Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Andy Kaufman

Andrew Geoffrey "Andy" Kaufman (January 17, 1949 – May 16, 1984) was an American entertainer, actor and performance artist. While often referred to as a comedian, Kaufman did not consider himself one. He disdained telling jokes and engaging in comedy as it was traditionally understood, referring to himself instead as a "song-and-dance man." Elaborate hoaxes and pranks were major elements of his career. His act maintained a steady cult following, and he continues to be greatly respected among comedians for his original material, performance style, and unflinching commitment to character.
Kaufman first caught major attention with a character known as Foreign Man, who claimed to be from Caspiar (a fictional island in the Caspian Sea) and would appear on the stage of comedy clubs to play a recording of the theme from "Mighty Mouse" and lip-synch one line—"Here I come to save the day." He would proceed to tell a few jokes and perform a number of impersonations (Archie Bunker, Richard Nixon, et al.). Some variations of this performance were broadcast in the first season of Saturday Night Live; the Mighty Mouse number was featured in the October 11, 1975 premiere, while the joke-telling and Bunker impression were included in the November 8 broadcast that same fall.

Foreign Man would often try to impersonate a whole series of different celebrities, with the comedy arising from Foreign Man's obvious ineptitude at impersonation. For example, in his fake accent Kaufman would say to the audience, "I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States", and then in the same voice, "Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States. T'ank you veddy much." At some point in the performance, usually when the audience were entirely used to Foreign Man's inability to perform a single convincing impression, Foreign Man would announce, "And now I would like to imitate the Elvis Presley," turn around, take off his jacket, slick his hair back, and launch into an unexpectedly credible Elvis Presley impersonation which Presley himself described as his favorite. Like Presley, he would take off his leather jacket and throw it into the audience, but Kaufman would then immediately ask for it back again. After, he would take a simple bow and say in his Foreign Man voice, "T'ank you veddy much!"

Taxi was an award-winning show with a large audience and Kaufman was widely recognized as Latka. On some occasions, audiences would show up to one of Kaufman's stage performances expecting to see him perform as Latka, and heckling him with demands when he did not. Kaufman would punish these audiences with the announcement that he was going to read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to them. The audience would laugh at this, not realizing that he was serious, and Kaufman would proceed to read the book to them, continuing despite audience members' departure. At a certain point, he would ask the audience if they wanted him to keep reading, or play a record. When the audience chose to hear the record, the record he cued up was a recording of him continuing to read The Great Gatsby from where he had left off.

Another well-known Kaufman character is Tony Clifton, an audience-abusing lounge singer who began opening for Kaufman at comedy clubs and eventually even performed concerts on his own around the country. Sometimes it was Kaufman performing as Clifton, sometimes it was his brother Michael or his friend Bob Zmuda. For a brief time, it was unclear to some that Clifton was not a real person. News programs interviewed Clifton as Kaufman's opening act, with the mood turning ugly whenever Kaufman's name came up. Kaufman, Clifton insisted, was attempting to ruin Clifton's "good name" in order to make money and get famous.

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