by Skylaire Alfvegren
“He was a pretty famous guy when he started insulting women, and then his career started to go down the tubes,” Lynne Margulies, Andy Kaufman’s girlfriend stated plainly at a recent tribute to the deranged comic, who passed away from cancer May 16, 1984, at the age of 35.
Margulies (portrayed by the ever malignant Courtney Love in the Kaufman bio pic Man on the Moon) and Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s grey-pony-tailed “partner in sin”, spoke of Kaufman as though he were merely out of town, after screening a series of his performance clips, including his oddly spot-on Elvis impersonation, a never-before-seen recording of his 1979 Los Angeles’ “variety show,” Midnight Snacks, and his wide-eyed “Foreign Man” character, which producers of the sitcom Taxi wrote into all six seasons of their hit show. (Kaufman, who grew tired of the one-dimensional mechanic, was appeased when his character, Latka Gravas, developed multiple personality disorder.) “He had trouble getting dates because he was… weird,” said Margulies.
In 1981, while still starring on Taxi, Kaufman broke character again, appearing on Saturday Night Live (as a character based on “bad guy” wrestlers Buddy Rogers and Nature Boy), claiming women were only good for “raising the babies, mopping the floors, and scrubbing the potatoes.” His life-long obsession with wrestling prompted him to challenge the nation’s women to pin him in matches around the country; he received hundreds of livid letters and photos from potential opponents.
“Everything he did was designed to confuse or piss people off. Most of the women didn’t get the joke.” Margulies said. A sporting artist and film maker, she met Kaufman through her brother, film and wrestling impresario Johnny Legend. The very definition of free spirit, she toted the responses to Andy’s challenge from “storage unit to storage unit” until prompted by a friend to fulfill Kaufman’s dying wish: to publish them in book form. (Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts! is available from Process Media; (Legend’s releases, including Margulies’ film, I’m From Hollywood, can be acquired at www.legendhouse.net.)
“90% of Kaufman’s best work was done purely for his own amusement, in airports, on the street. He was very aware that this town is a crapshoot, it will eat you up and kill you,” Zmuda commented, just as a chemically-enhanced Andy Dick fell on his face in the theatre’s aisle. Dick--whose most notable recent “work” involved apologizing to people he’d previously bedeviled before becoming a resident of Dr. Drew Pinsky’s own circus minimus, teevee’s Sober House--had spent the show loudly and incoherently yelling in the direction of his glassy-eyed hangers-on and spilling popcorn in the seat directly behind this writer’s, before grabbing the mic out of Zmuda’s hand to explain just how Kaufman’s infamous 1981 appearance on the sketch show, Fridays, “changed his life.” (The audience ushered something of a collective growl-groan, as if to acknowledge just how few people, did indeed, “get” Kaufman’s humor.)
“After Taxi was cancelled, Andy seriously considered becoming a wrestling manager,” Zmuda commented, before disappearing backstage. Margulies concurred. “He really didn’t care what the rest of the world thought. If he were alive today, he‘d probably be doing cable access, happy living off residuals.”
Suddenly, foul-mouthed comic Tony Clifton appeared amid a cloud of cigarette smoke. Mustachioed and grimacing, clad in polyester and a pink, ruffled tuxedo shirt, he hurled zingers in every direction.
(“How do you know Japs are moving into your neighborhood? The Mexicans buy car insurance.” What’s the difference between a dead baby and my girlfriend? I don’t kiss my girlfriend after sex.”) Commenting on the Gefilte-friendly neighborhood, Clifton continued: “What does a Jew pedophile say? Hey, little girl, wanna buy some candy?” (During the Q&A, someone had asked to hear Clifton’s story. “Disgusting, is all I can say,” quipped Zmuda.)
Some speculate that acerbic comedian Bill Hicks was actually assassinated; there’s no conspiracy with Kaufman’s death, however, even though the comedian had contemplated faking it as the ultimate gag. “It’s actually illegal to fake your own death”, Zmuda said. “Plus he was a member of SAG and AFTRA, and there were insurance policies… but 25 years later, people are still fascinated with whether or not he‘s alive.” (An anonymous video of Kaufman’s grave allegedly dug up and coffin opened, is thought to be fake, though Zmuda, co-founder of Comic Relief, offered a reward to anyone who could prove otherwise.)
The lung cancer Kaufman--a non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarian and practitioner of both yoga and transcendental meditation--perished from was mysterious. According to Margulies, his family believes it was caused by special effects make up he wore in the 1981 film, Heartbeeps. (The film’s acclaimed make up artist, Stan Winston, finally succumbed to multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer, in 2008.) Did Kaufman turn to religion before he died? Zmuda replied, “Fuck, no. He was a Sheeny bastard.”