Trying to explain Andy Kaufman is almost an impossible task. Kaufman was never quite sure of who he was and presented his character du jour to nightclub and television audiences. One moment he was a lovable foreign man with an unrecognizable accent and an uncanny impression of Elvis Presley. The next night he was an obnoxious lounge singer who sprayed water and insults on his audience.
And through it all, Bob Zmuda was next to him. Zmuda, best known for his work as executive producer of the Comic Relief specials, was Kaufman’s sidekick throughout his career. Zmuda wrote a new book, Andy Kaufman Revealed: Best Friend Tells All and is a featured character in the new movie chronicling Kaufman’s life, Man on the Moon (Universal Pictures), which opens later this month.
From the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep, he was performing, Zmuda said during a press conference in October.
Kaufman’s career began in the comedy clubs. He would arrive two hours early at The Improv in Los Angeles, pretending to be a foreign man who spoke very little English and beg owner Bud Freedman to let him perform.
He came out, and he was godawful, Zmuda said. It was so real that women would hit their boyfriends and say `Don’t laugh at him.’
But then Kaufman would do his Elvis Presley imitation and wow the crowd. And, he did the whole act, both on the stage and off, as the foreign character.
I followed him out to car, and he saw me there. He asked me to help with his props, Zmuda said. Then, in the accent, Kaufman said, Thank you very much. Sucker.
The foreign man character became Latka Gravas on Taxi. But despite its success, Kaufman hated working on the show and only did if he could have his own comedy special and if Tony Clifton, who no one at Taxi had heard of, could be in several episodes.
Once he became famous because of `Taxi,’ he could no longer go into clubs and play (the foreign man), Zmuda said. Then we created Tony Clifton.
Clifton was the complete opposite of Latka. He was a cruel lounge singer who would throw water on the audience members and insult the band. No one knew that Kaufman was Clifton. The part required a three-and-a-half-hour makeup job for Kaufman and later for Zmuda, who would appear on stage with Kaufman to confuse the audience and prevent them from figuring out who Clifton really was.
That was great for about three months, Zmuda said. Then The Los Angeles Times broke the story (that Kaufman was Clifton).
Kaufman’s other personalities included the lip-syncer to the Mighty Mouse theme on the premier of Saturday Night Live and the Inter-gender Wrestling Champion who fought mostly women and later men.
The wrestling of women is my fault, Zmuda said. It wasn’t as much for the audience as it was for Andy’s sexual gratification. I would have to take a role of gaffer’s tape and tape him down. I was mortified he was going to pitch a tent on national television.
But behind the numerous personas, Zmuda said there was a normal person.
Andy was a sweet, shy, kind of quiet, kind of a guy, he said. The total opposite of anything he would do on stage.
And, although numerous comics, including Robin Williams, cite Kaufman as an inspiration, Zmuda said he doubts his type of performance art could be repeated.
I think the time was right, he said. He was almost the anti-performer. He did not want to be rich and famous. Andy didn’t care about that stuff.
Zmuda said Kaufman used to love to read his bad reviews.
It seemed the more angry people got at him, the more funny he thought it was, he said.
Kaufman died of lung cancer in 1984 at the age of 35. But some people believe that is just part of the act. In the script of The Tony Clifton Show, which was written in the 1970s, Tony dies of lung cancer at the same hospital Kaufman did years later.
But despite the conspiracy theories, Zmuda said in his short time, Kaufman achieved his goals.
He was happier if everybody turned on him, he said. He had a personal battle to build his career and then destroy it.