He never defined himself as a comedian; he simply identified with the title “entertainer.” Andy Kaufman was easily one of the most cherished comedians of all time. He lived to entertain, and his unique ability to do so would make waves in the world of comedy for years to come.
Andy Kaufman was authentic and truly an original in the world of comedic performance. He was unapologetically himself, and he rocked the world as a stand-up comic, stole our hearts in Taxi, and even made us laugh through Jim Carrey’s depiction of him. This star has seen heartache and tragedy, and his story will shake you to your very core!
Andy’s Earliest Days
Andy Geoffrey Kaufman was born and raised in Queens, New York (1949), one of New York City’s five boroughs. From a very young age, his ambitions were centered around wanting to become an entertainer. He grew up in a typical Jewish middle-class family and made New York City his playground.
Believe it or not, he was quite shy as a child! By the time he turned eight years old, he was doing whatever he could to make his friends and family laugh like no other. He had found his calling early on and decided it was the path he was destined to take.
He Performed at Birthday Parties
From the young age of eight, he was already working his way around the world of performance art. He would stand in his room and create his own make-believe television shows and would often channel his creative juices. When he wasn’t making up his own shows, he was performing at his friend’s birthday parties.
That’s right, as a child, Andy Kaufman performed stand-up comedy at his friend’s birthday parties! In his earliest years, he would take his father’s jacket and created his future famous “foreign man” character. It is believed he created this character to make his little sister laugh. It seemed to work, for sure!
He Struggled in High School
Much like many other famous comedians, school was not his cup of tea. Kaufman famously struggled through his studies, slowly inching his way through high school. He wanted to call it a day and quit, but he kept going because he wanted to impress his father. (All the power to him – at least he finished what he started!)
Kaufman graduated from Great Neck North High School in Great Neck, New York. The area was filled with wealth, and others sharing the Kaufman family’s faith and culture. Though he did not like school, he went on to study at Grahm Junior College in Boston. There, he studied television production.
He Wrote an Unpublished Novel at 16
During his time at Grahm Junior College, he produced and starred in his own campus television show, entitled “Uncle Andy’s Fun House.” I wish this show were available to watch today because I can only imagine how silly the whole show would be with its comedic stylings! Unfortunately, it does not appear to be on the internet.
Even before creating this program, he had his creative juices flowing. While in the prime of his youth, he spent his time writing poetry and creative stories. He even wrote an unpublished novel, entitled The Hollering Mangoo, which he wrote when he was only 16 years old.
He Was Deemed Unfit to Serve in Vietnam
After Kaufman graduated in 1967, he potentially could have been drafted to serve for his country in the Vietnam War. He had to undergo a psychological evaluation before drafting, but the doctor felt that going to war would not do Kaufman any favors. He explained his reasoning in a letter.
He received a permanent 4-F deferment. As a result of the Korean War, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) published Conscientious Objectors Under Selective Service as part of an anti-war effort. They still wanted to work with the military to make sure that people were able to avoid deployment if they were not truly fit to serve.
The Doctor’s Letter
The doctor who completed his psychological evaluation claimed he was unfit to serve, on reasons including that Kaufman had been living “in a fantasy world since preschool days.” (I can totally see it; I mean, that level of goofiness had to come from somewhere, you know?) That wasn’t all, though…
The doctor’s letter stated that they believed Kaufman was so disconnected from reality that if he were to serve in the military, he would “lose his mind.” You might think that this kind of letter would have offended Kaufman, but that is far from the case! Kaufman absolutely loved it.
He Loved the Doctor’s Letter
Kaufman was far from embarrassed about this letter that stated his mental instability in the eyes of the United States military. According to Bill Zehme’s biography of Kaufman, Lost in the Funhouse, Kaufman treasured the 4-F deferment and even framed it to show off to his friends!
Kaufman reportedly displayed the letter proudly to all of his buddies, who all knew that he famously treated psych evaluations as a joke. He did not take it seriously, and his friends knew that he was just playing a game in his mind!
