Andy Kaufman (1949-1984) was perhaps the most eccentric performer to emerge from the comedy scene of the 1970s. Born and raised in Great Neck, Long Island, Andy was something of a Man Child. As he began to stake out a career as a professional entertainer in the early 1970s, he unveiled a colorful variety of strange acts on the comedy club circuit. Some were simple routines he conceived as a child, others were... more complex; all were based on defying audience expectations. One signature routine worked as follows: When Andy appeared on stage he was already in character as "Foreign Man", stumbling through weak jokes and wretched impressions in broken English, to the audience's displeasure since they did not know this was a character. But then came the last impression, "de Elvis Presley". Revealing that his suit was a disguised Elvis outfit, the resultant serious, extremely accurate impression was enough to bring the audience to their feet. To their applause, the Foreign Man reverted back to his "normal" voice -- "Tank you veddy much." -- and the act ended. (And this was in the days before doing an Elvis impression had become a cliche. Reportedly, Elvis Presley himself thought Kaufman's was the best he had seen.)
Andy's big break into the mainstream came as a special guest on the first Saturday Night Live in 1975, where he performed a childhood routine: simply standing next to a record player playing the Mighty Mouse theme song and doing little other than standing their nervously until each appearance of the line "Here I come to save the day!", which he would grandly lip-synch. Over the years Andy made many guest appearances on SNL, usually adapting his stage material, ranging from further Foreign Man exploits to a "serious" reading of The Great Gatsby. The unifying thread of these acts was total commitment to his chosen character, no matter what reaction he got, so long as a reaction was evoked. This commitment often extended to his offstage behavior as well.
In 1978, Andy embarked upon his biggest mainstream success, the ensemble sitcom Taxi, where his Foreign Man character had been developed into the mechanic Latka Gravas. The following year he sold out Carnegie Hall for a one-night-only performance, but his work was becoming more experimental and controversial since his signature routines had lost their surprise value. In his stage act he challenged women to wrestle him, virtually always pinning them and proclaiming himself "The Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion Of The Word". He in fact played the Heel so well -- professional wrestling was one of his great lifelong passions because of Kayfabe -- that audiences believed he actually was a sexist pig (in truth, it was one heck of a way for him to break the ice with women). His alter ego Tony Clifton, a repellent Lounge Lizard who had to be treated as a separate entity from Andy, caused almost as much trouble. He arranged with the producers of Fridays, another sketch comedy show, to completely derail it the night he hosted in February 1981; the live show climaxed with him objecting to the content of a sketch and picking a fight with the crew. His attempts to break into film boiled down to one word: Heartbeeps.
Over 1981-83, he frequently was in Memphis, Tennessee furthering his wrestling career via a lengthy feud with Jerry Lawler that culminated in a brutal match where Lawler appeared to break the taunting Kaufman's neck with repeated pile drivers. The feud gained national attention in '82 when the two appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, ostensibly to make up. To the shock of many, including Dave, Jerry smacked Andy (wearing a neck brace at the time) out of his chair; Andy responded with a barrage of obscenities. This would now be called a Worked Shoot, but most viewers had little, if any, idea of the concept then. By the end of '82, Andy was so unpopular that a viewer vote banished him from SNL.
He continued to make Letterman appearances, wrestle, and so forth until he was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer at the end of '83 despite not smoking cigarettes. Because so much of Andy's career was based on tricking his audiences -- and he had considered faking his death, to the point where his best friend Bob Zmuda mentioned he was almost obsessed with the idea -- many people did not think he was actually dying. He continued to perform while battling the disease, shocking fans with a gaunt appearance. Despite everything from radiation therapy to healing crystals and "psychic surgery", he apparently died the following year, age 35. Having always claimed that if he faked his death he would return 20 years later, many fans eagerly awaited 2004 in hopes of The Reveal of the ultimate Kaufman prank. Sadly, he has yet to resurface, but some still insist He's Just Hiding.
Andy Kaufman's life and work, Taxi excepted, is still argued about. Haters think he was self-indulgent and perhaps insane. Lovers think he was as close as comedy will come to Dada. Though he claimed not to be a comedian(he referred to himself instead as a "song-and-dance man"), he was often friendly with those who were; in turn he is seen as an iconoclast who made comedy safer for experimentation and sometimes referred to as a "comedian's comedian". (Pee-Wee's Playhouse literally wouldn't have existed without Andy's inspiration; Paul Reubens asked his permission to do his own take on Andy's Subverted Kids Show routines.)
In 1992, the R.E.M. song and subsequent video "Man on the Moon" invoked Andy to illustrate the song's theme of the tendency of people to wonder what is and is not real (i.e. the Conspiracy Theory that the 1969 moon landing was faked). The song became the title for a 1999 biopic of Andy's career in which he was played by Jim Carrey, another admirer.
The work of Andy Kaufman provides examples of:
- Absentee Actor - His Taxi contract dictated that he didn't have to appear in every episode, and he didn't.
- Affectionate Parody - Some of his spoofs of children's entertainment.
- All Part of the Show - The eternal question he asked of his audiences was whether what he was doing at any given moment was this.
- Alter Ego Acting - Virtually every appearance he made.
- Anti-Humor - A significant portion of his work is this.
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign - Foreign Man's language.
- Audience Participation
- Audience Participation Song - Many, ranging from the self-penned "The Cow Goes Moo" to the Fabian song "This Friendly World".
- Author Appeal - Elvis, children's shows, wrestling, and so forth.
- Bad Impressionists - Foreign Man, most of the time.
