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Uncle Andy’s Fun Afterlife 

Twenty years later, dead or alive, will Andy Kaufman return?

Thursday, May 6 2004
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Photo by Elizabeth Wolynski

Bob Zmuda, Andy Kaufman’s best friend and co-writer, describes the final 12 or 15 hours of Andy’s show at Carnegie Hall in 1979:

The first act ended with the 350-member Mormon Tabernacle Choir (impersonators, but who’s counting) entering through the back doors and caroling down the aisles, the New York City Rockettes (likewise) entering from the wings, the real Santa Claus riding through on his sleigh, and Andy’s Grandma Pearl — who’d been sitting onstage on her own sofa for over two hours — ripping off her face to reveal that she was actually Robin Williams. Act 2: The audience of 2,800 boarded a herd of buses and were driven in the rain to the New York School of Printing, where they were seated in kindergarten chairs and given milk and cookies while snake charmers and sword swallowers performed, and Andy wrestled all interested female attendees. It got close to 2 a.m., the hour when the bus company would start charging serious overtime fees, so, to clear the crowd, Andy announced Act 3: The show would continue the next day at 1 p.m. on the Staten Island Ferry. Andy and Bob hadn’t actually planned anything there, but just in case anyone believed them, they figured they should show up — a good idea, since when they arrived at 1:20 they found about 350 people from the night before, waiting, as Zmuda puts it, “with smiles on their faces like little kids.” Andy proceeded to buy each person a roundtrip ticket and an ice cream cone, and, again, to wrestle all interested female attendees. (In the movie Man in the Moon, the Carnegie Hall show was fictionalized into something that Andy did after finding out that he had lung cancer, like it was supposed to be a farewell performance. Very sweet, very touching, but in fact it took place years before he was diagnosed.)

Before Kaufman died (or “died”) on May 16, 1984, he told several friends that he was planning to fake his death, disappear and return in 20 years, precisely. So, on May 16, 2004, Comic Relief, the charity organization Zmuda founded in 1985, will present . . . something. Something secretive, something at House of Blues on Sunset Strip. Title: Andy Kaufman — Dead or Alive?

“So this May 16 isn’t going to be exactly like Carnegie Hall,” Zmuda concludes across a wide, wide bowl of soup, just around the corner from the Nuart Theater, where last Andy Kaufman appeared in public. “But it’s gonna be in the ballpark.”

 

Andy Kaufman was born in 1949 in Great Neck, Long Island, the eldest child in a strait-laced upper-middle-class family of, eventually, five. Most prominently featured in the Kaufman family, in terms of volume, was his father, Stanley. Stanley yelled a lot, and Andy didn’t like it. So he went to his room. And stayed there for the rest of his life.

There in his room, Andy began performing at age 4, with daily artificial broadcasts on Channel 5, his name for the Kaufmans’ home at 5 Robin Way. He played his act — jokes, magic tricks, songs — to an imaginary audience until, at age 8, he went out on the neighborhood kid-party circuit, where parents adored him but didn’t pay him until he turned 14.

Around when this bigtime-entertainment money started coming in, the wide-eyed young admirer of Elvis, Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers and Howdy Doody began writing poetry and short stories with aspirations of greatness, and taking conga lessons with Babatunde Olatunji, who had performed at an assembly at Andy’s school. And Andy read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and got terribly excited about it. Reread it and reread it and reread it some more. Carried it around with him everywhere he went, in his backpack with his own novel in progress, The Hollering Mangoo. Forced even good friends to listen to him read excerpts from both. Andy wrote hard and long, poems and stories — “Eidandrofields,” “The Faggot,” “Oh People Funny People,” “Hi” — and a play called The Shameless Bohemian; writing and talking his way into the budding Great Neck beatnik scene.

In late 1963, he wrote “The Extreme Success”:

Mr. X was a failure so far, but hadn’t had a chance yet, for he had just started.

Mr. X is a playwrite [sic]; Mr. X is a poet. Mr. X is both.

He wrote a poem, and put it in his play.

It got to be promoted. And it got to be produced.

It was opening night. Mr. X was very happy. With all his friends to come and see, the stage with actors, the theater sold out.

It was the largest success of plays that played. At end, they called him up. He then took a bow.

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