“I am not a comic, I have never told a joke … The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him … my promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can … They say, ‘Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he’s a really funny guy’. But I’m not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads”.
– Andy Kaufman, New York Times interview, 1975.
Have you ever wanted to see what Michael Stipe’s vision of heaven looks like? Then look no further than Man on the Moon from REM’s multi-million selling 1992 album Automatic for the People. On an album that features even darker themes than the band’s previous releases, songs such as Drive, Sweetness Follows and Monty Got A Raw Deal are immediately brought to mind, Man on the Moon seems quite jovial and uplifting. Here, we find Stipe writing about Andy Kaufman, a comedic actor and Stipe’s hero. Strip away the fact that this is a song about a comedian and the fact that Stipe even makes a few jokes in the song’s lyrics though and we are left with a dark puzzle. For under the veneer of fun and hilarity, there was a much darker side to Andy Kaufman. What Man on the Moon is really asking is: Did Kaufman, renowned for his elaborate pranks and ruses, really die? It is a mystery that, as Stipe rightly sings in the song, is right up there with whether the first moon landing was a hoax. First, let’s take a look at the life and bizarre career of Andy Kaufman.
“While all the other kids were out playing ball and stuff, I used to stay in my room and imagine that there was a camera in the wall. And I used to really believe that I was putting on a television show and that it was going out to somewhere in the world”.
– Andy Kaufman.
Born in New York on January 17th 1949, Andy Kaufman was a popular and eccentric American entertainer, actor and performance artist. Whilst often referred to as a comedian, Kaufman detested this tag, preferring to be known as a ‘song and dance man’. Today, he is widely known as a cult artist and is well respected in some circles for his highly original material, unique performance style and an unwavering commitment to the characters that he created.
“When you go through a tunnel- you’re on a train – you go through a tunnel, the tunnel is dark, but you’re still going forward. Just remember that. But if you’re not going to to get up on stage for one night because you’re discouraged or something, then the train is going to stop. Everytime you get up on stage, if it’s a long tunnel, it’s going to take a lot of times of going on stage before things get bright again. You keep going on stage, you go forward. Every night go on stage”.
– Andy Kaufman in recorded phone conversation with friend Elayne Boosler.
After graduating from the now defunct Grahm Junior College in 1971, Kaufman began performing stand up comedy at various small clubs across the East Coast of America. He first caught public attention with a character simply known as Foreign Man, who claimed to be from Caspiar, a fictional island in the Caspian Sea. As Foreign Man, Kaufman would appear on the stage of comedy clubs, play a gramophone recording of the theme from the Mighty Mouse cartoon. He would stand perfectly still, lip-syncing only the line “Here I come to save the day” with over the top levels of enthusiasm. He would then continue to perform a number of impersonations in a deliberately dead pan manner, still using the voice of Foreign Man. These impersonations famously included Presidents Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon and the television character Archie Bunker. The Mighty Mouse routine and his various impersonations were performed on Saturday Night Live in 1975.
“I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States … Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States. T’ank you veddy much”.
– Andy Kaufman as Foreign Man, 1975.
After the unsuspecting audience had grown used to Foreign Man’s inability to perform his impressions, usually met with either silence or nervous laughter, he would then announce “And now I would like to imitate Elvis Presley”. Kaufman’s Foreign Man would then proceed to turn around, take off his jacket to reveal an Elvis-style jump suit circa the Vegas years, slick his hair back and launch into a highly credible Elvis Presley impersonation. As Elvis often did, Foreign Man would throw his jacket to the audience but then immediately ask for it back again. After his Elvis impression was over, Foreign Man would return to his ‘normal voice’ to say “T’ank you veddy much” and bowed to the stunned audience. Elvis Presley once even described the impersonation as his personal favourite impersonation of him.
Kaufman’s Foreign Man persona was later adapted for the character of Latka Gravas for the ABC situation comedy Taxi, which ran from 1978 until it’s cancellation in 1983. Kaufman detested situation comedies but was encouraged to take the role by long time manager, George Shapiro, convincing him that playing the crazy break out character in a prime time show would gain him instant stardom, earning him enough money to put back into his own act. Begrudgingly, Kaufman agreed to appear in 14 episodes per season but initially wanted four for Tony Clifton. However, after Kaufman deliberately sabotaged Tony Clifton’s appearance on the show, this part of the contract was rebuked.
Tony Clifton was Kaufman’s audience-bating lounge singer alter-ego. For some time, it was unclear that Clifton was actually just another Kaufman character. News programmes even interviewed Tony Clifton believing him to be Kaufman’s opening act. The mood would descend into ugliness every time Kaufman’s name was mentioned with Clifton saying that Kaufman was trying to ruin Clifton’s “good name” in order to make money and become famous off his back. Much to Kaufman’s amusement, Clifton’s deliberate sabotage of his appearance on Taxi made several local newspapers.
Friend, fellow performer and writer Bob Zmuda also occasionally played Tony Clifton on stage and for television appearances. In an interview in 2006, Zmuda told the Opie and Anthony Show that he performed the Tony Clifton character on Late Night With David Letterman and that Letterman did not find out until years afterwards.
In addition to the use of the Tony Clifton character, the character of Latka was said to have multiple personality disorder enabling Kaufman to randomly portray other characters at will. These other characters included an impersonation of the show’s main character Alex Reiger and the serial womaniser Vic Ferrari. It has been suggested that Kaufman actually did suffer from multiple personality disorder but this, apart from his ability and ease in dropping into his various character creations without notice, is unfounded.
“With Andy, it was a case of art imitating life. Because before he’s get up on stage, or after he had finished performing, he kept in character. He wouldn’t become himself, whoever himself was”.
– Phil Berger, The Last Laugh, 1985.
So loved was the character of Latka and so hated by Kaufman that Latka was his most widely known character, that when performing his own stand up act, Kaufman would fend off calls for him to perform the character by deliberately sabotaging his own act in numerous ways. One such example, as seen in the partly-fictionalised biopic Man on the Moon (1999), was punishing the audience by reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in its entirety, usually accompanied with the voice of an upper class English gentleman. Part way through the recital, he would ask if the audience if they would rather hear a record. After the audience shouted that they would rather hear a record, Kaufman cued up a record of him continuing to read the novel.
In 1979, Kaufman appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The show was full of Kaufman’s usual and by this time legendary pranks. During the show he announced that his ‘Grandmother’ was watching the show from the side of the stage. At the end of the show, his ‘Grandmother’ stood up and took off her mask to reveal that it was actually comedian Robin Williams in an elaborate disguise.
“Andy is the only comedian who could make you laugh, piss you off and make you laugh again”.
– Robin Williams, I’m From Hollywood, 1989.
In the same show, Kaufman also had an elderly woman named Eleanor Cody Gould appear to have a heart attack and die on stage. After calling for a doctor, who appeared and pronounced the woman dead, Kaufman reappeared wearing an Indian headdress, danced over the old woman, bringing her back to life. Following the show,Kaufman took the entire audience out for milk and cookies, using 24 buses, and invited anybody who was interested to meet him on the Staten Island Ferry the next day, where the show continued.
Kaufman also began performing wrestling during his act, but as with all of Kaufman’s stunts, there was a twist, he wrestled women proclaiming himself to be the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World”. For this part of his act, he would take on an aggressive and ridiculous persona much like the professional wrestlers whom he was imitating. He would offer women in the audience a prize of $1,000 dollars for any of them who could pin him. He employed stooges, including, at one time, musician Laurie Anderson. Kaufman’s use of wrestling in his act was derived from his admiration of the theatricality and staged nature of the sport.
“There’s no drama like wrestling”.
– Andy Kaufman.
Kaufman took his new fixation with the world of wrestling one step further by attempting to turn himself into a professional wrestler. He was challenged by professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, an opportunity which Kaufman enthusiastically accepted, fighting Lawler in Memphis. During the match, Kaufman taunted the audience by showing them how to use soap and proclaiming Memphis to be “the nation’s redneck capital”. He also used the now infamous line, “I’m from Hollywood!” to debase the horrified audience. The phrase “I’m from Hollywood!” became the title of a posthumous documentary film about Kaufman in 1989. As a result of wrestling a now infuriated Lawler, Kaufman suffered a broken neck and later had a much publicised spat with Lawler live on an episode of Late Night with David Letterman in 1982.
“Whenever I play a role, whether it’s good or bad, an evil person or nice person, I believe in being a purist and going all the way with the role. If I’m going to be a villainous wrestler, I believe in going all the way with it and not breaking character and not giving away to the audience that I’m playing a role. I believe in playing it straight to the hilt.”
– Andy Kaufman.
After angering the audience by wrestling women live on Saturday Night Live, Kaufman made a pre-taped appearance on the show asking the audience whether he should appear on the show again, saying that if the vote was against him, he would never go back. Saturday Night Live ran a phone vote and after the viewers voted for Andy not to appear again, he stopped appearing on the show. However, a video of Andy thanking those who had voted to keep him was broadcast. It has always been unclear whether this was just yet another Kaufman stunt. During the end credits of the show, announcer Don Pardo was seen saying, “This is Don Pardo saying, ‘I voted for Andy Kaufman’”.
During his career, Kaufman used Transcendental Meditation, a skill which he learned at college in 1969, in order to keep him on an even keel and to build his confidence so that he could take his act on the comedy circuit. He also trained as a teacher in the art in Majorca in 1971.
In 1983, at a Thanksgiving dinner on Long Island, family and friends expressed concerns about Kaufman’s persistant coughing. Upon his return to Los Angeles a few days later, he was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of lung cancer. The illness was made apparent to his audiences after many people remarked upon his incredibly gaunt appearance. He told of how he hoped to find a cure with natural medicine, consisting of a diet of all manner of fruit and vegetables, amongst other means. He received palliative radiotherapy but by this point, the cancer had spread to his brain. Kaufman died on May 16th 1984 of kidney failure caused by metastasised large cell lung carcinoma.
In the years since his death, there has been much speculation as to whether Kaufman faked his own death. During his lifetime, Kaufman certainly made many allusions to the fact he would like to fake his own death, even at one point saying that if he were to do so, he would return twenty years later. This would have been in May 2004. “Tony Clifton” performed a full year after Kaufman’s death at The Comedy Store’s benefit concert in honour of Kaufman. Bob Zmuda has said on several occasions that although Kaufman may have talked about faking his own death, he did not believe that he would be so cruel as to go through with it. However, his girlfriend, Lynne Marguilles has stated that Kaufman was bisexual and that he may have died from AIDS some years later. “Tony Clifton” would reappear again during the 1990’s, making several appearances in Los Angeles nightclubs, causing audiences to speculate that Kaufman was still alive and performing under heavy makeup. Contrary to all rumours, Kaufman’s death certificate is on file at the Los Angeles County Department of Health. The rumours surrounding Kaufman’s death are an enduring legacy to a performer who went the extra mile to entertain and shock his audience. It would seem that he is as large as life in death as he was in life.
REM’s Man on the Moon is Michael Stipe’s homage to Andy Kaufman. The song includes an array of references to the performer’s career, starting with lyrics about Kaufman’s foray into wrestling in the first verse: “Andy Kaufman and the wrestling match”. The line “Mister Fred Blassie and the breakfast mess” is a reference to Kaufman’s film My Breakfast With Blassie” (1983), a mostly improvised parody of the film My Dinner With Andre (1981). Later in the song, we find the lines, “Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling” and “Andy, are you locked in the punch?”, a line with double meaning as it implies both a ‘punch’ in a boxing sense and a ‘punch’ in relation to a punchline of a joke. By introducing both Fred Blassie and Andy Kaufman, as well as Charles Darwin later in the song, as “Mister”, Stipe is alluding to the way in which Kaufman’s Foreign Man character would introduce his impressions. You can almost imagine Foreign Man saying, “I would like to imitate Meester Fred Blassie …”
The bridge of the song makes reference to Kaufman’s Elvis impression with the line “Andy are you goofing on Elvis?” followed by Michael Stipe’s own Elvis impersonation on the following line, “Hey baby, are we losing touch?” or “Hey baby, are you having fun?” in the second bridge.
The song’s chorus of “If you believed they put a man on the moon …” alludes to the belief in some circles that the moon landing was a hoax, in the same way that some believe Andy Kaufman’s death to have been a hoax. The second line of the chorus, “If you believe there’s nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool”, is a reference to the way in which Kaufman loved hoaxes and conspiracy theories, believing that life was much more interesting if you allowed yourself to believe in something. With the references to Elvis Presley, the song also invokes the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Elvis.
The second verse details a number of things which were either disputed at the time or have been the subject of in scepticism in later years, just as Kaufman’s death has, including Moses performing miracles with his staff of wood (“Moses went walking with a staff of wood); the story of Isaac Newton being hit on the head by an apple and discovering gravity (“Newton got beaned by the apple good”); Cleopatra’s suicide by asp (“Egypt was troubled by the horrible asp”) and Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (“Mister Charles Darwin had the gall to ask”). The lyric “Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s” refers to both the many, and ongoing, reported sightings of Kaufman since his death and the way in which he met his girlfriend Lynn whilst she was working at a restaurant whilst he was shooting a film.
The abundance of references to games in the song such as “… The Game of Life”; “Monopoly, Twenty One, Checkers and Chess” and “Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk” allude to the presentation of Kaufman’s act and his playfulness with his audience, with most of his act being based around games. Kaufman’s act was one a myriad of games within a bigger game, the act itself, continuously posing the question to the audience, is it real or is it a game? Such was the game play in Kaufman’s act that even his illness and death were treated with suspicion, with even his closest confidantes wondering whether it was a hoax. The “Mott the Hoople” mentioned in the opening line of the song is, contrary to popular belief, not a reference to the band but the literary character in Willard Manus’ book Mott the Hoople. The eponymous character of the book, much like Kaufman, thought of life as a comedy and engaged in a number of japes.
“What I was doing with the lyric for Man on the Moon was pulling in various crackpot conspiracy theories of our time, like Elvis Presley was still alive somewhere. And, even more absurd and ourageous, that when they sent a man to walk on the moon that he actually went to a stage set up somewhere in Arizona and the moonwalk never really occurred. And these were the comparisons I was drawing to the people who were not able to believe that Kaufman was dead, that, to the end, he was pulling a prank. That that idea is just as outrageous as those other theories. That he, for me, as a fan of his, puts himself on that level by being such a prankster that people actually thought that.”
– Michael Stipe.
In addition to Man on the Moon, REM also wrote a second tribute to Andy Kaufman, The Great Beyond for the purposely part-fictional 1999 biopic Man on the Moon. In the background of the song, Stipe can be heard singing, “Here’s a little agit for the never-believer” and “Here’s a little ghost for the offering”, both lines from Man on the Moon. Stipe said of The Great Beyond in the companion notes to REM’s greatest hits album, Part Lies. Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage in 2011:
“My stab at an Ashes To Ashes, which I consider to be one of the greatest songs ever written. Revisit a character that you’ve written a classic song about, and try to one-up yourself. That is no easy task. Bowie pulled it off for real. I think live recordings of this song are more exciting than the studio version, but it’s a stunner. All the imagery from the chorus is from real life, and references my version of Kaufman’s favourite joke by Laurel and Hardy”.
The joke that Stipe is alluding to is from Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box (1932), in which the comic duo and two of Kaufman’s heroes, push a piano up an huge staircase with disastrous results.
The music videos for both Man on the Moon and The Great Beyond feature ‘cameos’ from Andy Kaufman. In the video for Man on the Moon, he can be seen on the television set in the truck stop, whilst in the video for The Great Beyond, images from the biopic Man on the Moon are featured together with the band throwing darts at a television set on which Kaufman appears.
“What’s real? What’s not? That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality”.
– Andy Kaufman