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WRESTLING COLUMNS

From Hollywood, And Don’t You Forget It!
The Legend Of Andy Kaufman

August 30, 2006 by Rob Zarp


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On January 17, 1949, the world welcomed Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman. Living in New York city, Great Neck, and eventually Long Island, Andy was a long time fan of professional wrestling, as he grew up watching primarily the World-Wide Wrestling Federation from Madison Square Garden, or on local stations. At the time, professional wrestling was very territorial, so he had more of a chance to see the WWWF on TV each week than any other promotion, although there was a chance to see other promotions from time to time. As an anti-humorist, practicing a comedy in the sense of not even telling a joke, he admired the heels and the hatred fans would display for them. In interviews later in his life, he would often say that as a child he would dream of being a "bad guy" wrestler one day, to go out there and have the world hating him, because they were the greatest performers in his eyes.

However, Kaufman would not even consider entering a wrestling ring, as he was never much of a gifted athlete and he lacked an intimidating presence. From early childhood up to much of his career, Andy would perform stand up comedy, appear on sitcoms, and guest star on variety shows. Unsatisfied though by conventional comedy, Andy would do everything he could to leave the profession, for the simple idea that no one would ever understand his comedy at the time. In 1978, on his network special for NBC, Andy would make the first step to a wrestling ring, as he began wrestling women and declared himself the World’s Inter-gender Wrestling Champion.

Over the next two years, Kaufman would appear on a number of variety shows, such as Fridays and Saturday Night Live, and would attempt to recreate this bit on those shows. He was not successful usually in convincing network executives to let him wrestle women on his show, and at a time when kayfabe was very protected, he wanted it to seem real. So eventually, to keep the idea of this being real and not staged, he would go to actual wrestling shows and challenge women from the audience to compete with him in a match. In the movie "Man on the Moon," it is said that Andy paid these women to participate in the skit, and would even take some of them out later that evening. However, with a mind like Kaufman’s, it is not known entirely whether or not this is true, as with many things concerning his life, there is always more than one side to the story. In 1980, frustrated with Hollywood, Andy would move to where he considered to be the wrestling capitol of the United States, the city of Memphis, Tennessee. For nearly a year, Kaufman would incite near riots in the Mid-South territory by wrestling local women and winning each time, following each match with a verbal berating of the fans. These actions would bring a lot of heat toward Andy from the fans, so much that in1981, local hero Jerry "The King" Lawler would respond to Kaufman by challenging him to wrestle a man in a real wrestling match.

Following this challenge, Kaufman was irate, bewildered, and downright infuriated, claiming that Lawler had no business challenging him to a match. For a couple months, Lawler would insistently challenge Andy to a match, and Kaufman would continually duck the challenge, all the while still challenging women from the audience. When Andy was scheduled to appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in 1981, Lawler was invited as well. The two were discussing Andy’s involvement with professional wrestling, with The King constantly insulting Andy for not accepting his challenge to a "real" match with a man. Eventually, Kaufman had insulted and irritated Lawler so much that Jerry had to take a stand, and he slapped the taste out of Kaufman’s mouth proverbially. Andy’s retaliation was throwing a cup of coffee at Lawler, then hiding behind David Letterman before launching a verbal attack on the King laced with many obscenities, a taboo for TV shows at that time. Ultimately, the confrontation on national television would gain a lot of main stream exposure to professional wrestling, Mid-South’s territory especially for that moment in time.

On April 5, 1982, after being the most hated wrestler in Memphis, Tennessee for nearly two years, Andy Kaufman reluctantly answered the wishes of Jerry Lawler. After interference on Lawler’s part in Kaufman’s inter-gender match, Andy had no choice but to accept the challenge finally when Lawler intervened and offered to train one of his female opponents. Since he had interfered, not only by training the woman but also in the following match, Andy knew he would not be able to rest until this match was over and done. When the time came, Andy was so nervous about facing an actual wrestler that he was hesitant to get in the ring, so much so that he would run to the outside of the ring, duck down, and be unwilling to even do a collar and elbow tie-up, and the use of such ring psychology drew even more heat to Andy. Lawler held his hands behind his back, allowing Andy to place a headlock on him, and waited for Kaufman to execute some sort of offense. When the time was right, Lawler struck, and delivered a thunderous belly-to-back suplex on Andy. Unable to initially recover from that suplex, Jerry picked up his nemesis, and delivered not one, but two piledrivers to Kaufman. In the course of a little more than two minutes, it had seemed that the King had just ended the career of Kaufman. However, Andy won that contest since the Piledriver was deemed an illegal maneuver at that time. Andy stuck to kayfabe and sold a neck injury to being legit, saying that Lawler broke his neck with the two vicious piledrivers during their encounter.

Despite having a "broken neck," Andy Kaufman was nowhere close to being done with the world of professional wrestling, but he was finished with the days of being the self-proclaimed World’s Inter-gender Wrestling Champion. No longer challenging women to matches from the crowd, he was focused on eliminating his arch-rival Jerry Lawler since The King had broken his neck. In the time away from Memphis to heal his "injury," Andy filmed a series of vignettes that degraded the fans of Mid-South, and insulted Jerry Lawler. In these vignettes, he'd talk in an exaggerated southern accent, and often would wrestle women that weighed almost or just as much as Jerry, as a way to show that he could defeat someone of that size. These vignettes were perfectly done, and raised the ire of the fans even more so toward Andy. In addition to that, Kaufman would publicly say that he was going to sue Jerry Lawler for assaulting him, claiming that he never agreed to wrestle the King and that he had no right to put his hands on Andy. Claiming "I'm from Hollywood," he felt that as a "star" he did not have to endure this injury of his, which was actually time needed to go to Los Angeles to end obligations in Hollywood so that he could continue wrestling. These statements and actions however would bring so much hatred to him that he was quite possibly the most over heel of the early 80s.

