Birth Date: January 1, 1949
Date of Death: May 16, 1984 / Age: 35
Biography: Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman (January 17, 1949 – May 16, 1984) was a New York-born American self-described "song and dance man." Though many refer to him as a comedian, Andy himself hated this, saying "I never told a joke in my life." He is one of the most famous practitioners of anti-humor. He was also a composer. He graduated in 1971 from a now-defunct Grahm Junior College where he studied television and completed projects that informed his later work.
Kaufman first caught people's attention with a character named "Foreign Man" in the early 1970s. "Foreign Man", who claimed to be from Caspiar, an island in the Caspian Sea, would appear on the stage of comedy clubs and perform a number of bad impersonations (Archie Bunker, Nixon, etc). For example, he might say in a phony accent, "I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States." He would then say in the same voice, "Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States. Thenk you veddy much." The audience would be torn between outrage at seeing such a bad act, and sympathy for the hopeless "Foreign Man", who would cry on stage once heckled enough. At that point, "Foreign Man" would launch into an Elvis Presley impersonation good enough that Elvis Presley himself would later describe it as his favorite. The audience would realize they had been tricked, which became a trademark of Kaufman's comedy.
Kaufman also made a name for himself on NBC's Saturday Night Live, starting in 1975, as a guest on the show. He would often do odd things, such as lip synch to the Mighty Mouse theme or doing his "Foreign Man" impersonation.
Kaufman later reprised his "Foreign Man" character, renamed "Latka Gravas", for the Taxi sitcom in 1978. Kaufman hated sitcoms and was not thrilled with the idea of being on one. In order to allow Kaufman to demonstrate some comedic range, his character was given multiple personality disorder which allowed Kaufman to display other characters. In one episode, Kaufman's character came down with a condition which made him act like the character played by Judd Hirsch.
On a few occasions, audiences would show up to one of Kaufman's performances requesting to see "Latka." Kaufman would announce that he was going to read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to them. The audience would laugh thinking that Kaufman was joking. They were soon horrified to find out that he was completely serious and would read the entire book to them.
Jim Carrey as Tony Clifton in Man on the MoonKaufman's second most well known character would be "Tony Clifton", the abusive lounge singer. Clifton began opening for Kaufman at comedy clubs and eventually even performed concerts on his own around the country. Sometimes it was Kaufman performing as Clifton, sometimes it was his brother Michael or his friend Bob Zmuda. For a brief time, it was unclear to some that Clifton was not a real person. News programs actually interviewed Clifton as Kaufman's opening act. The interviews would usually turn ugly whenever Kaufman's name came up, because Clifton would claim that Kaufman was using him to get rich.
Clifton was, at Kaufman's insistence, hired for a guest role on Taxi, but after throwing a tantrum on stage, had to be escorted off of the ABC studio's lot by security guards. Much to Kaufman's delight, this incident was reported in the local newspapers.
In 1979, Kaufman performed in front of a Carnegie Hall audience, which he later took out for milk and cookies, via 35 buses that were waiting outside. At the beginning of his Carnegie Hall performance, Kaufman invited his grandmother to watch the show from a chair he had placed at the side of the stage. At the end of the show, his grandmother stood up, took her mask off and revealed to the audience that she was actually comedian Robin Williams in disguise.
Kaufman grew up admiring professional wrestlers and the fantasy world that they perform in. For a brief time, Kaufman began wrestling women during his act and was the self-proclaimed "Inter-gender Wrestling Champion of the World". He offered $1,000 reward to any woman that could pin him. Later, after a challenge from Professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, Kaufman would step into the ring (in the Memphis, Tennessee wrestling circuit) with a man — Lawler himself. Lawler's ongoing feud included an apparent broken neck for Kaufman as a result of a piledriver by Lawler, and a famous on-air fight on the Late Night with David Letterman television show. Kaufman and Lawler's famous feud and wrestling matches were all later confirmed as a gag (or, in wrestling parlance, a "work") and not real as many believed at the time. In reality, Kaufman was not injured while wrestling Lawler, and in fact, the two were friends.
