Here we go again.
Thirty years after Andy Kaufman died too young of cancer — cutting short a brief, sensational career that changed the face of American comedy, and maybe even American irony — the old Andy Kaufman death-hoax theory is back.
It’s new and improved for the Internet era, going viral now that the ragtag community of Andy Truthers has been joined by a credentialed ally, Kaufman’s longtime writing partner Bob Zmuda. In a new book co-authored by Kaufman’s girlfriend Lynne Margulies, Zmuda recalls years of conversations in which his friend outlined plans to exit show business by faking his own death.
“He said to keep a lid on it for 30 years,” says Zmuda in a phone interview. “It’s 30 years now. . . . What I’m doing is sending a telegram to Andy: It’s time to come in from the cold.”
Oh, please. Zmuda’s theory (“it’s not a theory!”) is so absurd, so off-putting we don’t mind telling him so.
But Zmuda, 64, a man with a quick laugh and unstoppable line of banter, isn’t hurt. Call his ideas in “Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally,” preposterous, tasteless, hurtful to Kaufman’s family, a shameless money-grab whose tenuous logic is undercut by his own past statements and testimony in his own book — he’s got calm answers for all of this. The only thing that shocks him is that we’re shocked.
“When he died,” Zmuda says (in one of several split-second slip-ups), “85 percent of the population believed he had faked his death.” He adds later: “Go back to 1984. No one could believe he was dead.”
He’s got a point.
No one ever knew what to make of Andy Kaufman. In his 1975 “Saturday Night Live” debut, he stood on stage fidgeting silently as a children’s record played — until it came to the chorus, and then he would lip-sync Mighty Mouse’s one line (“Here I come to save the day!”) with a glorious swagger.
There were oddball cameos on ’70s variety shows singing childish tunes in deadpan style, or rocking out while singing the same line (“I trusted you! I trusted you!”) over and over. In one routine, he did nothing more than sit on stage, order a bowl of ice cream, and consume it to the sound of a laugh track. At a Carnegie Hall show in 1979, he brought his grandmother on stage; then later unmasked her to reveal it was really Robin Williams; and then, he loaded the entire audience onto buses and took them out for milk and cookies.
It was as much performance art as it was comedy, and in the years before Bill Murray made a career of being facetious or David Letterman needled starlets to the brink of tears or Sacha Baron Cohen went deep into character for his “Borat” hoaxes, no one else was doing anything like it.
“If you look at him through the prism of comedy, he wasn’t a comedian,” says Zmuda. “He couldn’t tell a joke to save his life. He was a behavioral scientist. He was looking for people’s reaction.”
And even as he gained mainstream sitcom success as Latka, the ambiguously foreign mechanic on “Taxi,” he looked for ways to push the envelope — and carry the joke off-stage.
As a guest on the comedy show “Fridays” in 1981, he spectacularly blew his lines, and co-star Michael Richards (later Kramer of “Seinfeld” fame) stormed across the stage to throw cue cards at him. The on-camera brawl was a hoax, of course, but you maybe didn’t know that at the time.
To balance the lovable Latka image, he adopted the alter-ego of Tony Clifton, a vulgar Vegas lounge singer. A reporter profiling Kaufman for The Washington Post in 1979 was among those fooled into thinking that Clifton was an actual person with whom Kaufman had inexplicably aligned himself — though in fairness, even folks who were in on the joke didn’t realize that it was sometimes Zmuda, not Kaufman, hiding under the Clifton costume.
But it was Kaufman’s dabbling in professional wrestling that got audiences wondering: Is he for real? He challenged women to wrestle him, calling himself the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World.” He rigged up a trash-talking rivalry with Jerry “The King” Lawler and actually got in the ring with him — emerging later in a neck brace. On Letterman’s show, Kaufman taunted the pro, and Lawler slapped him out of his chair. Kaufman’s antics struck such a nerve with a baffled public that in a 1983 phone poll, “SNL” viewers voted him off the program.
And then, he died.
