Sitcom star, Elvis impersonator, inter-gender wrestling champion, and all-around karmic comedian, Andy Kaufman was a Renaissance man of the absurd. Since his death in 1984, his story has grown to mythic proportions. Jumping in on the hype, a month before the much-publicized Jim Carrey bio-pic opened in December 1999 (Man on the Moon), the Museum of Television & Radio opened its retrospective on Kaufman. The exhibit, which ran through January 30, 2000, offered a sneak peak at Kaufman's brief, but bizarre career.
Undoubtedly, most of us came to know Kaufman as Latka Gravas on "Taxi," but thankfully the Museum's collection of TV appearances from 1975 to 1982 painted him more like he'd want to be remembered, as a pop-cultural prankster and entertainment terrorist.
The retrospective began in 1975 with Andy's television debut that coincidentally was also the premiere episode of "Saturday Night Live." Unlike its current incarnation as a minor-league showcase for no-talent half-wits and a breeding ground for horrible movies, SNL was originally a show about taking risks with comedy. As such, Andy was snapped up to perform bits from his nightclub act, including a routine in which he lip-synched to "The Theme from Mighty Mouse." With just a simple swing of his hips and a demented flicker in his eyes, his mouthing the words, "Here I come to save the day!" managed to pack more raw comedy into three minutes than an entire season's worth of "Friends" episodes.
The retrospective then fast forwarded to 1981 when Andy's celebrity status on "Taxi" gave him the opportunity to really flex his dementia as guest host of the short-lived SNL clone "Fridays." Andy told a few people he planned to do "something outrageous" for the live broadcast and during a skit in which he was playing a guy smoking pot, he stopped the scene and said, "I don't wanna do this anymore. It feels stupid." For a moment, time seemed to stand still. If you listened closely enough, you could almost hear the fabric of the show's pretend sketch world slowly peel away, ultimately exposing the real world. The total pandemonium that followed felt much like
you were passing a car wreck on the highway it's painful to watch, but you simply must slow down to see if anyone crawls out of the wreckage alive. After the initial shock wore off, the other actors in the skit (including future "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards) attacked Andy with props and food and just as a fistfight appeared imminent, several burly crewmembers stormed the stage and dragged Andy off, presumably to be lynched from the highest boom microphone.
Even more hilarious was his on-air apology the following week in which a disheveled and spooked-looking Kaufman reappeared on "Fridays" delivering a speech as if he were an American hostage forced to give a videotaped condemnation of "The Great Satan" at gunpoint. He explained that the incident from last week's show was just an "experimental piece" and that because of the uproar, "my job at 'Taxi' is in jeopardy and my agent is having trouble convincing anybody to hire me." The real kick in the pants occurred when the audience began to laugh and Andy stared blankly into the sea of faces and said, "I think you laughing is pretty tasteless. Thanks to last week, I'm in a separation with my wife... I was just trying to have a little fun," and then began to weep uncontrollably.
Next, we were treated to a 1982 appearance on David Letterman's old NBC show in which Andy had a showcase showdown with arch-wrestling nemesis Jerry Lawler. Sporting a neck brace apparently from a fight with Lawler months before, Andy baited the pro-wrestler mercilessly until a WWF smackdown knocked Andy off his chair and down to the ground. After the commercial break, Andy stormed back onstage, cursed at Lawler for a good three minutes and then threw a cup of coffee at him before fleeing the set. Like an actual wrestling match, you weren't quite sure how much was real and how much was pre-planned, but also as in wrestling, the only important thing was the performance and this one took the cake. Alternately frightening and hilarious, Kaufman and Lawler going at it made a "Stone Cold" Steve Austin match look like an evening of Russian ballet.
"Andy's Funhouse," his little-seen television special, occupied the last chunk of the retrospective. Filmed in 1977, but unaired until 1979 because ABC programmers didn't know what to make of it, "Funhouse" was most definitely the weakest link in Andy's career and at times it not only tested my patience as a TV viewer, but as a Kaufman fan. Ostensibly a mockery of bad '70s chat programs (ala Mike Douglas and Dick Cavatt), it copied those shows so well, it ended up stuck with their comatose pacing too. The interaction with the studio audience was pointless, a segment where he spoke with his boyhood hero Howdy Doody was sappy and painfully long, and a promising segment called "The Has-Been Corner" went nowhere when a former child star was trotted out to sing two songs in a row with no gags or real payoff to speak of.
The only honestly funny part came at the opening of the special when Andy performed some atrociously bad jokes and impressions in his Latka character, and then announced one final impression. Within seconds Kaufman pulled a show-stopping transformation from the laughably inept foreign man to Elvis Presley himself and then delivered a powerhouse medley of his songs.
Though not knowing exactly what to expect from the "Funhouse" special, it just didn't live up to the high expectations I had for it. It lacked the sense of audacity and humor I've always associated with Kaufman. The retrospective, I thought, could have shown material that was far more worthwhile. For instance, they could have dug up some of his other Letterman appearances, including one in which he reportedly brought three children out onstage, saying he'd "adopted" them in Harlem earlier that day. Most glaringly absent was any footage from "Taxi." Despite the fact that Kaufman apparently disliked being considered a sitcom actor, his Latka and Vic Ferrari personas remain two of television's most classic characters.
All in all, the retrospective did give a decent overview of Andy's special brand of sado-masochistic comedy. He was the type of comedian who didn't tickle your funnybone as much as sock you in the gut when you weren't looking. He could make you uncomfortable to the point of hilarity. The Evel Knievel of comedy, he was capable of astounding you by jumping the Grand Canyon in a go-cart, or crashing and burning in a fiery comedic wreck of his own construction. It didn't matter whether he succeeded. He had the guts and nuts to take unbelievable chances with his act, even if it meant missing an easy laugh, sabotaging his own career, or getting an audience so mad at him that they'd wanna break every bone in his body.
Museum of Television & Radio
25 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
orginally published November 1999
updated February 2000
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