The Games He Played
“He was aware that it was all this kind of game that he played. He knew what he was doing — not all the time, but a lot of the time. He just encouraged people to believe what they wanted,” Kaufman’s good friend Gil Gevins once recalled.
Kaufman’s sense of humor followed him through some of life’s most serious struggles. He knew that some things were not meant to be taken too seriously, while other things could best be dealt with by making a joke out of a bad situation. His untimely death was one of those things that people did not know if they should take as a joke or as reality.
How Did Andy Kaufman Die?
Andy Kaufman died of lung cancer at the young age of 35. Cancer knows no age, race, gender, or religion, and he was taken from this world far too early. He was known for his wild antics, pranks, and general shenanigans, so his passing certainly raised questions amongst his friends and biggest fans.
Upon hearing the news of his passing, especially at such a young age, even those closest to him felt that the announcement might have really been a big prank. I mean, he died of lung cancer, and he was famously a non-smoker; what are the chances that this was just a joke taken too far?
Before His Death, He Made Waves in Performance
Ok, sure – we jumped ahead to his death a little bit quickly, but hey – if you’re reading this article, you probably know that fate was not on his side. Before an untimely illness turned fatal, he was committed to making a career out of entertaining his peers in unconventional ways.
He was committed to being a bizarre entertainer. He even went as far as claiming that he’s “never told a single joke on stage.” (That sounds crazy to me, but maybe crazy isn’t the right word here). Andy Kaufman was so dedicated to the craft that he practically created his own genre.
Uncle Andy’s Fun House
His college-broadcasted show, Uncle Andy’s Fun House, was just the beginning of a long and bizarre career path. Later in his career, he would host another special under the same name. His special played on ABC on February 29th, 1980. What better way to use an extra day we don’t get every year?
Kaufman was the host of the show, of course, and showcased his comedic characters. According to the Paley Center for Media, he started his special with a “Foreign Man” monologue, then broke into his Elvis Presley impression. He performed many other roles, and we can only imagine what his college version looked like!
The Show Was Satire
Kaufman loved to make fun of whoever and whatever he possibly could. Through his special, Uncle Andy’s Fun House, he took variety show satire into his own hands. He highlighted anything and everything that can go wrong, like performing a scene that is severely under-rehearsed.
His special also included a childhood home movie, a sketch called “The Luncheonette,” with actress Cindy Williams guest-starring as a waitress. He packed 90-minutes’ worth of Andy Kaufman gold into one special and executed it flawlessly. Again, I wish I saw what he created back in the day before he made it big!
Starting His Stand-Up Career
After his college days were over, he started to make his way back home to New York. When he made it back to the city that never sleeps, he finally took the leap into the world of comedy. He started trying his hand at local comedy clubs, and in 1971 he finally had his big break!
While performing at the Improvisation Comedy Club, the club’s owner, Budd Friedman, noticed Kaufman and his charm. He felt that he brought something unique to the table. He started booking him for future acts, thus giving him the big break he deserved.
What Happened to Andy Kaufman?
That’s a great question – in this case, Andy Kaufman finally gained recognition for his unique comedic style. He rose to fame and brought comedy into every aspect of his life. Even after Friedman took a chance on him, he did not see that as a reason to slow down by any means.
Kaufman stayed true to form every step of the way. He did not take a step back from his style for even a second, which helped build his base of loyal fans. Being unapologetically himself, in this case, paid off because it landed him a spot on The Dean Martin Comedy Hour.
The Dean Martin Comedy Hour
Also known as The Dean Martin Show, this was a comedic and musical masterpiece back in the 1970s. This was a variety show and believed to be the first of its kind in the theme of comedic “roasts.” The show finished out with a roast segment called “Man of the Week.”
The Dean Martin Show ran for nine seasons, from 1965 until 1974. Originally appearing on NBC, this show ran for 264 episodes in the earliest days of modern television. The show also featured their own sketch with Dean Martin and Gene Kelly acting as news anchors, nodding toward a future where Weekend Update would end up appearing on SNL.
