“Professional wrestling interprets the universe better than any ideology I have ever seen.”—Jim Dickinson
IN THE WRESTLING business, it’s called “getting heat.” It’s what the bad guys do. It’s what puts asses in seats.
“Cheap heat” is the easy stuff. Insult the crowd and the city they live in. Tell them they are morons, their city is a dump and remind them that their baseball team hasn’t won a World Series since Moses came down from the mountain, and you’ll get them hating on you right quick. The problem is, where do you go from there? Andy Kaufman took it to new heights.
Working for the NWA wrestling promotion in Memphis—which he pronounced Maim-phis, with a degrading, faux hillbilly twang—Kaufman took to the air with a series of beauty tips for the local citizenry—whom he generally referred to as “stupid hicks.”
“I want to help you,” he offered, knocking the very concept of “condescending” into the stratosphere. “I’m going to give you tips to bring you up from the squalor you live in… the garbage that you are. This is a bar of soap. Does it look familiar to any of you? I know you probably haven’t seen one of these before… now this is what you do.Wet your hands…” After that he needed to be escorted to the ring by a SWAT team, presumably so he could get beaten properly, by another wrestler, before he was murdered by a fan. Undeterred, his next tip was a real gasser. “You may not be aware of this, but take a whiff.The foul smell in the air…” And then, charitably, he identified the source. “Ladies and gentleman, this is toilet paper.They sell it. You can buy it. You should use it.”
That he was a New York Jew and constantly threatening to sue everyone did not help endear him to the wrestling fans of America’s great South, either.
Kaufman is best remembered as the guy from Taxi and Saturday Night Live, the nerdy, avant-anti-comedian who became a successful professional wrestler—and make no mistake, he was successful. Like all the great heels before him, people paid money every week to see him get pounded. He began his wrestling career on SNL in 1979, proclaiming himself “Inter-Gender Champion,” and challenging women to wrestle him. He offered $1,000 to any woman who could beat him, and the offers came rolling in.
A new book out this month collects many of the letters Kaufman received. Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts was put together by his ex-girlfriend Lynne Margulies, with a foreword by his writing partner and friend Bob Zmuda, who also played the role of Kaufman’s alter-ego, abusive nightclub comic Tony Clifton.
The striking thing about the book is how many of the women who responded did so with real humor. Far from the militant feminism you might expect, the letters are from women who (A) want to be on TV and (B) want $1,000. And thus the seeds of reality television were sown.
But for every woman literate enough to write a cute letter pitching herself for a star-turn on SNL—or who just wanted to fuck a TV star—thousands of others just wanted to see Kaufman’s head on a stick.
Wrestling women was a brilliant shtick. It was mercilessly vile. He declared that women were stupid and inferior to men in every way, and he beat them ruthlessly. Misogyny being right up there with race baiting, homophobia and jingoism in the heel’s handbook, he got heat from every corner of the SNL world, and he kept a straight face throughout it all. It was very difficult to tell if it was a put-on or not, which made the whole scenario doubly maddening. If it was a joke, just maybe it wasn’t funny at all, and if it wasn’t a joke, well then, he deserved nothing less than to be gelded with a rusty knife.
All of this led to Memphis three years later, where Kaufman was booked for his long-deserved come-uppance in a match with Jerry “The King” Lawler.
Lawler is a wrestler of no little skill. His Hanging Fist Drop is a thing of great beauty, gravity defying, gorgeous to behold. The recipient rarely gets up. Kaufman, giving away about 150 pounds, had to be out of his mind to fight this guy, especially in front of a capacity crowd, hotted-up and horny to see nothing short of a redneck-baiting Jew lying dead in a pool of his own blood.
For the first five minutes of the match Kaufman taunted Lawler like an insane child, hiding behind the referee for protection. It is about as chickenshit and cowardly as it gets, and got more heat than Death Valley in July.When Lawler finally collapsed Kaufman’s neck with a pair of brutal Piledrivers, the place nearly exploded. Southern justice had been served.
