If past experience is any clue, when flabby, foul-mouthed singer Tony Clifton opens at Harrah’s Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nev. this week, unsuspecting patrons will greet him with a smile and wind up trying to wring his neck. That’s fine with Clifton—a/k/a actor-comedian Andy Kaufman, who delights in the visceral response to his Clifton character’s boorish, taunting behavior. “I just want real reactions,” says Kaufman. “I want people to laugh from the gut, be sad from the gut—or get angry from the gut.”
Kaufman’s audiences know what he’s talking about, and they have done all three—in about equal parts. The laughter comes most often on the ABC series Taxi, where he’s the delightfully disarming out-of-sync foreign mechanic, Latka. But it’s through stand-up TV and concert appearances that Kaufman has built a reputation for quirkiness ranging from dazzling to dismal. As part of his act, he has sung A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall; read The Great Gatsby aloud until the audience fell asleep or left; and bused most of a Carnegie Hall audience to a school cafeteria for milk and cookies. Once, after running out of material halfway through a set, he crawled into a sleeping bag for the final 10 minutes. He does an excellent Elvis imitation, and regularly works audiences to a frenzy by berating women (“no brains—they were meant to wash potatoes”) and offering $500 to $1,000 to any female who can wrestle him to the floor (he claims to be undefeated after nearly 100 bouts). Chevy Chase calls him “brilliant.” Assesses Steve Allen, “Andy is a gifted comedian and impressionist…. He’s also capable of inflicting tremendous boredom and even cruelty on an audience.”
But why? “I like the type of humor where nobody knows what’s going on,” says Kaufman. In some cases, that even includes fellow performers onstage with him. In one gig last February, he apparently sabotaged a sketch on ABC’s live Fridays, antagonized the other actors, and wound up in a fist-fight with co-producer Jack Burns—on camera. ABC says it was staged; Kaufman denies it. The episode drew more attention to Fridays than it had ever previously enjoyed, which may explain why Kaufman is slated to host the show’s season-opener later this month. “I always wondered what it would look like to goof up on a live TV show,” says Kaufman. “I didn’t let anyone know. I don’t think what I did was right, but I don’t think it’s right for the network to cover it up like that.”
Any confusion about the real truth of the episode, however, is vintage Kaufman. In most cases involving his work he is simply not to be believed. For example, he steadfastly maintains that he is not Tony Clifton, though anyone who has seen the act knows he is. “When comedians get together they’re straight and laugh at each other’s jokes, but Andy’s not open like that,” says Conan Berkeley, a former talent coordinator at a New York comedy club where Kaufman started in the early ’70s. “The problem was he wouldn’t drop the character, and soon you start feeling like a shmuck.” Says former Taxi co-star Jeff Conaway, who quit the show last month, “He’s a real nice guy, but he’s got his own world. He takes you on a ride, I’ll tell you.”
At 32, Kaufman seems to have been taking commands from his own private Dispatcher right from the start. “I’ve always had a different perception of things than other people,” he says. Even in his own family. Kaufman is the eldest of three children of a well-to-do Great Neck, N.Y. costume jewelry executive and his wife. Andy’s mother, Janice, recalls of his childhood, “When we saw that sad little face, we couldn’t stand it, and we took him for psychological testing. Apparently, he was playacting all the time, really a showman.” As a boy, Kaufman lived a fantasy life so consuming that his mother had difficulty prying him out of his room. In a prescient pre-Taxi interlude after high school, he drove a cab and a truck for a year before enrolling in communications at Boston’s Grahm Junior College. Stints on the college radio station led to jobs in New York clubs, and his career snowballed after he began appearing on Saturday Night Live in 1975. He signed for Taxi in 1978, and regards his two-day-a-week job (he earns in the low five figures per episode) as the means to support his more experimental comedy.
The chaotic interior of his rustic Laurel Canyon home reflects more of the fringe than the benefits of Kaufman’s career. One room is all foam rubber for his wrestling brawls with any willing visitor. Another houses the conga drums he often beats mercilessly before politely patient guests. Kaufman reads sporadically, rarely checks the news and seems to have few typical star passions. Says longtime friend and comedy writer Bob Zmuda, “Andy enjoys the schizo persona. He’s trying to keep that image, though he’s very together and reasonable about money.” Other interests include dating, erratically; Transcendental Meditation for the last 12 years, and working one night a week as a busboy at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Studio City.
In his recently completed movie comedy Heartbeeps, he and Bernadette Peters play romancing robots. Even that seems logical, since the bizarre has always been Kaufman’s hedge against convention. “A lot of my work,” Kaufman promises, “is fun for people. I’m not always going to do negative things.” Meanwhile, as Conan Berkeley delicately puts it, “I think the jury is still out on whether Andy is a great talent—or just an incredibly bold performer.”