Strange Performance Styles
As time went on, Kaufman’s performance style got weirder and weirder. He always had quite an avant-garde style, and The New York Times once reported that his style started to veer off into strange and peculiar performances. When he started to rise to fame, he was able to get away with more.
As he reached higher acclaim, he pulled unconventional stunts. He performed at Carnegie Hall in 1980, a location that anyone would be able to step back and say, “I made it!” When performing at this iconic place, Kaufman did something no one would expect.
A Midnight Snack
Kaufman capped off his performance at the legendary Carnegie Hall by inviting his incredibly large audience – 2,800 spectators, to be exact – to join him for a midnight snack. What did he mean by that? Well, you’d have to follow along with him to find out…
Those who were curious (which, again, is completely understandable… who wouldn’t be curious about an offer like that?) would follow him and his crew to a series of buses that they would board at 57th street. They were taken to an unknown location, putting their lives in the hands of a crazy comic they just saw perform.
Milk and Cookies
This stunt was strange, to say the least. The buses brought fans to an unconventional location: the New York School of Printing! What the heck, right? It seemed like Kaufman just needed a venue, any venue, so why not pick something that has absolutely nothing to do with comedy or performance?
Those who followed Kaufman were rewarded with something fantastic: chocolate chip cookies! Naturally, Kaufman provided milk to go with these sweet treats, allowing his loyal fans to dunk their cookies and laugh along with him. Kaufman supplied everything himself!
Comedy Club Owners Didn’t Know What They’d Be Getting
Going along with his style, Kaufman was an all-around wild card. If they had enough faith and confidence to book him, club owners never knew what to expect from each of his performances. That was part of his charm – never knowing what was going to come next.
Biography mentioned a specific incident in which he brought a sleeping bag on stage with him and continued to take a nap for a live audience. Who else could get away with that but Andy Kaufman? In another performance, he read a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and read aloud to his spectators!
The Foreign Man
He was known for his over-the-top stunts, but he was also known for one of his first character personas, “The Foreign Man.” This character is widely seen as Kaufman’s gateway to stardom, even though it was a character first created by Kaufman as a young boy.
Kaufman made up a random accent, not related to anything specific. The accent was imaginary because Kaufman did not want to perpetuate stereotypes – good on him for recognizing that from an early age! He knew that his character could have been harmful to new immigrants, so he did whatever he could to steer clear of that.
Where is the Foreign Man From?
According to Doyle Green’s book, Politics and the American Television Comedy, Kaufman danced around any existing stereotypes. The Foreign Man accent and persona would often change with the audience, meaning that the character’s background was ever-changing. Foreign Man often came across as Slavic or Mediterranean.
This character was not created to mock immigrants, or to mock anyone for that matter. The character was meant to come across as a kind-hearted person who admired American stars, often trying to make horrible impressions of them. His character wanted to show the American people how much he admired them.
The Foreign Man Felt Frazzled
As you would expect, Foreign Man constantly bombed and did not do well. His character knew that he wasn’t doing his best and would often end shows with tears in his eyes and even ask the cameras to stop rolling. Little did spectators know, that was all part of the larger act itself!
When it seemed like the Foreign Man would soon throw in the towel, he would whip out his secret weapon. Just when the audience thought that the Foreign Man was done, he would start performing his spot-on Elvis impression – proving to the audience that everything prior was just part of the show.
The Foreign Man Evolved
The Foreign Man character would end up evolving later into another character, Latka Gravas. Gravas was a mechanic character Kaufman played in the sitcom Taxi, one of his best-known roles to date. Many people even saw Kaufman and Gravas as one and the same.
Even when Kaufman was launched into success, he took his characters along for the journey. He used incredibly eccentric methods to get the job done. Kaufman famously chose not to attend any kind of rehearsal, so even his colleagues felt that they would potentially be walking into something strange.
Saturday Night Live
After Kaufman made his television debut on The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, he had caught the attention of someone who would launch his career into something truly incredible. In 1975, NBC executive Dick Ebersol watched his performance on the show and saw how special this performer was.
