Andy Kaufman's performances were like no other. He not only pushed the boundaries of good taste and audience tolerance, he also created a myriad of strange, wonderful, and sometimes horrific characters, switching effortlessly from one to the other, effectively blurring the lines between Kaufman the man and Kaufman the artist. For many years, his fans argued whether or not obnoxious lounge singer Tony Clifton (whom Kaufman once hired to open for his live shows) was for real or whether he was an elaborate persona. Kaufman himself best summed up his art, stating, " I am not a comic, I have never told a joke....The comedian's promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him....My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can. I can manipulate people's reactions. There are different kinds of laughter. Gut laughter is where you don't have a choice, you've got to laugh. Gut laughter doesn't come from the intellect. And it's much harder for me to evoke now, because I'm known. They say, 'Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he's a really funny guy.' But I'm not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads."
Born and raised in the upper-class Long Island suburb of Great Neck, NY, Kaufman had a lifelong fascination with performing. At age nine, Kaufman was performing at children's parties and in 1963, he unsuccessfully tried out for a spot at Budd Friedman's improvisational comedy club. He discovered the joy of "being" Elvis Presley in 1964 and later in his career became so good at imitating the moves and physical presence of "The King," that Presley himself deemed Kaufman his favorite impersonator. A year after his high school graduation, Kaufman enrolled in the Television and Radio program at Grahm Junior College in Boston. While there, he started performing at local coffee houses and appearing in the campus-sponsored The Soul Time Review. Kaufman went to Spain in 1971 to study Transcendental Meditation and travel.
Later that year, he successfully auditioned for Budd Friedman and landed a standup gig at a Long Island club. More club dates followed and television appearances followed. In 1975, Kaufman appeared in the first broadcast of NBC's sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live. Through the decade up to the early '80s, Kaufman would periodically return to host the show. His comedy was typically extreme and sometimes unfathomable. In November 1982, the producers of SNL responded to a viewer telephone poll and asked Kaufman to never again host the show. In 1978, Kaufman took one of his most popular characters, the Foreign Man, an incomprehensible comic from Central Europe, and translated him into the delightful, sometimes poignant foreign auto mechanic Latka Gravas on the popular sitcom Taxi (1978-1983). Kaufman created his famed world Inter-Gender Wrestling matches in 1979. A longtime aficionado of professional wrestling but too small to beat men, he would wrestle with female audience members, offering a large cash prize if they could pin him. 400 tried, but none succeeded. In 1981, Kaufman hosted Fridays, an experimental comedy show in which his intentional line flubbing caused a fight between himself, the cast, and the crew. The following week, Kaufman aired a tearful taped apology that may or may not have been a put-on. More controversy followed when the performer got into an ugly row with professional wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler that culminated in his throwing hot coffee on Lawler during a taping of the Late Night with David Letterman show in 1982. The fight was precipitated by an earlier wrestling match between Kaufman and Lawler in which the wrestler inflicted a serious head injury to the comic. This violent feud between the two is further detailed in the 1983 documentary chronicle of Kaufman's wrestling career, I'm From Hollywood.
Kaufman made his feature-film debut as an actor in Demon (1977) and afterward, only appeared in three more films. Kaufman developed a cough in late 1983 that was diagnosed as a rare form of lung cancer. Though only in his mid-thirties, a teetotaler, lifelong nonsmoker, and a vegetarian, Kaufman was only given a few months to live. He tried a variety of alternative healing therapies, as well as chemotherapy, but nothing worked and Kaufman died in 1984. Ironically, some fans believe the illness was all an elaborate hoax and maintain that Kaufman is still alive, waiting to come back in a couple decades. Though it is extremely doubtful that even Kaufman would be able to pull off such a hoax, the thought that others would think him capable of doing it would have pleased him.