Andy Kaufman was much more than the comic actor who played Latka on “Taxi” and lip-synced to the Mighty Mouse theme on “Saturday Night Live.” He was a multifaceted comedy provocateur who took great joy in tricking his audience and the world at large. And at his side the whole time was Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s best friend, writer and partner in crime. The pair’s misadventures were showcased in Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic, “Man on the Moon,” which starred Jim Carrey as Kaufman, supposedly the final word on Kaufman’s life and death, but then again, nothing related to Andy Kaufman is ever that easy to figure out.
Maybe that is why 30 years after his death in Los Angeles of cancer, Mr. Zmuda and Kaufman’s longtime girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, have written “Andy Kaufman: The Truth Finally,” a book that promises to pull back the curtain on the real life of the bizarro comedy genius.
Question: When did you and Kaufman first meet?
Answer: Andy and I first met in 1974 in New York City at Budd Friedman’s Improv. At the time it was the only comedy club in America. The club was packed with future comedy legends: Richard Lewis, Richard Belzer, Jay Leno, Larry David. Comedy was just beginning to take off. Also there in the room was Andy Kaufman.
Q: What do you remember about the first time you met him.
A: Andy showed up in the club about an hour and half before the show and hung around the bar outside the main room. Nobody knew who he was or that he going on stage. He was playing the “Foreign Man” character, carrying a suitcase, pretending he had just stepped off a Greyhound bus at 42nd Street. He was asking Budd Friedman, the owner, if he could go onstage in that broken foreign accent — just loud enough that people in the bar could overhear what was happening. Budd said, “No. I’m sorry we have auditions on the 3rd of every month. Come back then.” Kaufman would beg, “Please, this is my dream to be performer in New York City.” Budd said, “I can’t. Sorry.”
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Then the crowd would move in from the bar to the main room and see the show. Budd Friedman comes out and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we usually end the show at this point, but I don’t know if you saw the man who came in earlier asking to be onstage. We normally don’t do this, but I’m gonna let him up tonight. I don’t know what he does. His name is Mr. Andy Kaufman.”
Andy comes up onstage, and everybody in the place believes that this guy is from God knows what country and just arrived in New York. He starts doing these impressions in that foreign voice. “I’d like to do the Archie Bunker. ‘Meathead.’” Just terrible. “I’d like to do the Ronald Reagan. ‘Hello, I’m Ronald Reagan.’” The audience starts laughing because it’s so bad. Andy just lights up, and each impression gets worse and worse. But the audience is howling because this guy is such an idiot.
Then he realizes that you are not laughing with him but at him. It turns real serious. He starts crying. We felt so bad. It’s quite the psycho drama.
Finally, Andy says, “I would like to do the one last impression. The Elvis Presley.” He turns his back to the audience. Suddenly the music from “2001” plays. The lights start changing. All this production. Andy changes into a costume and combs his hair like Elvis, turns around to the audience, and he looks like Elvis.
Instead of that terrible foreign voice, he does a drop-dead, spot-on Elvis impression. The place goes nuts. Standing ovation. The audience in the palm of his hand. I was awestruck.
I waited around after the show. About a half-hour later I see him coming out dragging all these props — conga drums, a film projector and lights. I wonder is this an act or just some foreign guy who does a solid Elvis. I see he’s loading a car. So much for the just-off-the-bus story. He sees me and calls out as the Foreign Man: “Excuse me, can you help me? I have a very bad back.” I started loading all this heavy stuff into his car. He closes the trunk and says, “Dank you very much” as Foreign Man, then “Sucker!” in his regular voice. Then, he drives away.
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That was my first meeting with Andy Kaufman.
Q: How did you go from that to becoming Andy’s writer and co-conspirator?
A: I worked as the bartender at the Improv at night. During the day I start working for the screenwriter Norman Wexler, who wrote “Serpico” and “Saturday Night Fever.”
Wexler was completely nuts. He would strap tape recorders on me. Then he and I would hit the streets of Manhattan with a suitcase full of cash — around 30,000 bucks. He would then start confrontations with real-life New Yorkers — everyone from cab drivers to gangsters. He would get into arguments with people to the point where they wanted to kill him. And I would be recording all this stuff. These people would get so upset they would attack Wexler. My job was to jump in and pay them off before they actually killed us. Wexler turned the recordings into scripted dialogue in his movies.
Andy wanted to hear Wexler stories. We started talking and became buddies. When “Saturday Night Live” started I wrote some of his pieces for SNL. One thing led to another, and his career took off. He said, “I’d like to make you my permanent writer.” He moved me to Hollywood.
Q: Most comics live for the audiences love and approval, but Andy wasn’t wired that way?
A: That’s why I don’t like to call him a comedian. The only reason he was called a comedian was because he worked in comedy clubs. That label meant he was supposed to get laughs all of the time. Andy did get laughs a lot of the time, but many other times he got the audience to get angry, to throw things at him, to walk out. To him it was all the same. He just wanted a real reaction. Nowadays a lot of people like to call him the first performance artist. I like to call him a behavioral scientist. He was really into exploring human behavior and the dynamic between the audience and the performer. He was the first “punk comedian.”
Q: This is your second book on Kaufman. Why write another book? And why now?
A: Lynne Margulies, my co-writer on the book, called me up and said, “Look, it’s 30 years [since his death], and Andy’s parents are now gone.” We promised not to talk about things like Andy’s sexuality. Andy was bisexual. He didn’t want the info out there until both of his parents had died. Lynne said, “Now we can talk about the things we were not allowed to.” There has also been much controversy over the years as to whether Andy faked his death or not. Andy told Lynne he was gonna fake his death, and she asked, “How long are you gonna be gone for? A year? Two?” Andy said to Lynne, “If I was a little boy about it, it would be a year or two. If I was a man, it would be 30 years.” That is what he said. Of all the hoaxes he ever pulled off, this was the only one he gave a timetable to.
Finally, 30 years later, it is time to be totally truthful about Andy.
Q: Do you really believe he faked his death?
A: I know he faked his death! I worked with him on it for three years! Working for Andy was like working for Houdini. You guarded these illusions of the mind with your life. I couldn’t tell my wife, couldn’t tell my mother. When you went to see Andy Kaufman, you would leave his shows wondering if what you saw was real or not. That was the benchmark that we strived for.
Q: If he came back, how would you know it was really him?
A: I would know. You had a good friend for that many years. You know. He’s gonna look different. Probably bald. Put on some weight. But if I talked to him about personal things I would know within a minute if it was Kaufman.
Q: What if he doesn’t show up before the end of 2014?
A: He said 30 years, but it could be 30 years and six months or 31 years. I have put certain carrots in the book enticing him on why he should come back. Huka, one of the biggest concert promoters in the country, has put up $2 million and all Andy Kaufman has to do is appear onstage for 90 seconds. He doesn’t have to perform. Just come out, take a bow, wave to the audience and that’s it. Two million dollars in his pocket.
Q: Does there come a point where if he doesn’t show up you will stop believing he is alive?
A: Not me, because I worked on the hoax of him faking his death with him.
Q: If he doesn’t appear, how do we ever find out the truth?
A: There is a simple way to figure that out: Get a court order and get a backhoe out to Bethel Cemetery in Great Neck, New York. It would take about 20 minutes to dig up the casket, pop it open, and take some hair and bones samples. Within two week the world will know if that is Andy Kaufman in the grave or not.
Q: Has your life’s work been preserving Andy Kaufman’s memory and building his legacy?
A: It is my legacy too. I was his writer and stayed behind the scenes. Because part of the illusion we were creating was that he was mad as a hatter. So how could a total madman have a writer? These were intricate hoaxes that were perpetuated on the American public. We pulled them off together. He was Picasso. I happened to help him mix some paint.
Q: You also started the Comic Relief charity. What is that organization up to?
A: We just had a big shakeup with the death of Robin Williams. We are still reeling from that. Before that we were in negotiations with ABC to do another prime-time “Comic Relief” special. Those plans went away. I don’t think you can ask any comedian to go onstage between Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal to try and fill a void that can never be filled.
Q: Ultimately, what is Kaufman’s legacy?
A: Andy’s legacy is certainly one of the true artist who had the ultimate freedom to do whatever he wanted in art. He taught us to be true to your vision, no matter what. Nobody was freer than Andy Kaufman.