A look at the documentary Andy
Kaufman: I'm from Hollywood
By Greg Bottoms
Gadfly May 1999
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!"
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.