Andy Kaufman could’ve had it all for a while. His struggles during the 1970s with his act on comedy stages left people bored and upset. But he was able to find humor by impersonating Elvis Presley before it became popular. And luckily he found representation through George Shapiro and Howard West, who helped him get a spot on a hit sitcom Taxi.
But you get backed into doing the same old thing, you can easily get typecasted. It’s no secret Kaufman didn’t let his fame go to his head as he would often bus tables and work at Jerry’s Famous Deli, a popular delicatessan in Studio City, when he was rehearsing or taping Taxi. He was never really a fan of the show but it allowed him to get more exposure. Then, he shocked everyone and probably hurt Taxi‘s ratings by becoming a wrestler. But he didn’t wrestle men. He would wrestle women. It was at a time when wrestling wasn’t mainstream and mostly famous in certain regions of the country.
This was before Vince McMahon and former Saturday Night Live producer Dick Ebersole partnered together for Saturday Night Main Event to be shown sporadically on Saturday nights when SNL wasn’t airing new episodes. It tricked SNL fans into tuning into to watch it. Ironically, Kaufman’s wrestling stunts would be one of the things that got him banned from SNL.
Kaufman was recently inducted posthumously into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame on March 31. Because he was wrestling women, Kaufman knew he wouldn’t be too popular so he made himself a heel, a bad guy wrestler. By doing this, he also partnered with Jerry Lawler, aka The King, for a two-year long rivalry that made the fans love Lawler even more. And boy how much they hated Kaufman even worse.
Prior to his death in 1984, Kaufman had been working on a faux comedy documentary that was later finished by his long-term girlfriend/partner Lynn Margulies titled I’m from Hollywood. This is a line of dialogue Kaufman said in a taunting video to Lawler he filmed, with some reports indicating on property Lawler owned. Assisted by his writing partner and friend, Bob Zmuda, who often appeared as the official, they showed the melodramatic theatrics that go into professional wrestling.
McMahan came out and openly admitted in the 1990s that most of wreslting was scripted. But by the early 1980s, a lot of fans actually believed it was the real deal. The irony was Kaufman was making them upset over something that he and Lawler probably had a huge laugh at later. Because he was living and working in southern California, and Lawler was part of the Memphis wrestling circuit, Kaufman could play on southern stereotypes to get the crowd riled up, mocking them for not using toilet paper or soap.
The feud and rivalry would culminate with Kaufman pretending to get a broken neck from a piledriver by Lawler on this date, April 5, 1982. This would later result in the infamous episode of Late Night with David Letterman which aired July 28, 1982. On the episode, Kaufman, wearing a neck brace, would act like he was apologizing for playing bad guy wrestler but when he tells Lawler he thought of suing him but won’t because “that’s not the type of guy I am” And Lawler responds, “What type of a guy are you?”
Then, the tension is in the air resulting in Lawler slapping Kaufman that he falls over in his chair. Kaufman gets up and goes off stage before coming back behind Letterman who looks worried he’s going to injured. Kaufman screams profanities at Lawler that is bleeped, before getting Letterman’s coffee mug and trying to throw coffee. But people have noted Kaufman doesn’t really throw the coffee on Lawler the way he would if he was really mad, he just kind of pours in between Letterman and Lawler off to the side of Lawler’s left.
It wouldn’t be revealed until 1995 that this was all staged and scripted between the two with help from Zmuda and others. Letterman even asks them if it’s staged but they both vehemently denied it. I’m from Hollywood incorrectly shows a truce between the two which culminates in double-cross the end. It actually was during the middle of their “feud.” Kaufman immediately throws chaulk in Lawler’s face when they’re in the ring before he, Jimmy Hart, and the Assassin (Jody Hamilton) gather around Lawler and kick him while he’s down.
The documentary has commentary from Zmuda and fellow Taxi co-stars Tony Danza and Marilu Henner who talk so seriously, you don’t know if it’s real or fake. I kinda believe Henner didn’t care for Kaufman’s trash talk about women. Robin Williams keeps a straight face as he recounts seeing Kaufman in the network commissary with his wrestling uniform underneath his regular clothes. It’s obvious it’s a joke about documentaries as Williams recounts not wanting to give Kaufman any money knowing he’d used it for wrestling mats.
Taxi went off the air in 1983. Kaufman would later be diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer. What made some people believe Kaufman was pranking them because he rarely smoked cigarettes and the cancer was caused by smoking. As the wrestling and the failure of Kaufman to transition to movies with the disastrous Heartbeeps, some people took this as an attempt for Kaufman to get more attention.
He had also appeared on the sketch comedy Fridays in which he refused to continue with a skit to the point where Michael Richards goes off camera and gets the cue cards putting them down in front of Kaufman. And Jack Burns would run on set and try to get Kaufman off but they got in a fight. This of course was another staged event.
Sadly, Kaufman became a product of the phrase “Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me.” And people weren’t buying it. As he was being moved around in a wheelchair as he could barely walk, those closest to him say people were still believing he was faking. Danny DeVito who worked with Kaufman on Taxi said Carol Kane, his co-star on the show, poked his body at the funeral because she still believed he was faking.
Kaufman didn’t really get the attention he was craving until after he died when all the truths came out. R.E.M. wrote “Man on the Moon” about him, which was later used as the title of the biopic starring Jim Carrey. Lawler and other Taxi cast members played themselves. However, Carrey and Lawler reported they didn’t get along because Carrey behaved too much like Kaufman that Lawler reportedly really did hit him during the Late Night re-enactment scene.
Sadly, Kaufman never got to see wrestling become so popular in the late 1980s and 1990s and 2000s which including pryotechnics and hard rock music. Even though it’s different, In high school and college wrestling, more women are going out and beating the men on the mat.Can that be attributed to Kaufman?
Maybe that would be too much for him. He never did like it when things be too popular. The spectacle of professional wrestling was still there, but it would be too grandiose for him, the way he didn’t care for Taxi. Kaufman liked the smaller arenas where he was able to make people mad enough they wanted to climb in the ring with him.
What do you think? Please comment.
One thought on “How Andy Kaufman Fooled Everyone And Became A Wrestling Superstar”
Great blog post! It’s fascinating to read about Andy Kaufman’s career and how he constantly pushed boundaries with his comedy. My question for the author is do you think Kaufman’s wrestling stunts would have been as effective in today’s society where we have more awareness of how scripted wrestling can be?