An outta-nowhere lung cancer struck the non-smoker. Fans were barely aware that he was sick before he passed away in Los Angeles on May 16, 1984, at age 35. On the heels of so many hoaxes, it’s likely some were hesitant to trust the obits. (“The cast of ‘Taxi’ didn’t even show up to his funeral,” says Zmuda, claiming they suspected a prank; news accounts indicate a letter from star Judd Hirsch was read at the service.)
But there’s a death certificate and a burial site and everything — not to mention the family and friends at his side when he passed.
Kaufman’s brother Michael has little patience for Zmuda or the lesser conspiracy theorists who have thrived on Web forums over the years.
“What would motivate these people to invest so much time and energy in something like this?” he says over the phone. “They might be attention-hungry, or more likely in need of money. Who knows?”
The family keeps the comic’s spirit alive in a more traditional way, sponsoring the Andy Kaufman Awards, a stand-up competition for “cutting-edge artists”; the 10th annual show will be held Sunday in New York. (Not that the family is insulated from the hoax scene: At last year’s event, Michael Kaufman took the stage with a woman claiming to be his late brother’s long-lost daughter; it wasn’t true, and Michael later said he was unwittingly caught up in a ruse.)
“When Andy was alive, Bob would do a lot of crazy things, and Andy would have to apologize,” the brother explains. Zmuda’s book goes out of the way to settle ancient scores with his friend’s family; there’s clearly no love lost here. But Michael Kaufman declines to engage.
“If Andy was to look down upon us now and see this book, he would shake his head and say, ‘Eh, I don’t want to stifle his creativity.’ ”
So we’ll just have to get into the ring with Zmuda instead.
“For two or three years before he died, he was telling people he was going to fake his death,” Zmuda says. “He called me up saying, ‘I want to know how to get a cadaver.’ He would fake a car accident. I said that wouldn’t work because they’d check dental records. . . . Then he started thinking about how he’d be lost at sea.”
Zmuda founded the charity fundraiser Comic Relief and produced its specials, but much of his post-Andy career has been Andy-centric. He worked on “Man on the Moon,” the Kaufman biopic starring Jim Carrey. He also wrote a previous memoir, “Andy Kaufman Revealed!” in 1999.
So . . . why not divulge Kaufman’s death hoax in that book?
Out of respect for Kaufman’s father, who died just last year, says Zmuda. (And no, he insists, this isn’t about selling books: “There’s no money with a book like this. I hired a publicist. I’m flying to New York next week on my own dime.”)
Now, how exactly did this hoax work?
Zmuda thinks Kaufman found a fan who was actually dying of cancer, and then altered his own appearance to more closely resemble that man, ultimately swapping places.
He admits he doesn’t know all the details.
“When I realized he was going to do this for real, I informed him that it is illegal to fake his death,” Zmuda says. “I made it clear that I’m stepping out of it.”
But if he was going to fake his death, why would he go around telling people?
“Because Andy couldn’t keep his mouth shut!”
But . . . his own co-author, Margulies, did see Kaufman die. (Her revelation in the book is that she believes her boyfriend was bisexual and actually succumbed to AIDS.)
Zmuda admits this is a tricky one. But he notes that Margulies has a background in the theatrics of pro wrestling and knows a thing or two about long cons.
“Lynne might be pulling one on me,” he confides.
What if, assuming any of these conversations are real, the death hoax is the hoax? What if Kaufman, sensing that he might be gravely ill, decided to prank his friends — and maybe perpetuate his own legend — by floating this tantalizing idea, so that the notion he might be alive would linger after his death?
His real, documented, too-early, unfair, terribly sad death.
Zmuda shrugs this off: Nope, the cancer came up too fast, Kaufman would have had no idea he was sick a few years out.
Wait — so he did have cancer? Mr. Zmuda, you’re just doing a bit of performance art here, aren’t you?
“No,” he says flatly, “I’m not.”
He spins a rosy fantasy of his friend’s grand return. Lawyers will iron out all the fraud issues; a promoter will pay $1 million just for Andy to walk on stage for a few minutes. There will be DNA testing, of course. It will be the showbiz comeback of the century.
“In six months when he appears, you’ll see what I’m talking about,” Zmuda says. “I’m telling you, get on board now!”