The genius of Andy Kaufman arose from shock humor. Not “shock” humor in the sense of Family Guy or morning DJs eating sundaes off nude strippers, but in sudden eruptions of soul-deep mirth from the all-out inconceivable—inconceivable, that is, to all but Andy Kaufman.
Thirty years after reports of his death, debate is arising anew as to whether or not Andy Kaufman pulled off the ultimate shock routine; the very one that is typically only ever credited to Jesus Christ.
Talk of Kaufman faking his death began the very moment it was reported he’d passed away in 1984. Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s best friend and closest collaborator, is fanning the flames of reasonable doubt once again via the new book Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally, co-authored with the comedian’s former girlfriend, Lynn Margulies.
“He said to keep a lid on it for 30 years,” Zmuda recently told The Washington Post in regard to Kaufman’s death being bogus. “What I’m doing is sending a telegram to Andy: It’s time to come in from the cold.”
Kaufman the Resurrected would perfectly be in keeping with his naïve weirdo character singing along to “Mighty Mouse” on the first Saturday Night Live, and his later obnoxious incarnation as the World Intergender Wrestling Champion. All begin as one seemingly easily perceived type and then explode our assumptions with outbursts of hilarity.
This spin is true even of Kaufman’s most mainstream persona, “Foreign Man,” who he played on the classic 1978-1983 sitcom Taxi as gentle mechanic, Latka Gravis. Kaufman initially introduced Foreign Man during a Tonight Show standup routine, meekly speaking in the high-pitched, clipped pidgin English, bursting into a spot-on Elvis impersonation that drives the audience frantic, and then sheepishly chirping, “Thank you berry much!”
As Latka, Kaufman fed Foreign Man through the thresher of Playboy magazine and smooth FM radio, creating an unforgettable moment wherein he transformed to the perfect parody of late 1970s hyper-masculinity. Check out the clips, and see how flawlessly he makes Vic Ferrari flow from Latka’s very soul. It’s as unimaginable as a wacked-out funnyman faking his own death and then coming back three decades later. In short: Andy Kaufman lived as proof that anything is possible—and, who knows, he may still be doing it. For that, we thank him berry much.