This article originally appeared in the July 1, 1979 Style section of The Washington Post.
Andy Kaufman sits in a soda shop and orders four scoops of ice cream, butterscotch sauce, hot fudge and lots of whipped cream, please. When the concoction arrives, he bows his head, says a silent grace, then excuses himself.
“Please tell your readers if they ever met me in a restuarant not to shake my hand until I’m finished eating. Otherwise I’ll have to get up and wash my hands again,” he says earnestly. “I think this is an obsession.”
Television viewers familiar with Kaufman’s portrayal of Latka, the tongue-twisted mechanic on ABC’s “Taxi,” might expect the 29-year-old performer to have eccentric habits. After all, the character derives his humor from misplacing his social graces and malapropping the English language. But Latka, it turns out, is a mere side show of Kaufman’s exotic personality.
His one-year “Taxi” trip merely paved the way for Kaufman’s biggest moment in show business: a one-man comedy review at Carnegie Hall. The New York City theater came periously to losing its gilded dignity one night this spring when Kaufman actually staged the three-ring circus inside his head.
Kaufman jogged onto the stage in white denims, white sneakers and a white sport shirt. His azure eyes the size of Ping Pong balls, he bounced up and down to the music of “Oklahoma” and played the conga drums for a while.
He sang a song about cows and pigs, then asked the audience to sing along. He introduced the little old lady seated in an overstuffed armchair onstage as his grandmother, explaining, “I always told my grandma, ‘Someday I’ll play in Carnegie Hall. And when that day comes, I swear I’m going to give you the best seat in the house.’”
He promised the audiences a night of prizes, suprises and big name stars, did a pantomine of one hand clapping and introduced a man whom he had met on a Times Square street corner last New Year’s Eve. Attracted to him because he was singing a happy new song “that made people happy,” Kaufman had invited the man to share his song with the audience. So it happened that Grant Bliss Bowman sang a song with no discernible tune in Carnegie Hall. It was something like this: “Happy New Year, Happy New Year, Happy New Year,” etc.
Kaufman showed cartoons and old cowboy films, then offered $1,000 to any woman who could pin him to the mat in a wrestling match. When one formidable contestant in a bubble-gum-pink leotard was finally selected, Kaufman explained the basic rules of the match to her. “No hurting of any kind.” After more singing and several impersonations, Kaufman brought the three-hour production to one of the most bizarre conclusions in show business history.
Wearing a “I love grandma” sweatshirt, he introduced granny. She stood up and slowly peeled away a wrinkled mask and a white wig to reveal the million-dollar visage of Robin Williams. The comic from Ork didn’t even manage a “na-no, na-no” before Kaufman brought out the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and finally, Santa Claus. Like the drunk who doesn’t know when the party is over, he then invited the SRO audience to join him for a nightcap of milk and cookies.
A midnight calvacade of 20 rented buses wormed its way through midtown Manhattan to a high-school cafeteria for the promised snack. It wasn’t over yet, however — Kaufman invited his 2,000 followers to reground the next day for a ride on the Staten Island ferry.
Is Andy Kaufman for real? There is evidence that he is. He was first spotted seven years ago at New York improvisation clubs doing things like lipsynching to the Mighty Mouse theme song. Mouthing only the chorus — “Here I come to save the day” — he fudged through the rest of the song and acted anxious each time the line came up.
Although not everyone got it, NBC producer Lorne Michaels did, and signed up Kaufman for a string of appearances on his “Saturday Night Live” show. Kaufman quickly became a cult figure among the National Lampoon set. He is currently shooting a film with Marty Feldman, called “In God We Trust,” in which he plays an evangelist.
For someone trying to earn a living as a comedian, Andy Kaufman is not conventionally funny. He is more interested in tampering with the edges of reality than in making people laugh. On stage, he seems to be playing hide’-n’-seek in a hall of mirrors, reflecting a different persona at each turn.
One minute he is the slightly pathetic foreign man stammering in a Slavic accent, “I come tonight from downtown Winscosin.” When the crowds starts to laugh, he pleads, “No, no. Wait teel I give you thee punch.”
The next minute he whips into a passionate and eerily precise Elvis Presley impersonation, which ends with Kaufman wildly ripping off his cummerbund and rhinestone jacket and tossing it into the audience. The frenzy subsides as rapidly as it started and he acknowledges his applause with the foreign man’s ingenuous “tank you veddy much — now may I please have my clothes back?”
The games never stop. Nor is there ever the relief of a punch line or the laugh of recognition that parody draws. Kaufman doesn’t allow his audience a moment of comfort. Just when they think they’ve got it, he takes them on another loop-the-loop of his imagination. It is common for people to walk out in the middle of a Kaufman performance in anger, confusion or disgust. Those who sit it out obviously enjoy riddles with no answers and characters with no purpose, for Kaufman taunts his audience by taking them with him to the limits of hyperbole and abandoning them at the peak of ludicrousness.