Kaufman made ten appearances on David Letterman's morning and late-night shows, including one where he claimed to be homeless and begged the audience for money, and one where he talked about his adopted children, who turned out to be three full grown African American men. Kaufman also made a number of legendary appearances on NBC's Saturday Night Live, until he angered the audience with his female wrestling routine. The SNL audience voted to ban Kaufman from the show for good, though it was never made clear whether or not this was a gag.
In 1981, Kaufman made a couple of memorable appearances on Fridays, a variety show on ABC that was similar to SNL. Kaufman's first appearance on the show proved to be the most memorable one. During a sketch set in a restaurant, Kaufman broke character and refused to say his lines. The other comedians were embarrassed by the position that Kaufman had put them in on a live television show. In response, Michael Richards walked off camera and returned with a set of cue cards and dumped them on the table in front of Kaufman. Andy responded by splashing Michael Richards with water. A stagehand stormed onto the stage, leading to a brawl on camera before the show finally cut away to commercial. The entire incident was apparently a gag conceived by Andy Kaufman, but how many people were in on the gag (if any) was never made clear. Regardless, Kaufman appeared the following week in a videotaped apology to the home viewers. Later that year, Kaufman returned to host Fridays. At one point in the show, he invited gospel singer Kathie Sullivan on stage to sing a few gospel songs with him and announced that the two were engaged to be married and talked to the audience about his newfound faith in Jesus. It was of course entirely a hoax.
Throughout his entire professional career, Kaufman kept his day job, waiting on tables at Jerry's Famous Deli.
Kaufman died on May 16, 1984 at the age of 35 of lung cancer and was interred in the Beth David Cemetery, Elmont, New York (Long Island). Over the years, many people doubted Kaufman's death, thinking that he staged it as the ultimate Andy Kaufman stunt. For one thing, friends and family said that Andy never smoked, didn't drink regularly, and was also a vegetarian. Lung cancer is rare in non-smokers, and it is also rare in people under 50. Many people assume that his cancer was the result of his nightclub days, meaning that he spent a lot of time breathing in secondhand smoke from comedy club audiences for nearly fifteen years. For another, Kaufman himself even said that were he to fake his death, he would return 20 years later, on May 16, 2004, a claim which has become an urban legend.
Since the passing of this date, there have been unsubstantiated reports claiming that Kaufman is back from the dead and has a blog apparently chronicling his comeback. However, these claims are highly questionable and are even self-contradictory in places (on the blog he contradicts the, now suspended, press release which he apparently wrote and paid for himself). Potentially dozens of fake Kaufmans were expected to appear around this time and this appears to be another example of urban legends inspiring real events.
Another partly facetious theory making the rounds on the Internet is that Kaufman got plastic surgery to dramatically alter his appearance and is a current-day comedian or celebrity. Usually the celebrity mentioned is Jim Carrey, who starred in Man on the Moon, the 1999 film about Kaufman's life that was directed by Milos Forman, and inspired by the 1992 R.E.M. song of the same name. Carrey is a long-time fan of Kaufman's and fought hard for the role, and even owns Kaufman's conga drums. (Also interestingly, he and Kaufman share the same birthday: January 17th.) Additionally, Carrey's acting was considered uncannily close to the way Kaufman was normally, even according to Kaufman's friend Bob Zmuda. (Incidentally, Zmuda was in Batman Forever, which co-starred Carrey.) To "support" this theory, parallels are often drawn from Kaufman's life to Carrey's movies, which include The Majestic, in which Carrey plays a man who loses his memory and lives another person's life, and Me, Myself and Irene, in which Carrey plays the white father of three African-American males. However, even if one were to discount Carrey's childhood as a fabrication, he first emerged as an actor in 1983, which is a year too early. More likely is that Carrey's sense of humor was influenced by and is similar to Kaufman's.
The rock band R.E.M. wrote and recorded a song about Kaufman, "Man on the Moon", for their 1992 album Automatic for the People. The lyrics refer to the conversation in his 1983 movie with wrestler Fred Blassie, "My Breakfast with Blassie". The song was also used as the title track for the film of the same name. The band also composed the song The Great Beyond for the film.