Hot, Dada, and Still Dead

What really happened.
Dec. 23 1999 3:30 AM

Hot, Dada, and Still Dead

Man on the Moon puts a happy face on the life and times of Andy Kaufman.

(Note: "Life and Art" is an occasional column that compares fiction, in various media, with the real-life facts on which it is ostensibly based.)

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Andy Kaufman, the comedian who died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 35, enjoyed making people wonder whether his acts were real or not. He would sometimes deliberately "bomb" in clubs, telling bad jokes and letting crowds grow more and more uncomfortable. He loved planting fake stories about himself in the National Enquirer. And then there were his repeated turns as "Tony Clifton," a noxious, heavily made up and toupeed Las Vegas singer who did things like abuse Dinah Shore on her own show by cracking a dozen eggs and handing her the shells. Kaufman would swear that Tony and Andy were not the same person. Even after the Clifton gag had worn thin, Kaufman would continue to perform it, as comfortable causing anger as he was getting laughs.

Given this pattern, it seems appropriate that Man on the Moon, Milos Forman's new biopic about Kaufman, starring Jim Carrey, would take liberties with its subject's life. But despite some inevitable streamlining, the film hits the major points--both high and low--in Kaufman's career. The most obvious factual change seems designed to uplift the audience rather than unsettle it.

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K aufman, who preferred to call himself a "song and dance man," was first spotted in New York clubs, where he did a faltering "foreign man" comic who could also imitate Elvis brilliantly. Kaufman's Elvis imitation came before the King died and well before Elvis imitators were legion. (Elvis reportedly liked Kaufman's imitation the best.) Appearing on the first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975, Kaufman stood awkwardly next to a turntable as the Mighty Mouse theme played, opening his mouth only to lip-sync the lyrics "Here I come to save the day." He parlayed his foreign-man schtick into a job as Latka, the lovable foreign mechanic on the soon-to-be-hit series Taxi, which debuted in 1978. (Kaufman's contract stipulated occasional appearances--on episodes that Latka didn't appear in--by Tony Clifton, who proved so rude to other cast members that he was thrown off the set permanently.)

Kaufman's professional life took an unorthodox turn when he started wrestling women in arenas and on television--this, too, before wrestling took off. Kaufman the wrestler would provoke audience members into fighting him by making sexist remarks. Eventually pro Jerry Lawler challenged him to a wrestling match and Kaufman ended up in the hospital (the Kaufman-Lawler feud was orchestrated by the two men from the beginning, though many would be fooled). Kaufman began to lose fans in part because of the obsessive wrestling. He got into a believable-looking fight with fellow actors on a Saturday Night Live knockoff show on ABC called Fridays, giving the impression that he had lost control on air. Taxi was canceled. And he was banished as a performer from Saturday Night Live itself in 1982 (after viewers voted in a call-in poll to kick him off the show).

The film skips over Kaufman's adolescence and college years, in which he developed much of his comic material. (During college he also got his then-girlfriend pregnant; the baby was later given away for adoption. Though Kaufman never met his daughter, she has since become friendly with his family.)

Man on the Moon includes only one of Andy's girlfriends, Lynne Margulies (played by Courtney Love). But the Margulies character is a "composite of at least six women [that Andy dated]," says journalist Bill Zehme, author of Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman. In the film, the two meet when he wrestles her on Merv Griffin--they actually met during a film shoot. Kaufman did, it should be noted, date a lot of his opponents.

The film does a good job of capturing the contradictions in Kaufman's personality. A devotee of transcendental meditation, he was also prone to temper tantrums, and his stage personae--particularly the sexist wrestler--upset some fellow travelers (in life, as in the movie, the TM movement threw him out at one point). Even though he was earning good money at Taxi, Kaufman took a night job as a busboy. Always trying to purify himself through meditation and a strict vegetarian diet, he was at the same time addicted to chocolate and sex, and he often visited prostitutes.

