowned yet illusive street artist Banksy. Mr. Brainwash comes off as a hapless fool – a derivative, barely competent artist. Armed with a rather insincere endorsement from Banksy and fellow street artist Shepard Fairey, Mr. Brainwash took the Los Angeles hipster art scene by storm with a legitimately successful showing. Although it has not been proven, it is almost certain that the whole thing was a Banksy put-on – a comment on the vacuity of bandwagon aesthetics. Most believe that Mr. Brainwash’s pieces were created by Banksy himself, intentionally done to look like inferior, unimaginative Warholesque drivel. Patrons foolish enough to spend sizeable amounts of money on Mr. Brainwash’s trite fare became the pawns in an elaborate Kaufmanesque bit. The irony is that those pieces, although seriously lacking in artistic expression, are themselves part of a larger, original Banksy “work.” The fact that they can be appreciated on that level, but never will be by the ignorant owners, is the real gag.

The truth, please forgive us for it, is that we’ve been forging an art story. As a charlatan, of course, my job was to make it real. Not that reality has anything to do with it. – Orson Welles, F For Fake

Kaufman did not perform to entertain us. He did it to entertain himself. We were just invited along for the ride. It is sometimes said that with Kaufman the joke was on the audience. This is not entirely accurate. It wasn’t so much that the joke was on the audience but, rather, that the audience was a prop, a part of the joke itself.

Andy Kaufman’s brief career in many ways complemented the era in which he worked perfectly. The late 1970’s saw the death of Elvis Presley and Groucho Marx and the birth of punk rock and after-hours sketch comedy television. An unorthodox, edgier, late-night style of entertainment was being developed for the mainstream as a new era in popular culture was built in the wake of the void left by the end of a true golden era of entertainment. Kaufman captured this spirit perfectly by fusing his sincere reverence for the icons of his 1950’s childhood – Mighty Mouse, Elvis Presley, Howdy Doody – with an utterly irreverent, almost merciless, method of entertainment. He became a counter-culture icon. But Kaufman, who did not drink, smoke or take drugs, had a purity and innocence to his mischief that made him more of a counter to the counter-culture. The counter-culture is cynical almost by definition. Kaufman was an unyielding optimist who celebrated, rather than ridiculed, the world. When he finally reached that pinnacle of mainstream showbiz achievement – Carnegie Hall – he closed his show by taking the entire audience out for milk and cookies.

Kaufman and Zmuda wrote a script called The Tony Clifton Story, which has never been produced. On page 112, Clifton passes away from lung cancer in Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Hospital – the same illness that killed the real Andy Kaufman, in the very same hospital.

It is an inevitable phenomenon for conspiracy theories to abound when bright lights such as Andy Kaufman, or Elvis Presley, die prematurely young and somewhat suddenly. For Elvis, the presumed motivation for his allegedly faking his death was the exhaustion of relentless fame and exposure. For Kaufman, who made a career channeling Elvis, it was to pull off the ultimate gag.

Every person closely associated with Andy Kaufman – his brother Michael, Bob Zmuda, his biographer – all insist emphatically that Andy Kaufman died in 1984 at the age of 35. Yet they all admit that he occasionally discussed the idea of faking his death. Zmuda and brother Michael are known participants in past Kaufman deceptions; each of them have played Tony Clifton, allowing Clifton and Kaufman to be in the same room at the same time. So why not have them die the same death in the same hospital? One thing can be safely assumed for sure: if Andy Kaufman did not fake his death, he certainly would appreciate the facts and circumstances surrounding it and the fog of confusion and coincidences thereby unfolded. Perhaps he knew of his cancer when he wrote The Tony Clifton Story. Perhaps he intentionally used his impending actual death to weave a suspicion he knew would serve as a means to create one great, final and everlasting work. The reality is, there is no way to know.

Not that reality has anything to do with it.

4 responses

  1. […] Jeffrey Melton’s sharp piece on pedagogy of humor, or Matt Powell’s excellent work on Andy Kaufman’s music,  Matt Duabe’s insightful piece on performance and Princess Ivona, Sharon McCoy’s […]

  2. I saw Kaufman do the “Mighty Mouse” routine at NY’s Improv back in the ’70s. The humor was not only in the routine, but seeing the the drunken hecklers and disbelievers who actually thought here was some foreigner on stage from god knows where actually trying to make streetwise New Yorkers laugh with a boomer classic, “Here I come to save the day ….”. I laughed as much AT some in the audience as I did at Kaufman. It was still funny when I saw him perform it on TV, but that club experience was special. Thanks for getting me to relive that memory.

  3. Reblogged this on Humor in America and commented:

    Did Andy influence comedy? No. Because nobody’s doing what he did…Follow your own drumbeat. You didn’t have to go up there and say ‘take my wife, please.’ You could do anything that struck you as entertaining. It gave people freedom to be themselves. – Carl Reiner

  4. Reblogged this on One Word Long and commented:
    Interesting read, touching on a point about Kaufman’s work I hadn’t thought about–the existence of Elvis impersonators as an aspect of the American Experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: