Carnival Days
A look at the documentary Andy Kaufman: I'm from Hollywood
By Greg Bottoms

From Gadfly May 1999


"I wanted to bring back the old days of the carnivals," says Andy Kaufman about his Intergender Wrestling, perhaps America's greatest piece of media-fueled performance art. This statement comes at the beginning of the documentary Andy Kaufman: I'm from Hollywood, which airs every thirty-one days on Comedy Central, and Kaufman, saying this, looks somber, serious—pale face, bulging mole on his left cheek, ink-black hair, sideburns. He seems as much Elvis or Latka Gravas or Tony Clifton or the televangelist Armageddon T. Thunderbird (from the 1980 movie In God We Tru$t) as he does Andy Kaufman. And maybe he is. Maybe that's the point. Looking at his broad face shimmering on your television, a dead comic beamed into your home from New York via a satellite in outer space, it's easy to think that the real Kaufman was simply an amalgamation of characters, a group of endless, often obtuse references both to his former "selves" and the culture at large: a postmodern, ever-changing work of art in the guise of a human being, goofing, continuously, on us.

Kaufman knew the greatest performances—the only truly original performances—blurred the line between reality and character, made, as Robin Williams says in the documentary, "Andy the premise and the world the punchline." There is a famous anecdote about how Kaufman considered himself a "song-and-dance man," not a comic (yet every anecdote, every piece of information and myth emanating from Kaufman's life, is suspect, because the core, Kaufman, is still amorphous and indefinable). But his statements are clues to who he was. He wanted to bring back the "days of the carnivals"; he wanted to be a "song-and-dance man."

Here is what we know: Andy Kaufman detested the rigid roles of comedian and audience, the way comics offered up something familiar, slightly subverted it, then gave us a punchline based on this simple subversion and the audience's moment of realization—thus, the very safe laugh. That safety, that very Freudian predictability, lacked danger, excitement. What was the point of an act if you knew the outcome, could time it to the very second?

So, in what he saw as ground-breaking fashion, he endlessly and intentionally confused, even enraged, his audiences by coming onstage and performing entire shows as a barely understandable foreigner or Tony Clifton, the Vegas lounge singer; or, worse, he'd simply read The Great Gatsby, start to finish, as people began to boo and hiss and then leave as he kept reading in a bad English accent. Or there was the time he booked a gig in the Catskills and invited his whole family to come onstage and sing old favorites. Or the time he decided to come out in a sleeping bag and sleep under the bright stage lights for the two scheduled hours as the audience began laughing—"Hey, this is that Taxi guy, I think he has split personalities or something"—and then became incensed and demanded their money back, which is exactly what Kaufman wanted: a tiny riot, a "performance" in which the audience participated. But nothing came close to the Intergender Wrestling fiasco.

"When I play a role," Kaufman says in I'm from Hollywood, "I'm a purist. So if I'm playing a villainous wrestler, I believe in playing it straight to the hilt." This could be Keitel or DeNiro on Bravo's The Actor's Studio. You sense the irony, the implicit sarcasm, but it's all behind an incredible, unbreakable poker-face, and you start to think that maybe it's you who's full of irony and implicit sarcasm. Kaufman...well, Kaufman seems serious.

He is on a beige couch, legs crossed, confiding about his methods, but these methods have to do with wrestling and often humiliating women. And even though he is the king of the uncomfortable joke, the punchline gone too far, often into the wince-inducing realm of cruelty and a nebulous sort of malevolence, you can't tell if this is a put-on or if he's simply lost his mind. Or both. Or neither.

In the documentary, as nowhere else, you see he's experimenting with the limits—not just of comedy, but of life, of emotion: rage, hate, sadness, joy. He's playing the villainous wrestler and playing it to the hilt. He doesn't want you to laugh according to a safe joke-telling formula. He doesn't want a laugh unless it bursts forth from the gut. If he's going to play a villain, he expects the audience to hate him with everything they've got, to feel it burning down inside them.

He wasn't a sexist, but he knew playing the sexist would incite the most rage with the least amount of effort. It would only be a truly original joke if no one knew it was a joke. You can't have a carnival unless everyone believes in the carnival, unless everyone loses their sense of irony, their hipper-than-thou attitude, and once again gawks unselfconsciously, child-like and brimming with emotion, at the strongest man in the world, the two-headed cow, the bearded lady, the Hollywood comic turned wrestler.

The wrestling began as part of his act on the road. Once he'd impersonated Elvis, read Gatsby to a booing audience, slept, done an entire show as Tony Clifton, perfectly covering lounge favorites, or whatever, he had to do something else, something new, something that could push his oeuvre—the many incarnations of himself—to the next level. In the early '80s he began coming out in long johns and wrestling shoes and taunting women, readily admitting that any normal man could easily beat him. He let the audience pick the woman he would wrestle to ensure authenticity.

How strange, people thought at first, how hip, how original. When he started playing the villainous wrestler, the over-the-top sexist, verging on flat-out misogynist, people laughed—it was a goof, of course, he couldn't really believe all this insulting stuff he was saying. But as he pushed it, as the insults got worse and he refused to break "character," people, both women and men, became outraged, wanting Kaufman's head. In this context, the bouts were entirely spontaneous, brought about by a barrage of incendiary speech and fueled by Kaufman's continuous and incredibly annoying taunting and the challenger's legitimate rage. How was this comedy, the audience wondered; they'd paid big bucks to laugh, not be offended and shocked.

Then Kaufman—and here's where it got seriously weird—went after the women with everything he had. It's uncomfortable to watch. His wavy hair was a mad scientist's. His "tights" gave him wedgies. He used actual holds he had been practicing. He pulled their hair, slammed them to the mat, put them in headlocks and scissor holds and suplexes and full-nelsons, bent arms behind backs, and then gloated. When he did it on Saturday Night Live in front of a stunned audience, he was voted off the show for good by viewers. Now that was real emotion, thought Kaufman, brought on by a spontaneous and brilliant performance—having nearly 200,00 people vote to never see your face again. Did it get more real than that?

In late 1981, Kaufman took his "act" to the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee, where he staged the Intergender Wrestling Championships (his term) as an opening bill on a professional wrestling ticket. Here Andy Kaufman: I'm from Hollywood veers toward complete lunacy, and though it is obvious that long-time cohort Bob Zmuda (President of Comic Relief) and Robin Williams were in on the gag, it is also obvious that the arena full of people, the announcers and the other wrestlers were not in on it. People literally wanted him dead. Women screamed. Men threatened him futilely in the din of the crowd. Kids flipped the bird. "Kill him," they yelled. A woman—youngish, black rock concert T-shirt, early-'80s layered hair—told Kaufman to "come on. Yeah, come oooon, punk!"

Thousands booed Kaufman, who proceeded to taunt working-class Memphis wrestling fans by telling them he was rich, from Hollywood and a big star who could beat any woman in the arena. He said if a woman could beat him, he'd pay her $1,000 and marry her. Later, he called the people of Memphis stupid, filthy rednecks, mimicking their accent. He showed them a bar of soap and told them how to use it; he showed them toilet paper; he said, essentially, that the South smelled like an outhouse. He stopped playing the villainous wrestler "to the hilt" and became, in the eyes of millions, either America's new bad guy or a comic who'd lost his mind. Even the ultra-hip, who still believed it was a kind of cruel performance art careening on a crash course, began to wonder about Kaufman's grasp on reality.

When Kaufman got involved in an ongoing feud with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, who had trained one of Kaufman's female opponents, a giant black woman named Foxy who tossed Kaufman all over the ring and nearly beat him in a bruising and sweaty battle, things got out of hand. Way out of hand.

First Lawler put Kaufman in the hospital by "pile driving" his head into the mat. Kaufman threatened to sue Lawler with his high-powered Hollywood lawyers until "he couldn't even buy food." During a later match, Lawler threw fire in Kaufman's face. Then, on July 28, 1982, during the height of their feud, which Kaufman must have thought of as his most dangerous and ambitious performance yet, Kaufman and Lawler appeared together on Late Night with David Letterman (one of Kaufman's ten appearances on the show). Letterman was a big fan of Kaufman. He knew the whole thing was a gag, another of Kaufman's outrageous performances, though he had no idea where all this was going. But he also knew that Lawler, not to mention Memphis wrestling fans and almost everyone out there in TV land, had no idea what to make of this. If this was comedy, it had stopped getting a laugh long ago.

On Letterman that night, after a few insults, Lawler slapped Kaufman out of his chair. Kaufman freaked. He let out a stream of expletives, the NBC censors beeping them out as best they could, and then threw a cup of scalding coffee at Lawler's face before fleeing the stage and the entire studio while the ever-cool David Letterman could only sit back and grin uncomfortably as the cameras kept rolling. Now that was improv.

The next day, to push the "joke" to the utmost levels of absurdity without letting anyone in on it, Kaufman told the press he planned to sue NBC and then buy the network. This actually ran in the entertainment sections of major papers.

And Kaufman wasn't finished. He was willing to risk his entire career, his $30,000-a-week salary for Taxi, to push every limit, to do something giant and entirely new. He returned to the Mid-South Coliseum to taunt Jerry Lawler and Memphis wrestling fans, enlisting the help of other professional wrestlers, whom he called "hired assassins." In the documentary, an unresolvable melee ensues and the whole thing ends as strangely as it began. It seems to have no conclusion, no dramatic arc to tug you along. Like Kaufman's life, which was his art, it defies convention, upsets ingrained expectations and makes you feel a little creepy as you laugh.

Andy Kaufman: I'm from Hollywood, even now, almost two decades after the wrestling, is a confusing mixture of the real and the surreal, life and act, a bizarre showcase where every illusion, every sleight of hand, tests the limits of reality, for better or worse. It seems impossible to fully fathom his intentions in making such a spectacle. You may watch it and hate him—certainly a reasonable response, and the one he wanted—but you can't deny he brought back the carnival and made us, briefly, believe in it.