Ebersol knew that Kaufman offered something in the comedic space that no one else did. Ebersol saw Kaufman perform his stand-up routine and invited him to audition for a new show that was soon to be coming to air, called Saturday Night Live.
His SNL Audition
Kaufman’s audition for Saturday Night Live worked in his favor. Kaufman would go on to appear in Saturday Night Live 14 times, including the first-ever launch of the show. Kaufman made his SNL debut by lip-syncing the “The Theme from Mighty Mouse.”
During his time with the now-iconic variety show, he portrayed a number of truly over-the-top characters. The program gave him the opportunity to try out some of his bizarre characters. Nonetheless, nothing lasts forever, and his days with the show were numbered. He was destined to do more.
Voted Off the Show
Back in the day, the audience of Saturday Night Live consisted of studio audiences who voted on who would stay on the show and who would be booted from the program. Unfortunately, Kaufman fell short of the audience’s preferences, and he was subsequently voted off of the show.
Many of his performances included lip-syncing to famous songs, or rather, famous melodies. He performed to “Pop, Goes the Weasel” and “Old MacDonald” along with the original “Mighty Mouse Theme Song.” When he performed “Old MacDonald,” he famously invited audience members to act as the farm animals!
Introducing Tony Clifton
Tony Clifton was an alter-ego of Kaufman’s. For a while, Clifton would try and pass himself off as Kaufman’s manager, though he clearly wasn’t. Clifton was a disgraced nightclub owner who often abused the audiences he performed to and was known for being incredibly foul-mouthed.
Clifton was always wearing a tuxedo and made audiences cringe as he sang off-beat and out of tune. He was known for being obnoxious, and no surprise – he and Kaufman were never seen together, though Kaufman constantly stated that Clifton was not his own character.
“No, Tony Clifton is a Real Person!”
Tony Clifton was created in the late 1970s by Kaufman. He was known for being rude and in your face, pushing boundaries, and annoying everyone in the process. His character was constantly getting kicked out of venues and was often causing a stir in public situations.
Kaufman often claimed that Clifton was a real lounge singer that he met at the International Hotel in Las Vegas back in 1969. Kaufman often enlisted his friend Bob Zmuda, or his brother Michael, to play Clifton. Kaufman would often interrupt live performances of Clifton’s.
Tony Clifton Was Not Universally Loved
it goes without saying that Tony Clifton was not a crowd favorite. In fact, Kaufman created the character to come across as irritating and truly the most irksome person you could ever imagine. His goal was to grind your gears, and Clifton had a way of getting under your skin in ways the other characters couldn’t.
Kaufman constantly tried to maintain the illusion that they were completely different people. Clifton was the polar opposite of Kaufman, a parody of toxic masculinity. The character was homophobic and a bigot – not the kind of person you’d want to have over for dinner with your family.
A Package Deal
When booking his role on Taxi, Kaufman pushed limits with his terms of involvement. He stipulated that the producers would have to hire Tony Clifton as well; otherwise, Kaufman was off of the project. He was hired on a separate contract, apparently!
When Clifton was hired, Kaufman did everything in his power to sabotage Clifton’s image. He would appear on set as Clifton, arriving drunk, insulting his peers, and even bringing two women he tried to pass off as prostitutes. The day after Clifton annoyed someone to the point of them storming off set, Kaufman arranged for Clifton to be publicly thrown off set by studio security.
The Elvis Impression
One of Kaufman’s most famous acts was his impression of Elvis Presley. As a young man, Kaufman was already a big fan of the musical sensation and felt that he would do a great job with an impression of him. That turned out to be pretty spot-on, and even Presley himself was a fan of it!
Kaufman was invited to perform on The Johnny Cash Show, and he gladly appeared on the 1979 Christmas special of the show. Cash himself welcomed Kaufman to the stage, and Kaufman offered Elvis’ gratitude for the star. He was ecstatic to be there and would give a performance they’d never forget.
