Nearly 30 years ago, pop culture lost a comedic genius. Andy Kaufman kept America guessing with his performances. He created memorable characters like Latka Gravas and Tony Clifton, never breaking character. Kaufman elevated professional wrestling to fine art, a glorious passion play casting the feeble shadow we appreciate as modern professional wrestling. Best of all, audiences are still guessing to this day if the reports of his death are a grand exaggeration. Lung cancer stole Kaufman away at 35 amidst rumors of the ultimate gag, faking his death.
If you’ve been living under a rock, someone came forward pretending to be Andy’s daughter at an award show. Long story short, it was a prank. Michael Kaufman allegedly hired Alexandra Tatarsky to play his long-lost niece. Why would someone perpetuate the story of Andy cheating death? Did Mike expect a windfall from more repeats of Taxi on TVLand? Was this Alexandra’s ticket to the big time? Maybe the myth behind Kaufman’s demise is more important than material gain, an affirmation of life.
Consider professional wrestling, the choreographed brawling, every maneuver and hold telling a story. False victories and nobody really losing since they’re just doing a job. In the ring, the good guys and bad guys are at each others throats like GI Joe and Cobra. Back in the locker room, they’re best buds sharing a room at the Days Inn on I-25. Never allowing their fans, the marks, to contemplate the truth. This ruse is called kayfabe. Keeping in-character. Acting. Breaking that façade is their cardinal sin. One can work stiff, never sell their opponent, or be shorter than Vince McMahon, but anyone breaking kayfabe runs the risk of being wished well in their future endeavors. Andy’s greatest strength was his character, entitling him to the fraternity of the squared circle.
Andrew is Greek for “manly”, often used as a synonym for strength. Running circles around brutish adversaries, like all good trickster archetypes, gaining the upper hand by strength of will. As a wrestler, Andy knew how to sell his opponent. Just watch him face off with Jerry Lawler on Late Night with David Letterman. It bears mentioning the name Kaufman is German for “merchant”, selling being second nature to the comedian. This is important considering who he faces off with in that final match.
Peanut butter to his jelly. Desi to his Arnaz. Tupac to his Biggie Smalls. Jerry “The King” Lawler helped push Kaufman to superstardom in the ring, foreshadowing Andy’s magnum opus. Jerome is another Greek name, meaning “sacred” or “holy”, while Lawler is an old Gaelic name derived from Ó Leathlobhair describing someone sickly and weak. Combined, Jerry “The King” Lawler is the holy king of pestilence. With cancer as the #2 cause of death in the United States, notorious for its rapid spread to devastating effect, it’s not hard to imagine cancer as divine retribution. Legend has it a rare cancer began to fester in Andy’s lungs, but what precipitated such a fate?
I lied earlier in this piece, he did break kayfabe. Just once. And that was been enough. Freddie Prinze, late of Chico and The Man, had enough of Kaufman’s brilliant Tony Clifton. One night Freddie grabbed Tony by the lapel, slamming him against a wall and demanding Tony own up to being Andy. Like the Silver Bridge, Tony broke and his attacker walked away in childish satisfaction. The balance of the universe was upset at that moment. The general manager in the sky looked askance upon Andy, but also Freddie. It’d be too pat, and cruel, to describe Prinze’s suicide as an act of penance. Now the stage was set for his final match, one he fought before.
No one could doubt he was ill, coughing like Walter White, accepting hippy-dippy natural crystal and herb therapies like Steve Jobs, assuming the body of a dying man. All of this was in the build up to the main event. Falls count anywhere, no-holds barred. Andy’s certain to lose from a mark’s point of view.
Instead he jobbed to the Grim Reaper. He didn’t lose.
They carried him back to the locker room where he hung up his trunks, never looking back at his old life. A gentleman’s agreement between him and Death to keep kayfabe forevermore in exchange for life as a panhandler, busboy, or working a convenience store.
Some marks think they’re wise to his game, but Andy’s having the last laugh.