Upon his return to Memphis, he was "hiring" wrestlers such as The Assassins and Sweet Daddy-O, attempting to end the career of Lawler just like Jerry had tried to end the career of Andy. Acquiring the talents managed by heel manager/wrestler "The Mouth of the South" Jimmy Hart, who was the former manager of Jerry Lawler years prior, Andy would form an alliance with him for the remainder of 1982 and shortly into 1983, as they united in a goal to permanently eradicate Jerry "The King" Lawler from Mid-South Wrestling. To go even further, Andy would offer anyone $10,000 to eliminate Lawler from the territory, and many men tried to collect that bounty but all were unsuccessful, making Lawler the dominant babyface and Andy even more so the cowardly and bitter heel. The continuation of this feud during the early 80s had been planned out to the "tee," as the saying goes, and the build up to a rematch between these two men was simply phenomenal. Andy did grant Lawler a rematch, but spent most of the time running outside the ring to get on the microphone and taunting The King, but as soon as Jerry was able to get Andy back in the ring, The Assassins and Jimmy Hart ambushed Lawler. However, when Hart's wrestlers kept losing to Jerry Lawler, and Andy could not get rid of his nemesis, the once solid alliance was nearing a split with a lot of apparent hostility and tension shown between Hart and Kaufman.

The alliance would seemingly come to an end in 1983 when Kaufman was disappointed with the performances of the talent managed by Hart, and was unwilling to keep paying for the help of his men when they were not getting the job done. Shockingly, Hart turned on Kaufman, and his hired hands would double team Kaufman, with no one coming to the save of Andy. Initially, as aforementioned, Andy had offered $10,000 to any wrestler that could take out Jerry Lawler, but after the double cross from former friend Jimmy Hart, he offered that money to Jerry Lawler, to help him take out The Assassins and Jimmy Hart. On the condition that Kaufman would leave professional wrestling after this match, Lawler accepted the invitation, only to be double crossed by Kaufman in a swerve perpetrated by Hart and Kaufman. In mid-1983 however, things would change drastically. In the storyline, Lawler had finally defeated Kaufman in a match that would force Andy to permanently retire from pro wrestling. The truth of the matter though is that Andy was sick, and he had no idea what was wrong.

It was learned that Andy had a rare form of lung cancer though and that he was not expected to be able to live for much longer; however, Kaufman kept this a closely guarded secret, as he did not want anyone to know of this, to think it was just another prank by Andy. Searching for a cure, he was never seen again in the world of professional wrestling, and on May 16, 1984, Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman passed away after a struggle with cancer. The legacy of Andy Kaufman in professional wrestling is more than participating in inter-gender matches, or even having a feud with Jerry Lawler. He showed that with enough determination, anyone could aspire to be a pro wrestler and be successful as well. Andy was one of the best heels in the business, able to incite near riot conditions with his berating comments about the local Tennesseans, as well as his assaults on women during the matches being very upsetting at a time when women’s liberation and feminism was just starting to pick up serious momentum. He was the quintessential heel, a man that the fans loved to hate, a cowardly man when confronted, but always able to talk trash at the end of the day. Thanks to Andy, the wrestling community is reminded that anyone with enough heart and drive can be a success in pro wrestling.

by Rob Zarp ..


Dave & Jan DiFabio wrote:
Great article. To this day, many people I talk to about Kaufman will argue the Letterman thing was "real." I love that. These folks aren't wrestling fans I'm talking about, but the usual types who ridicule us pro wrestling fans for watching "fake" entertainment. I'm not sure if Letterman had no idea or what, and of course Dave has tried to distance himself from it, as he's Mr. Mainstream now. I love to think Andy and the King worked it out themselves to promote the show. Hard to tell, maybe Dave is marking me out, because his look of sheer befuddlement during the incident is tough to read. My point is Andy marked out these people. These folks who considered themselves above the seamy world of rasslin' were the perfect marks. I get endless satisfaction from that, and I'm sure Andy did too. Also the supposedly hip audiences on SNL and Fridays(an SNL copycat show on ABC from about 1979 to 1983?) jeering and getting all worked up. I was waiting for the standard old lady to get up out of her seat and holler at him, shaking her cane, just like in Memphis, or in Boston Gahden.

There's a DVD just about Andy's pro wrestling obsession( i'm not promotong it, just do a search). It's fantastic. The only downside is the Hollywood phonies like Robin Williams acting like they were in on the joke in these obviously scripted vignettes. But they go through the whole timeline of Andy's triumphant blurring of the lines of the kayfabe world of pro wrestling and the kayfabe world of Hollywood and how if you play it right, they're not as different as the mainstream entertainment world thinks. I mean c'mon, Jerry Springer? Reality shows?? Just how many marks are out there in TV land?????
HabibiEsper wrote:
First of all I really enjoyed your article. Andy is one of my favorite comedians of all time. Like you said, he showed people that with enough determination you can live your dream of being a wrestler. He was also the first celebrity wrestler ever, and could the greatest one of all time, because his "bad guy" role was genius, and he knew how to get the crowd mad, he liked to mess with their emotions, like a behavioral scientist. Even his movie "My Breakfast with Blassie" was genius, he and Fred Blassie were funny. If he was still alive, I bet he would be working for the WWE as an announcer, maybe even a wrestler. He would've loved working with Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock, John Cena, Shawn Michaels, etc.
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