A Performer like no Other – How Andy Kaufman turned Network TV Upside Down

Steve Palace
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Photo by Jim Britt/ABC via Getty Images

For legendary comedian Andy Kaufman, life was a performance. A simple skit or funny character wasn’t enough for the envelope-pushing performer, who was best known for playing surreal out-of-towner Latka Gravas in the sitcom Taxi.

His humor was showcased on comedy institution Saturday Night Live, where audiences got a flavor of his disruptive style. Kaufman didn’t just shatter conventions — he ground them up and made them into jewelry.

The cast of the TV series Taxi (clockwise from top: Tony Danza, Randall Carver, Andy Kaufman, Danny DeVito, Judd Hirsch, Jeff Conaway and Marilu Henner) pose for a portrait in 1979 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images

A 2016 Mental Floss article described the kind of situation people found themselves in if they watched Kaufman doing his thing on stage. “Many crowds had streamed into comedy clubs only to endure Kaufman napping in a sleeping bag,” it wrote.

Or, even more bafflingly, “reading earnestly from The Great Gatsby, threatening to start all over again if they interrupted.”

SNL didn’t appreciate his freewheeling approach of going off-script. However ABC’s rival show Fridays was happy to play along. A short-lived attempt to repeat the success of NBC’s star-making product, Fridays got by on the skin of its comedic teeth.

SNL’s main stage during rehearsal, 2008. Photo by Rex Sorgatz CC BY 2.0

Featuring future Seinfeld talent Larry David, Michael Richards and Larry Charles, the program rolled out the welcome mat for Kaufman on three occasions. On only his first appearance in 1981, he made sure it became one for the books.

Like SNL, Fridays offered viewers a range of sketches and one in particular got the anarchic Kaufman treatment. A pair of couples are out at a restaurant but one by one they excuse themselves to go and get high in the bathroom.

So far, so funny. And Fridays had a reputation for going places its bigger counterpart didn’t go — their sketches included the brutal Great Muppet Hunt and Groucho Marx/Iran piece A Night In Tehran.

Andy Kaufman during performance at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

However not long into the performance, which co-starred Richards, Kaufman began acting up. He’d excused himself to go get high but as he sat back down it became clear he wasn’t happy with how things were going.

Admitting to his cast mates and the audience that he didn’t play stoned very well, the mayhem escalated when Richards went off stage before returning to drop cue cards in Kaufman’s face.

There then ensued a fight between Kaufman and everyone else, such as Richards and even the crew as they anxiously tried to wrap up the sketch. Looking back on the incident for the home entertainment release in 2013, LA Weekly called it “a Rashomon event with conflicting stories as to what really happened.”

Tony Clifton cartoon. Photo by Greg Williams CC BY-SA 2.5

The curtain was finally pulled on the action and speculation was rife that Kaufman had suffered a meltdown.

In fact he’d simply done what he was known for, engineering a publicity stunt that helped the under-appreciated Fridays go on longer than it perhaps ordinarily would have done.

Over 30 years after the chaos aired, cast and crew chose the release to lift the lid on what actually took place. Entertainment Weekly mentioned co-creator John Moffitt’s revelation in 2013 that the “Kaufman incident was totally planned and some of the cast, including Richards, were in on it.”

Andy Kaufman. Photo by Reckon CC BY SA 2.0

Entertainment Weekly wrote, “With Andy, you simply never knew what was real and what was fake.” He wanted the audience on the edge of their seats, taking them somewhere they weren’t used to on network television.

He continued to keep his fans and unsuspecting people on edge, via characters such as an evil professional wrestler. Kaufman was willing to risk his safety as well as his reputation.

Arguably the best tribute came from Jim Carrey, who played Kaufman in Man On The Moon (1999). His insistence on staying in character as the unpredictable star was extensive enough to get its own documentary (Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond).

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His career was spectacular in places but frustratingly short-lived. Kaufman passed away from lung cancer just three years after the Fridays sketch got the nation talking. Perhaps appropriately, some think he faked his demise.