And while Kaufman was desperate for fame, he deeply resented the vehicles that were best equipped to deliver him fame. As Man on the Moon correctly shows, Kaufman hated sitcoms and wasn't crazy about the Taxi job: He eventually felt trapped by the "foreign" character that viewers adored. He was far more excited about the money ABC gave him to film his own special in 1977. In the film, Kaufman is given the special as an incentive for starring on Taxi, whereas in life, it was made a year before Taxi went into production. The 90-minute program included segments such as Kaufman chatting with his idol, Howdy Doody, and renditions of songs such as "It's a Small World." As Kaufman's co-writer Bob Zmuda reports in his book Andy Kaufman Revealed!, it also contained a few seconds in which the screen was made to deliberately roll. In life, as in Man on the Moon, apoplectic ABC execs declined to air the special. (It would finally be broadcast on the network two years after it was made--and draw better ratings than NBC's Tonight Show, a fact that isn't in the movie.)

Man on the Moon is right to portray Kaufman as a frustrated artist pitted against people who just didn't get it. But in setting up a world-vs.-Andy theme, the film exaggerates some of the lengths to which Kaufman would go to maintain his artistic integrity. When a college audience annoys him by clamoring for Latka and Mighty Mouse, Carrey as Kaufman proceeds to read all of The Great Gatsby on stage. Kaufman did read from Gatsby in his act, according to Zehme's book, but rarely did he finish the "first chapter anywhere, much less two pages." And the movie occasionally downplays Kaufman's part in bringing about his own professional decline. Man on the Moon does not indicate, for example, that Kaufman came up with the idea for the Saturday Night Live call-in vote, nor that he had numerous chances to nix the whole thing.

In its most marked deviation from real life, Man on the Moon provides Kaufman with a kind of feel-good comeback. Earlier in the film, Andy's manager George Shapiro (Danny DeVito), frustrated with his client's self-indulgent performances, tells him that he has to decide whether he's out to entertain the audience or himself. (In life, Shapiro was similarly frustrated.) After being diagnosed with cancer, Carrey's Kaufman decides to do a show at Carnegie Hall. The event is the definition of a crowd pleaser, replete with appearances by the Rockettes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Santa Claus (the act isn't entirely without bite; there's also a very funny moment involving a heart attack). And at the end of the evening Kaufman takes the entire audience out for milk and cookies. This all happened in real life--although the Rockettes weren't the real Rockettes and neither was the choir. But the performance took place in 1979, well before Kaufman got sick.

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B y time-shifting this feel-good scene forward, Man on the Moon relieves the true story of Kaufman's depressing decline. In the film, for example, his wrestling days come to an abrupt end after he and Lawler erupt into a brawl while appearing on Late Night With David Letterman. But in life, the rematches would continue. As Lost in the Funhouse notes, Kaufman actually joined Lawler on the professional circuit and traveled across the country in a kind of "touring carnival." Zehme writes, "Nobody paid much attention." The man who had once come up with a "has-been corner" skit, in which, as Zmuda recalls, forgotten performers "would be sent out to flounder in front of an audience ... in an attempt to regain some of their vanished fame," was on his way to becoming a has-been himself. Tellingly, the "has-been corner" routine is not in the movie.

As for Andy's illness, the film is true to the record when it suggests that people didn't believe that he was really sick with lung cancer. After Carrey's Kaufman tells Zmuda the news, he responds that they can really make something out of this gag. Kaufman was a nonsmoker, which naturally made people doubt him. (In the film, as in life, Kaufman goes to the Philippines to visit a healer who pretends to remove diseased-looking entrails--actually, concealed animal parts--from Kaufman's body. Carrey's Kaufman immediately understands the put-on and laughs. But as Lynne Margulies told Zehme, "[Andy] actually seemed to be getting better at first. He believed it was magic.")

What the movie neglects to mention is that Kaufman had often talked about how he would like to pull off his own death. And there are still those who believe that Kaufman, like his hero, Elvis, is out there somewhere. In the epilogue to Andy Kaufman Revealed! Zmuda writes--perhaps in an effort to ratchet up the mystery factor--"I've often been asked, 'Had Andy lived, what would he be doing?' The answer is obvious: I truly believe he would have faked his death."

The film's own mild flirtation with mystery comes in the final scene: A year after Kaufman's funeral, Tony Clifton performs in a club, doing a rather spirited rendition of--what else--"I Will Survive." We're expecting a trick, but we're also pretty sure that the singer is Zmuda, who sometimes played Clifton when Andy was alive. However, the camera scans the crowd until it lands on Zmuda, who's watching the spectacle along with everyone else. This "Tony Clifton Live" performance did actually take place except Zmuda was, of course, Clifton. And the occasion? A cancer benefit.

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