By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Andy and I started I’m From Hollywood together,” Lynne recalls. “And he was going to make it even worse, in terms of showing the ruination of his career. We were going to film him, like, in a Tenderloin hotel room, totally destitute. Just down and out, filthy and insane. But he died before we could start filming it.
“If only he’d had another year, he could have lost it all.
Andy Kaufman was the Rorschach test of comedy. He inspired a host of new terms like “comedy of the absurd,” “the Dada of ha-ha,” “Kamikaze Comic,” “the guerrilla comedian” and “agent provocateur of comedy’s Post-Funny School.” Kaufman, who died on May 16, 1984, at the age of 35, renounced these labels . . .
—Michael Nash, High Performance, Issue No. 28
Zmuda met Kaufman at the Improv (there was just the one, in New York) in 1973, while he was bartending and performing as half of the comedy team “Albrecht & Zmuda” (the other half being Chris Albrecht, currently the chairman and CEO of HBO). At the time, Andy was working on his Foreign Man character (taenk you veddy motch), his Elvis, his Mighty Mouse, assorted less-defined Andy-like entities, and an abusive, talentless lounge singer named Tony Clifton. Clifton’s job was to abuse the audience until they hated and rose up together against him. Zmuda had just quit a job being an assistant to an extremely messed-up but successful screenwriter, Norman Wexler. Wexler was kind of a Tony Clifton without the benefit (or deficit) (or courtesy) of a stage — he’d do horrible things. Abuse people in public. Abuse people at their place of work. Take a shit in the middle of JFK Airport. And Zmuda’s job was to record Wexler’s victims’ reactions on tape, to be transcribed later as “realistic” screenplay dialogue. So Andy seasoned his Clifton with a bit of Bob’s Wexler, and things seemed to click.
The real Tony Clifton, Andy explained, was this guy he’d seen performing at a small club in Las Vegas in 1969, when Andy’d gone there on a hitchhiking mission to meet Elvis (he did, or at least he said he did) at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Clifton has confirmed this. “1969,” he recalled in an interview with VH1 last February. “1969, I’m playing a little club, down in old Las Vegas. And this kid walks in. Skinny little Jewish kid. Nice guy. And this kid is Andy, Andy Kaufman. But I didn’t know this at the time. The guy didn’t introduce himself. Okay? Years later, this kid becomes famous. You know that TV show Taxi? You know who that guy is? That’s the guy. He becomes famous on Taxi. And then he does a show at Carnegie Hall. All right? Now, guess who his opening act is? Me, Tony Clifton. Except know what? I DON’T KNOW ABOUT IT! HE’S DOING IT! HE CAME AND STOLE MY ACT, AND HE’S DOING IT! Can you believe it? Thinking I’m some bozo who doesn’t have a big powerful lawyer like him. I don’t have the Jew-lawyer.”
Andy cared an awful lot about cancer. He didn’t smoke, took good care of himself (except for eating lots of chocolate ice cream), had no reason to expect cancer to befriend him. But he wouldn’t shut up about it. “I used to get really mad at him,” Lynne tells me. “I mean, I’d get really, really mad at him. I’d say, ‘You’re gonna talk yourself into getting cancer.’”
“And this was, like, when he’d find any little thing wrong?”
“Not even. No. Just in normal conversation. Like, I remember one time I was talking about a friend of mine who was dying of cancer. And Andy said, ‘Yeah, well, you’ll see. That’ll be me, too.’ Or he’d go to the doctor, you know, to get a checkup. And he’d say, ‘Okay, okay, tell me. I’ve got cancer, right?’ And the doctor would say, ‘Andy, you’re perfectly healthy.’ He was obsessed with it.”
In 1965, at 16, Andy finished his first (never published) novel, The Hollering Mangoo, which he later described as “the ultimate fantasies of a 16-year-old.” He’d taken on a scruffy, rebellious beatnik countenance, and began spending time in Greenwich Village, reading Mangoo excerpts and poetry at Cafe Wha? and other hipster hangouts. In 1967, he barely managed to graduate from high school.
The draft was on, so Andy had to get a physical, to make sure he was healthy and reasonable enough to burn down villages. After scoring a solid 0 on the psychology test, Andy was awarded the much-coveted 4-F status: unfit to kill. This gave him the opportunity to get occasional jobs (driving taxis and delivery trucks, washing dishes), but mostly to loiter with locals at a nearby park, drinking heavily, doing a fair amount of drugs, and taking occasional field trips to Manhattan for improvised street theater.
Alan Watts had recently made Zen Buddhism digestible for the American middle class, and Andy developed an interest in Transcendental Meditation. In 1968, Andy left Great Neck for Boston, to study television and radio production at Grahm Junior College, a small, brand-new school that required only good money and not good grades for admission. He found a good T.M. center in Boston not far from school, and began meditating twice daily, which he’d continue through the rest of his days. And in the basement of the dormitory across from Andy’s, a student named Al Parinello ran a coffeehouse and booked performers. In Bill Zehme’s biography, Life in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman, Parinello describes Andy’s first night onstage at Al’s Place: