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by Hariette Surovell

I have been fascinated by the momentous Andy Kaufman phenomenon ever since my first viewing of Milos Forman's 1999 movie masterpiece, "The Man on the Moon". This biography of Kaufman's life and work starred Jim Carrey in one of the most astonishing acting performances in cinematic history.

I had always associated Kaufman with his character Latka Gravas on the t.v. sitcom, "Taxi"; I remembered him singing "Mighty Mouse" on Saturday Night Live, and I vaguely recalled his obsessions with wrestling women before his own death, at 35, of lung cancer.

After seeing "Man on the Moon" three times, watching Kaufman's "Midnight Special", and, recently, both his classic episodes of "Taxi" and his "Carnegie Hall Special", ( just released by Paramount Home Entertainment) and reading two biographies of him, I am as awed, confused and intrigued as ever. Was he, in fact, as many have said, the first true performance artist? A cultural commentator? A Dada-ist, a Brechtian, reminiscent of Ionesco? Was he the most innovative, original comedian since Lenny Bruce, the groundbreaker for entire generations of comedians? Or was he a highly-functioning schizophrenic, possessed by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? Was he a feminist or a closet misogynist? Does anything matter other than his body of work?

Although Andy Kaufman's childhood was dominated by television shows (like Andy Warhol, he worshipped "Howdy Doody"), as an adult, he had only contempt for the genre. He was the only sitcom star known to actually negotiate the fewest possible appearances in his contract. He perceived of "Taxi"as a way to gain exposure so that he could fund himself to do what he really wanted in concerts, in comedy venues: to tweak perceptions, and then re-tweak them, and then, just when you thought you had him figured out,to tweak them again. And yet, he couldn't help but to be brilliant on "Taxi"--especially when "Latka" developed multiple personalities, allowing Andy to develop and perfect an entirely new role--the macho, egotistical playboy, Vic Ferrari.

The first and greatest Elvis Impersonator of all time, (he was Elvis' personal favorite); the mastermind of inter-gender wrestling competitions (it's obvious to me that they were a pro-feminist commentary) and of his most hilarious comic creation--Tony Clifton, the obnoxious Las Vegas Lounge Lizard who lived to offend his audience, Kaufman relentlessly used the characters he had created to bite the hand that fed him. When audiences chanted for him to do "Latka", he became "British Man" and read to them from "The Great Gatsby". After having negotiated his "Taxi" contract, he added in a clause that Tony Clifton would make appearances--and then had Clifton show up, late, drunk, with "chickaroonies" in tow, so incredibly rude and arrogant that he actually provoked a fistfight. Kaufman was delirious that Clifton had almost shut down the taping.

Adamant that Kaufman was not Clifton, Kaufman hired Clifton impersonators to portray him so that he could be physically present in an audience while Clifton was onstage, confusing the press who tried to "bust" him for years. After Kaufman's death, Clifton impersonators played concerts, disrupted press conferences, giving credence to the rumor that Kaufman, like Elvis, was not really dead--but was just perpetrating the ultimate scam.

These are some other things Kaufman did: Booked to play Harrah's Casino at Reno, he invited so many "working girls" from the nearby Mustang Ranch into his suite, that the management became alarmed, as he was supposed to vacate it for the super-straight John Davidson. He and wrestling legend Jerry Lawler orchestrated a pretend feud that took on national proportions. He refused to stop wrestling women, even though his audiences found it distasteful, taunting the Amazons he pinned with sexist slogans, in what he perceived of as a feminist act. He brought his "newly-adopted" three Black sons onto David Letterman--one, known as Tino-also-Tito explained that he had been about to mug Kaufman when they struck up a friendship. He had his cohort, Bob Zmuda, interview him at a press conference, confronting him with being a fraud, with repeating the same tired material, with being diagnosed as having Multiple Personality Disorder. He went on "The Dating Game" as Foreign Man, and then pitched a fit when he didn't "win" the date--"Is unfair! I have answered all zee qwestions!" He had Robin Williams impersonate his grandmother and enlisted Kris Kristofferson to assist him to psych out airline passengers. He found a born-again Christian on the Lawrence Welk Show, to whom he proposed, leaking to all the tabloids that he had converted to Christianity, and then a week later, sent out a press release that he had changed his mind and called off the marriage, because he couldn't handle constantly wearing the requisite polyester suits. At Carnegie Hall, he presented both the Rockettes and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir--but the Rockettes were actually members of a modern dance troupe and the Choir was from a local community college. Opening as Tony Clifton for Rodney Dangerfield at the Fillmore West, he attracted so much animosity, that he had to perform in full SFPD riot gear, with a microphone attached to his face shield, shielding by netting to repel pelted produce. When Tony went live on "The Dinah Shore Show", he insulted everyone present and then whipped off his original breakfast recipe--bacon and eggs, consisting of a dozen cracked eggs swimming with eggshells, which he then threw at Ms. Shore when she tried to eject him from the stage.

Tony Clifton: a virtuoso make-up artist's creation, he was based on an actual Las Vegas lounge singer Kaufman had seen in a casino while waiting to meet Elvis. A huge schnozz, the world's tackiest rug, gigantic shades, a blue ruffled tuxedo shirt barely concealing a gargantuan gut and a trademark peach-colored tuxedo, Clifton uncannily mangled cornball classics like "Carolina" and "If You're Happy" and "Anything You Can Do". After relentlessly insulting the audience (especially his "plant", Bob Zmuda) to the point of inevitably getting booed off the stage, he always ended with, "If I have made just one person happy here today, it has all been worth it." The irony is that there actually is something endearing about the Tony Clifton character: legend-in-his-own-mind/ pathetic schlub--in his own warped blustery way, he was the sweetest of all Kaufman's personaes, as well as the funniest.

Then "Clifton" satirized those same songs, belting out "Oklahoma" and hiring actress Cindy Williams to disco-dance to it right behind him.

Kaufmanology: Just when you thought you "got" him..."Gotch'a!".

First performance artist, comedic genius and eternal inspiration, or passive-aggressive wild-eyed wacko... Kaufman's legacy was to take everything seriously (David Letterman has said that he was his most professional, reliable and original guest), but to never take anything too seriously.

Least of all, one's self.

As Jim Carrey said in an interview, "Andy Kaufman is the patron saint of comedians. He showed us that you don't have to do a routine with a joke with a beginning, middle and punchline." Milos Forman admired him because "Andy didn't care if people loved or hated him, as long as he provoked a reaction from them."

Now, THAT'S entertainment.

Hariette Surovell is a freelance writer living and working in New York City's East Village. She is an investigative reporter, fiction writer and media critic. Two or her true-crime articles have been optioned by Hollywood. Hariette has been an EC contributor since its inception.

Links: http://www.matahariette.com

Email: RP@Panix.com

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