- Character as Himself - Tony Clifton, to the point that Man on the Moon billed him as such.
- Crying Wolf
- Dead Air: Andy Kaufman's first appearance on Saturday Night Live was supposed to invoke the TV equivalent of this: He stared at the camera for an uncomfortably long moment, then turned on a recording of the Mighty Mouse theme song, and lip-synched the line "Here I come to save the day!" and nothing else. As Lorne Michaels later said in an interview: "The humor wasn't that he was lip-synching the Mighty Mouse Theme; the humor was that he only lip-synched one part of it, and the rest of the time he was just patiently waiting for his cue."
- Dead Artists Are Better - Averted. While his early death undoubtedly added to his legend -- especially among fellow comics -- unlike many performers whose lives were cut short his reputation didn't go up appreciably with the general public after his death. His work was just too divisive for that. To compare a comic or comedic work to what Kaufman did is not so much to call it brilliant as Love It or Hate It: Tom Green, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, etc.
- Doing It for the Art - Most of his work. When you don't care how people react to your work, it's that much easier to invoke this trope...
- Don't Explain the Joke - He strongly adhered to this trope.
- Elvis Impersonator - One of the first!
- Excited Kids' Show Host - One of his personas was Type 1 (treating his adult audience as if they were children); he actually worked as an entertainer at birthday parties as a teen and hosted a children's TV show in college.
- Faking the Dead - It was long rumored that Kaufman faked his death in 1984 as part of the ultimate practical joke against society. For the 20th anniversary of his death in 2004, collaborator Bob Zmuda staged his "return" with a series of live appearances (himself in Tony Clifton's costume) and internet postings.
- Funny Foreigner - Foreign Man/Latka Gravas of course, but also British Man, who was responsible for those lengthy Great Gatsby readings.
- The Gadfly - Tony Clifton practically defines this trope. People couldn't even tell the stage persona from the actual person.
- Granola Guy - Kaufman was a macrobiotic vegan and into Transcendental Meditation.
- It's been acknowledged that while Kaufman was a vegan, he would eat meat when he was Tony Clifton because that character was not a vegan.
- Hates the Job, Loves the Limelight / Depraved Kids' Show Host - His kiddie show host persona turned out to be bossy and contemptuous of his audience "off screen", though it's suggested in the 1977 special and his Soundstage episode that he's just jaded after all these years and not a bad person at heart.
- Hollywood Tone Deaf - Averted with Tony Clifton; the hatred he engendered wasn't because he couldn't hit notes, but because 1) his voice was nasally to begin with and 2) he was an aggressive Jerkass. (Andy probably knew that he had to avert this trope to maintain the fiction that Tony was a real lounge performer.)
- Identity Impersonator - He had friends and even his brother pose as Tony Clifton so they could appear together. Eventually, he handed the role off to colleague Bob Zmuda but let people believe it was him under the costume and makeup. Since Andy's death, Bob and other performers have reprized the role on occasion.
- Impersonation Paradox - His take on Elvis (though Elvis himself loved it).
- Incurable Cough of Death - He had been afflicted with a cough since the mid-1970s; when he finally decided to see a doctor about it, his cancer was diagnosed (the disease caused the cough).
- Jim Carrey: Besides Man on the Moon and certain comedy sensibilities, Jim and Andy share a birthday (January 17).
- Kayfabe - Andy's fascination with this was just one reason he loved wrestling.
- Lounge Lizard - Tony Clifton.
- Non-Specifically Foreign: "Foreign Man"
- Overly Long Gag
- Robin Williams - A friend and ardent supporter.
- Self-Deprecation - A key theme of his 1983 PBS Soundstage special was how hated he was by that point in his career; one whole segment is based around him getting arrested and banished to an island for "going too far". At the end, via Double Vision, Foreign Man confronts Andy and points out that "you've not only ruined your career, but you've ruined my career too" -- and winds up reducing him to tears.
- Small Name, Big Ego - This was key to Tony Clifton's persona; he claimed Andy was using him to get places. This was also key to Andy's Heel persona, especially when he took it to Memphis and constantly bragged about his Hollywood stardom and superiority to the "hicks" of the deep South. The real Andy did have a lot of quirks and demands that could make him difficult to work with, particularly where Taxi was concerned (oh, the hijinks when Tony Clifton was supposed to be the guest star one week in lieu of Andy), but how much of this was ego and how much was just his eccentric nature is hard to fathom.
- Stand Up Comedy
- Star-Making Role - Latka on Taxi (as the page image confirms).
- Stay in the Kitchen - As a wrestler, he egged women to fight him by claiming they were a weaker and dumber gender that was fit only to do this.
- Stealth Parody - Tony Clifton, but played to create a genuine Hatedom more than a Misaimed Fandom.
- Subverted Kids Show - Several of his stage routines and specials invoked this trope, most famously his 1977 hour-long ABC special...which wasn't aired for two years because the network was scared by how strange (if benignly so) it was: the host continually vacillating between Excited Kids' Show Host and Hates the Job, Loves the Limelight, the screen dissolving into static at one point, the sincere interview with Howdy Doody, etc.
- Trickster Archetype
- Troll - As noted, several of his acts hinged simply on pissing off his audience. Basically, if you didn't understand what he was doing, the joke was on you.
- Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Tony Clifton; not only is he a Jerkass, but he was created on the premise that "everybody loves a villain".
- What Do You Mean It Wasn't Made on Drugs?
- Worked Shoot - They're not just for wrestling anymore!