Funny or die 

When it comes to faking death, comedian Andy Kaufman made a serious mistake

Earlier this month, a young woman mounted the stage at the ninth annual Andy Kaufman Awards to announce that Kaufman was alive and she was his daughter. You can watch the video online, but don't or you'll ruin it.

The whole thing was obviously fake. The woman was Alexandra Tatarsky, a 24-year-old actress whose father is identified and probably very proud of her. Tatarsky met Kaufman's brother Michael at a gallery show earlier this year, and he hired her to reinvigorate the rumor that Andy faked his death. Their performance that night at the Kaufman Awards was everything you would expect from a randomly selected actress and Andy Kaufman's brother, but the internet bought it.

During the next few days, entertainment bloggers across the country reported Tatarsky's speech and Michael's attestation to it. Did Andy Kaufman fake his death? The next day, when cooler hands prevailed, they back-edited their posts to report it all as a hoax.

Update: Andy Kaufman is still dead. The thing we all knew until yesterday, when we believed what two people told us from a stage, turns out to have been true all along. Kaufman did not fake his death, which is weird because it seems like an obvious mistake on his part.

Clearly, Andy Kaufman should not have died after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1983. He should have survived cancer and tricked us all into thinking he was dead, then laid low for three decades before going on TV and saying something hilarious.

It's a joke that writes itself, but somehow Kaufman missed it. What makes his failure to fake his death so inexplicable is that it was a misstep in an otherwise masterfully conducted career—one that had already seized less obvious opportunities and run with them.

In the early 1980s, for example, Kaufman toured America and offered to wrestle local women as the self-proclaimed Intergender Champion of the World. He promised $1,000 to any woman who could pin him, and he cheated a lot. This foray into sporting life eventually led to a grudge match with pro wrestling legend Jerry Lawler in Memphis.

Before their match, Kaufman announced that as a goodwill gesture to the city, he had mailed Memphis residents instructional videos on how to use soap. He warned fans at the arena that he could not lose, since he was from Hollywood and therefore smart. Lawler caught him in a piledriver and broke his neck.

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In a series of television appearances afterward, Kaufman wore a neck brace and threatened to sue. He also announced that he had gone back to wrestling women. The feud continued off and on until Kaufman and Lawler appeared together on a 1982 episode of "Late Night with David Letterman," where Kaufman taunted Lawler until the wrestler knocked him out of his chair.

Then, about 10 years after Kaufman died, Lawler told NBC that the whole thing was a work. Of course it was. Kaufman did not actually regard himself as the greatest male wrestler of women in the world, and a man with decades of show business experience would not calmly sit in an armchair and take abuse from a comedian right up until he committed assault. In retrospect, it was obviously fake.

Kaufman had done all kinds of things along the irony-fake-hoax spectrum by the time he was 35, and they were all funny. Then he got lung cancer, the opportunity of a lifetime, and he blew it. What really would have been funny is if he beat cancer, hid out for a while and lived a normal life like Last Temptation of Christ, then sang the national anthem at Super Bowl XLVIII.

That's how I would have done it, anyway, if I were famous. And the whole point of Andy Kaufman is that he did what you or I would do if we were famous.

For all of Kaufman's amazing acts, including but not limited to opening for his own comedy tour as a drunk lounge singer named Tony Clifton, most people knew him as Latka Gravas on "Taxi." Latka was basically the wacky neighbor. He appeared in grease-stained overalls and said absurd things in a humorous foreign voice. As the character caught on, there were Latka episodes, in which Latka went home in greasy overalls and had humorous foreign arguments with his wife.

"Taxi" was funny, in much the same way that Doctor Strangelove is the greatest comedy of all time, but it was no staged fight with a pro wrestler on "Letterman." It wasn't reading The Great Gatsby to a nightclub audience and scolding them when they became disruptive. It was the part of Kaufman's career that made a bunch of money and enabled him to do long, strange performances in places that didn't pay—places like the news.

In this way, Kaufman was the ideal famous person. He achieved minor stardom and used it to play elaborate pranks on people, just as you imagine yourself doing when you become famous.

Nobody fantasizes about becoming a celebrity and then developing a pill problem while VH1 tapes them having flat-affect arguments with the gardener. We like to think that we would approach fame as a hilarious goof—that is, from the perspective of a non-famous person.

We fantasize this way because we are still good. It remains fantasy because we are not as funny as Andy Kaufman, and even if we did get the role of a kooky foreign person on a sitcom we wouldn't get the voice right.

But if we were comic geniuses, then we'd do something really weird and cool. If we got famous, we'd use it to mess with people's minds. And we would never, ever die.

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