Andy Kaufman insisted he was never a comedian — he was a performance artist, and his legendary rivalry with the “King of Memphis, Jerry Lawler, was as close to a masterpiece as sports-entertainment has ever seen. Sports-entertainment had never before so prominently featured an actor at Kaufman’s degree of fame, and his involvement paved the way for celebrities in rings for decades to come.
In 1982, Kaufman was one of the most controversial actors in show business, starring as the lovable Latka Gravas on the sitcom “Taxi,” and having appeared on polarizing “Saturday Night Live” segments. But Andy always had been fascinated by the world of professional wrestling, and through an odd turn of events, he ended up entangled in one the industry’s most bitter rivalries with WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Lawler. Their conflict escalated from local Memphis, Tenn., television to an infamous duel on the July 28th edition of “Late Night with David Letterman,” solidifying its place in not only the annals of wrestling history, but also all of pop culture. One day after the historic 1,000th episode of Raw, WWE Classics sat down with Jerry Lawler to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this other important moment in television history.
WWE CLASSICS: Before you met Andy, did you know that he had begun to refer to himself as the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World,” and wrestled women as part of his nightclub act?
JERRY LAWLER: The only thing I knew about Andy was just what I’d seen on “Taxi.” I didn’t even know that much about his history before, that he was a standup comic, and anything that he had done before “Taxi.” I only really knew him as the lovable character Latka on the TV show. And, of course, at the time “Taxi” was one of the top network shows in the country.
WWE CLASSICS: So how did he come to be part of your wrestling company in Memphis?
JERRY LAWLER: I had heard that Andy already tried to incorporate wrestling women out of the audience at his different nightclub performances and comedy shows, and apparently it was not being received all that well. People would go to a comedy club to see Andy, and all of a sudden he would bring out a mat and [Andy’s best friend and writing partner] Bob Zmuda in a referee shirt and he’s challenging women out of the audience to come up there and grapple with him. Nobody was enjoying it but Andy. So Andy went to one of WWE’s shows in New York City and approached Vince McMahon, Sr. with the idea of wrestling women out of the audience at an actual wrestling event. Andy felt like he wanted to get a crowd response from people that had actually come to see a wrestling show. My understanding is that Vince Sr. explained to Andy that, “Our fans are skeptical anyway, and I’m hesitant to involve a Hollywood actor in our wrestling show. I don’t want people to think that all of our wrestlers are actors.” So, he kind of nicely gave Andy the brush-off.
WWE CLASSICS: And after that he turned to your company in Memphis?
JERRY LAWLER: My friend [wrestling journalist] Bill Apter happened to be at that show in New York. He knew Andy and told him, “I’ve got a friend, Jerry Lawler, and he promotes wrestling that draws 10,000 fans every week down at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. I’ll give you Jerry’s number, and I think he might be interested in it.”