Several years ago, for instance, Kaufman saw singer Tony Clifton perform in Las Vegas nightclub. Clifton was dressed in a flamingo-pink tuxedo and a clownish toupee — he appeared so sleazy and vulgar that the audience cheered when he got punched by a drunk patron. Clifton personified every actor’s nightmare of failing.
Perhaps as a fulfillment of his own worst fears, Kaufman chose to impersonate Clifton for several years. He even used his act as the warm-up routine of his own show, always claiming it was really Clifton.
The producers of “Taxi” first sighted Kaufman doing his impersonation of Clifton at Los Angeles’ Comedy Store. In order to hire Kaufman for their show, they had to sign a package deal that would also include Clifton in two episodes. Executive producer Ed Weinberger even went so far as to assign two separate dressing rooms: one for Clifton, one for Kaufman.
When it turned out that Clifton simply could not act, Weinberger asked him to leave the set. Clifton refused causing an ugly scene, which finally ended when security guards led the brawling Kaufman-as-Clifton off the set. “What we had was a psychodrama, theater of the absurd, on our own set — and I was in the middle of it,” says Weinberger. “The odd part was that I was never angry at Kaufman — I was really screaming at Tony Clifton.”
Aside from an occasional blurring of personalities, Weinberger reports that Kaufman is an enormously disciplined actor whose only problem is showing up for rehearsals on schedule. “He has a problem with timing,” said Weinberger. “I invited him to a party at my house.When he finally showed up at 4 a.m., I was in bed sound asleep.
“The juxtaposition of people doing what they normally do, only in inappropriate circumstances, is a very important funny thing,” says Kaufman. Conducting a personal conversation on stage or watching Mark Spitz swim laps on a variety show instead of singing or dancing are two concepts that tickle Kaufman.
But somtimes his sense of humor lapses into questionable taste. At his Carnegie Hall show, he had a 70-year-old woman feign a heart attack as she danced around the stage on a toy horse. Only when Kaufman hopped around her in an Indian war dance and revived her did the squirming audience know for certain that her collapse was a joke.
During milk and cookies, he presented a motley dressed would-be clown whom he had met on a Manhattan street corner. And one night he read all of “The Great Gatsby” to a nightclub audience in Indiana. “I wanted to see how far I could go before getting booed off the stage,” he chuckles. “They were so polite, we were there until morning.”
Kaufman is obsessed with not being labled a comic. “It’s a very dangerous thing, because it means you have made the comedic promise: I will make you laugh as best I can. I never made that promise,” he says, “made the entertainer’s promise: to sing, dance, play games and entertain you as best as I can. So when I do a serious pantomine and people laugh because they think I’m a comedian, they’re being very small-minded about what I’m trying to do.”
Andy Kaufman has spent a lifetime shadow-boxing with his fantasies. As a child in Great Neck, Long Island, he would stay in his bedroom and act out dramas in front of imaginary TV cameras in his wall. When his parents forbade him from performing alone in his room, he paid off his 1-year-old sister with a stick of gum to be his audience. He remembers spending the days after his brother was born staring out of the window “like a sad old man in a tearjerker movie” and going to a psychiatrist when he was 4 years old.
“My parents didn’t think a little kid should be so sad,” he says.
When he was older, Kaufman dragged his imaginary studio to the schoolyard. There, he would stage wrestling matches or act out entire horror shows, playing all the parts himself. “I didn’t really want an audience. I wasn’t trying to play up to the other kids,” he says. “But they all watched me and laughed at me. Probably because they thought I was crazy.”
When he was 16, Kaufman wrote his first novel. Around the same time, he began reading his poetry in Greenwich Village coffee houses. “In Great Neck there were three groups of kids: the hoods, beatniks and ‘poppies.’ I was a beatnik, but my parents wanted me to be like poppies, who were well-adjusted, dressed nicely and drove nice cars,” he says.
At Graham Junior College in Houston, Kaufman performed in his first real TV series, “Uncle Andy’s Fun House.” During his two years at Graham, he also wrote two as yet unpublished novels: “The Hollering Mangoo” and “God” [later renamed “Gosh”]. For the past eight years, Kaufman has been gathering research for his next novel, “The Biography of Huey Williams.”
When he was in the seventh grade, Kaufman fell in love with a girl who wore black leotards and long straight hair. “Every time I would get near her, my knees would shake. I couldn’t talk to her, but something in my soul felt so close to her soul. I know I’ll never feel that way about anyone again.” At the end of the semester, the girl moved away and he never saw her again. Kaufman still clings to a Cinderella fantasy that someday he will find her, settle down in the country with her and maybe even raise a couple of chickens.
“Everything I’ve ever done in my career, I’ve done so I can have the freedom to write the Huey Williams story, make it into a movie, reveal the name of the girl in it and hopefully find her,” he says. “That is my only goal.”
It may sound like a peculiar notion to some people, but to Kaufman, that’s entertainment.
Betsy Carter is an associate editor at Newsweek magazine.