Assuming you believe his family and the State of California, Andy Kaufman died in 1984. It is a miracle of preservation and archival discipline, then, that this week, a new album of audio he took over the years — conversations, skits, arguments — has finally been released to the public. Called Andy and his Grandmother, it offers more evidence that Kafuman is one of the most important men in the development modern comedy.
Most famous for his time on Taxi and the fun stunts he conducted while on Saturday Night Live during its infancy, Kaufman was a walking experiment, shifting between personas and stretching reality until it snapped back and knocked an audience right in the head, scrambling their brains and unmooring their perception of the world. Kaufman’s work on SNL and appearances on David Letterman’s various talk shows were beamed right into the heads of today’s comedy leaders — people like Judd Apatow, Conan O’Brien, and many others — who worshipped both programs growing up.
In some ways, Andy Kaufman was a man born too soon. He would have fit in perfectly in an era of Adult Swim and Funny or Die, late night oddities and cable networks devoted to experimental comedy. Then again, without him, these things may not have been possible.
Here are seven ways he influenced modern comedy.
1. The outrageous alter-ego
Andy was known for slipping into different skins, from early days doing a spot-on Elvis (so great that The King himself called it his favorite) to the “Foreign Man” character that would become Latka Gravas on Taxi. Most important, though, was the rude, callous, disgusting and particularly untalented lounge singer Tony Clifton — the character he would never admit to being.
Now, years later, there’s no doubt that Andy was Tony; his writing partner Bob Zmuda has spoken about it at length, and the video makes it pretty obvious. But imagine a world pre-internet where people couldn’t watch lounge acts recorded on cell phones or break them down into zoomed-in images; there were no forums or Reddit to analyze what the hell had just been on TV.
So Andy would dress as Tony and bark at the audience, and the legend would spread by word of mouth until his next appearance, confusion growing each time. And when people thought they had Andy dead-to-rights, that they’d trapped him in a lie and he would have to admit that yes, he was Tony, that’s when he’d appear alongside the lounge lizard on national TV, the girth and bad tuxedo now being worn by Zmuda.
Think of all the alter-egos you see today, whether it’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s various acts (Borat, Ali G, etc.) or Will Ferrell’s temporary bits. Those were all made possible by Andy and Tony.
2. The bizarre, disheveled interview on national TV
By the time that this aired, Andy was already known nation-wide for being a weirdo, which is why this interview with Letterman is even more impressive. In theory, you’d think that seeing Andy appearing on TV as a sloppy, wasted sad sack with snot (actually, Vaseline) plastered above his upper lip would almost be par for the course. But then, Andy had created a public persona in which anything was possible, so why not believe that he was absolutely off the ledge?
David Letterman’s short-lived morning show, and then his hit Late Night, were often the forums for Andy’s bizarre interview antics. That made for a perfect parallel years later when Joaquin Phoenix brought his bearded, smoked-out-of-his-gourd character to Letterman’s Late Show, and it’s probably why Letterman, having seen this years ago, was able to just straight up humiliate him.
3. Children’s humor for adults
Before there was Peewee’s Playhouse, there was Uncle Andy’s Funhouse.
Andy loved Howdy Doody as a kid, and in college, Kaufman would put on these funny sketches with puppets and other childish elements. He would pursue making these kind of specials throughout his career, and he got to meet Howdy Doody in a very moving special taped in 1977 and finally aired in ‘79.
4. Cringe comedy
Sure, you can mess with a talk show interview, but a whole planned TV sketch? That’s what Andy did when he guest hosted the SNL ripoff Fridays. In a sketch in which he was supposed to pretend that he was secretly getting high, Andy broke character in the middle and announced that he could not be part of the crass humor.
The exec producers knew that he was going to be doing this, but his co-stars — including Michael Richards — had no idea. It got so uncomfortable and ridiculous that Richards went and got the cue cards and threw them down on the table so that Andy would know what to say.
Instead of just laughing, people watching in the studio audience and at home were cringing. Andy never considered himself a comedian; he was out to get reactions. Discomfort can be even more natural than laughter; think of your David Brents, Michael Scotts, and Larry Davids of the world.
In fact, Larry David was a cast member on Fridays when this went down.
5. Playing the anti-hero
Late in his career, Andy decided to jump into the world of wrestling, which had always been a point of interest for him. Instead of joining the WWF and training for real, though, he began wrestling women, antagonizing them with sexist taunts as he barnstormed through the South, which he berated for being stupid and the home of inbreeders.
He got thousands of hate-mail letters — they were recently published in a book called Dear Andy Kaufman: I Hate Your Guts — and he sparked a (fake) rivalry with star wrestler Jerry Lawler, too.
Think of all the anti-heroes we have out in television and movies today, whether it’s Tony Soprano, Walter White, or Don Draper or the cadre of wannabes. Andy made it okay to rile up an audience, to capitalize off their anger. Don Rickles was well-known for doing such a thing, and doing it legendarily well, but still, everyone knew it was an act.
In fact, perhaps his most famous bit came when Lawler beat him up on Letterman.
6. Taking the show public
It’s one thing to shock an audience while they’re sitting in seats and waiting for a show; it’s a whole other thing to enter their world and confuse them.
Once he got famous, Andy took a job as a busboy at Jerry’s Famous Deli, cleaning plates and tables when he wasn’t working on shows, movies or the like. It confounded customers, who just knew they recognized him from somewhere. But he never winked or loafed; when wearing the cap and apron, he was all business.
There are a plethora of hidden camera shows these days, including Jackass and whatever Ashton Kutcher is producing at the moment, filming people’s surprised reactions when the revelation is made. The great thing about what Andy did was that he hardly filmed at all; this was a public experiment in his private life.
7. Televised unpredictability
It seems like every other talk show appearance features a star showing up with some sort of ridiculous bit, from Kristen Wiig’s appearance as Michael Jordan on Fallon this week to every time Norm MacDonald visits Conan O’Brien (his fake Captain Sully movie was particularly memorable).
You can thank Andy for that, but it’s important to note that usually, the actor is winking at the audience; Andy never gave any indication that he was anything but 100% serious about what he (or his character) was doing.