On this day, May 16, in 1984, Andy Kaufman passed away at the age of 35.
No, seriously, he really did die. He didn’t fake his death, though many still expect him to show up, even after three decades, as if this whole time he has just been waiting for the exact moment, when the last skeptic finally admits his it must be true, so he can finally show up and say, “Gotcha,” as the conclusion to the greatest prank ever perpetrated.
But sadly it’s not going to happen.
Though the comedy world’s own John Keats was only around for a short time, man did he make a lasting impact. It’s hard to overstate his influence on comedy even to this day. Every time Will Ferrell shows up on a stage in a ridiculous costume, without any actual jokes, he’s standing on the shoulders of Andy Kaufman. It’s easy to see him in the work of Sasha Baron Cohen, or in newer, non-traditional comedy like you find with Tim and Eric, or even in the personality-centric performance of someone like Billy Eichner. Even cringe worthy shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, VEEP, and Silicon Valley owe something to him.
Kaufman hated being called a comedian, seeing as how he never told any jokes, preferring the title of “performer” or “song and dance” man instead, but he might have been the funniest person ever to grace the world of comedy. By inverting the relationship between comedian and audience, making it so the audience did not actually know if they were watching a performance or not, and making their reaction the joke, he created a new way of entertaining.
It’s why when he started performing as a professional wrestler, but was only wrestling women and wearing the championship belt as the Inter-Gender Champion, people lost their minds. They thought it was all real. A comedian in professional wrestling should have been the easiest thing in the world to mark as pure showmanship.
Instead they wanted him dead.
There was no one like him before, and no one quite like him since, because no one has ever committed to his art the way he did, without worry about approval and without ever winking at the audience. He didn’t care if you loved him, he just wanted to generate an honest reaction from you, even if it meant you genuinely hated him.
That dedication, at all costs, is why when he died people refused to believe it. This is exactly the type of thing he would do, and they weren’t going to fall for it. Some still won’t. But remember, the Boy Who Cried Wolf really did get eaten at the end of his story, and cancer really did take Andy Kaufman at the age of 35.
So on this day, rather than hold on to a false hope that he is merely in the midst of his greatest joke, we’ll remember him with some performances you may not have seen before. We’ve all watched him “sing” “Mighty Mouse” on Saturday Night Live, or play Latka on Taxi, but for someone that was taken so soon he did so much more. So here are a few that you may not have seen, but that still personify his unique greatness.
On The Dating Game in his “Foreign Man” character
You may know his “Foreign Man” character from his act, where he would tell terrible jokes and do terrible impressions before busting out an amazing Elvis impersonation, or you might know it from his role as the mechanic Latka Gravas on Taxi, but his turn here as the most sincere, earnest contestant on The Dating Game highlights what made it both so likable and funny. He doesn’t tell any jokes here, but try not losing it when he says he would like Santa to bring him food.
Split personalities on Taxi
You probably know plenty about Kaufman’s most famous alter ego Tony Clifton, but occasionally they would let him perform as other characters on Taxi too, by giving Latka a split-personality disorder. His impression of Judd Hirsch’s Alex Reiger is my favorite “doing an impression in front of the actual person” ever.
Andy interviews his ex-girlfriend from on special The Andy Kaufman Show
Listen to the audience during this. They believe and are reacting like they are listening to a very uncomfortable, very real talk show segment between two exes, even though the host is sitting at a desk that towers over the guest. And you know what? You probably are questioning how much of that was real and how much was scripted, even though, again, Andy is sitting at a giant desk during all of it. God he was the best. You can buy this special on DVD, and I highly encourage you to do so.
Wrestling promos as a bad guy
The funniest performer ever also just happened to be the greatest professional wrestling heel of all-time. Watch these again and remember this was a big-time Hollywood actor doing this for a regional professional wrestling promotion, long before things could go viral and be a national story.
On a talk show with his comedy partner Bob Zmuda pretending to be a scientist
This is a little on the longer side, but that’s what makes it so great, because the two of them highjack this entire show with a silly bit and the audience never knows it. Forget the obviously ridiculous fake scientific theory being presented like a monumental breakthrough that some audience members care more about than the famous celebrity, it’s the absolute commitment to never let them in on it that this is fake that makes it so funny.
Andy sings “I Trusted You” on The Midnight Special
Finally, you can’t honor a great song-and-dance man without a musical number, and this is one of his best. It just gets funnier and funnier the further it goes on, and every time you think he’s finally going to say something else it just becomes more amazing.
Andy Kaufman was the first person to realize it was just as funny to mess around with the audience as it was to make them laugh, and yet no one has ever done it better than him. It’s as though someone discovered a new way to play an instrument, and then no one else ever improved on it afterwards. How often is the first to do something also the greatest?
For a man that once took his entire Carnegie Hall audience out for milk and cookies following his show (really, he put them all on buses and brought them to a school cafeteria), the performance never ended, because that would ruin it.
It’s why some people still think he’s alive, patiently waiting us out. But as much as I’d love for that to be true, he really is gone, and we just have to be happy with what he did give us in his short time, because hoping that he faked his death just shows the joke has always been, and will always, be on us.
But like, I wouldn’t be totally surprised if he really isn’t dead.
What’s your favorite Andy Kaufman performance? Do you think he’s really alive? Let’s remember him together in the comments below.