That’s When Your Heartaches Begin
“You know, Elvis Presley once said that out of all the Elvis imitators, the one that he enjoyed the most is our guest Andy Kaufman.” Kaufman appeared in full Elvis garb, with the famous white jumpsuit covered in jewels and a thick black wig. Kaufman then began to sing.
He performed a version of Elvis’s “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” and the audience genuinely thought that they were watching Elvis himself. He gave a performance for the ages and would go down in history as the original Elvis impersonator – no one could come close to him!
His Days on Taxi
Andy Kaufman was joined by other fantastic actors, like Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Judd Hirsch, Jeff Conaway, and Tony Danza. Taxi is centered around the employees of a make-believe cab company, Sunshine Cabs. It takes place in New York City’s epicenter, Manhattan.
Kaufman played his famous Latka Gravas and mostly spoke gibberish when he was depicting this character, but he eventually got sick of his character’s personality. He had the show’s writers give Latka a multiple personality disorder so he could retire the act.
He Loved Wrestling
Kaufman was a bit obsessed with wrestling, so much so that he played a role on Saturday Night Live as an “inter-gender wrestling champion.” His character (or what I hope was merely a character) only wrestled women and would offer $500 if a woman could pin him to the ground.
His arguments for wrestling women were inherently sexist. He constantly went on rants about how women didn’t possess the necessary “mental energy” to defeat him. He played into these “traditional gender roles” to make fun of them. Female stand-up Adrienne Truscott once wrote, “in wrestling women, I dare say, he was one of our best-known feminist performance artists.”
He Received Hate Mail
He channeled his passion for wrestling into his Saturday Night Live role, which ended up being received poorly by those who did not know his style. He was not one to clear up any foggy points, so he allowed people to believe that he was a gross, sexist pig.
Those who didn’t understand his style did not understand that nothing he said was real – everything was a performance and did not reflect who he was as a person. SNL fans thought he was just a sexist jerk and sent him an abundance of hate mail. He proposed a live poll to have people vote to ban him from SNL, which they certainly did.
The Battle for His Health
Andy Kaufman famously did not smoke – the only time he did was when he played his character, Tony Clifton. In fact, Kaufman was pretty nuts over being healthy. When he started coughing in front of his family during their Thanksgiving meal in 1983, they were immediately concerned.
Much to everyone’s surprise, his cough turned out to be something far more volatile than they could have ever imagined. Somehow, he found himself with a lung cancer diagnosis. He was only 35 years old and found himself dealing with a form of terminal cancer that no one understood how he acquired.
They Tried Every Option for Treatment
He was dedicated to beating the disease in any way possible. He combined chemotherapy and radiation treatment with other non-traditional methods, like a macrobiotic diet. He even tried “psychic surgery,” which many saw as a form of medical fraudulence. He tried everything he could to survive.
Not long after receiving his diagnosis and exhausting his treatment options, Kaufman passed away at the Cedars-Sinai medical center in Los Angeles on May 16th, 1984. Though the writing is on the wall, many fans (and even some of his family members) believed that he faked his death. They thought it was just another gag.
Another Possible Diagnosis
In more recent years, Kaufman’s girlfriend at the time of his passing, Lynne Margulies, posed another theory for his death. The Advocate explained her theory that he might have been misdiagnosed (or maybe even covering up a diagnosis)—that he might have died from AIDS complications.
Margulies claims that Kaufman identified as bisexual and had hidden it from his parents and other family members. Homophobia ran rampant through the 1980s, and AIDS was often smeared and referred to as the “gay cancer.” Margulies believed he might have really died from the disease and had not been open about it for fear of harsh retaliation.
Conspiracy Theories About His Death
There are so many people who have thoughts about what happened to Andy Kaufman, and one person both fighting and spreading conspiracy theories is Michael, Andy’s brother. Michael did not believe that he had AIDS because he took him to his chemotherapy appointments himself.
Years later, Michael would spread theories that his brother was actually alive and well. His brother appeared at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York for the annual Andy Kaufman Awards and claimed that he had found an essay in which his brother detailed a plan to fake his own death to “Get out of being Andy Kaufman.” These claims were disputed by official hospital and state records of his death.