Except that Kaufman had won the match! The Piledriver was a banned move, and Lawler had been disqualified!
Nonetheless, Kaufman went out in an ambulance, and the next we heard from him was from a hospital room, where he spent three days in traction. He was wrong, he cried to a TV camera. He thought wrestling was fake, but no, he wailed, it was very, very real.
The match received national attention. A wrestler broke an actor’s neck! And here he was crying on television. See? It wasn’t fake at all! Even the hospital rep said they would have nothing to do with a hoax, they didn’t have the time or staff to deal with such nonsense.
Nothing could have been better for the wrestling business at large.Three months later they were on Late Night with David Letterman, with Kaufman once again acting like a spoiled Hollywood brat and demanding an apology from Lawler for hurting him. Instead he got clapped on the head, which in turn earned Lawler a cup of coffee in the face and a stream of language from Kaufman that nearly put the suits at the network (not to mention the FCC) into intensive care.
What had just happened? Who could tell any more what was a “work” and what was a “shoot”—was this cooked, like the matches were, or was it real?
Wrestling has never been concerned with separating fact from fiction, but this had blurred the lines in a way that nothing had before. Even people in the wrestling business couldn’t parse exactly what went down—it was outside the confines of the ring, so was it still playing by wrestling’s own self-defining rules? The natural order of things had been ruptured. It was like discovering that feathers fell faster than bricks in a vacuum. It was seriously weird.
We all know wrestling is not real, at least not in the sense that
most people interpret “reality.” And yet I still hear it all the time,
from people who don’t understand how such a clever chap as myself can
be such a rabid fan of this trash. “But isn’t it fake?” they bray, like
I have seen things in the wrestling world you people would not believe:
millionaires being pummeled with bedpans and jolted with
defibrillators; cowboys being cut apart with the broken pieces of a
child’s lawnmower toy; and an 80-year-old woman giving birth to a glove
on live television. I watched with glee as the above-mentioned
millionaire crowned his first-born child over the head with a TV
monitor while his wife (the millionaire’s, that is) sat next to him in
a wheelchair, unable to respond because he was keeping her zonked to
the teeth on a steady diet of Thorazine and liquid Xanax. The same guy
once had to have his head removed from the horrifying ass crack of a
500-pound Samoan man.
That’s why he is a millionaire: because he’s willing to do anything it takes to sell tickets to his show.
know what? Falling 20 feet from the top of a steel cage onto a concrete
floor is very real. It is very dangerous and it hurts—a lot.When’s the
last time you got thrown through a table covered in flaming thumbtacks?
Got clobbered with a metal chair, a length of chain or a metal road
sign? Even knowing how to fall and how to “sell it,” getting body
slammed by your average WWE behemoth will knock the wind out of you for
a week of Sundays. Getting your face worked on by a madman with a
cheese grater ain’t exactly a Swiss picnic, either. It leaves scars. So
does barbed wire.
the outcome of the matches is predetermined is not a detriment to the
spectacle, it is wrestling’s greatest asset. If the NFL would only
adopt this simple policy there would be no more blowout Super Bowls.
But make no mistake:The people who excel at this game are the toughest
motherfuckers in the world.
Letterman spectacle was a set-up, although no one had bothered to tell
Mr. Letterman himself, which is what makes the whole episode so
patently bizarre. As if Letterman would have gone for staging a brawl
on his show. Not only does it take balls like melons to prank the host
of a network talk show, the conspiracy was kept a secret until Lawler
finally confessed 10 years after Kaufman’s death that it was Kaufman’s
idea. Until then, as far as anyone knew, the brawl was strictly legit.
Andy’s confidante Bob Zmuda still insists it was all very real
—although one gets the idea
he may just be keeping the angle alive to score his own match with Lawler.
difficult for most people to fathom why a successful comedian and actor
would take off to Tennessee to work as a wrestler— after the Letterman
brouhaha Kaufman feuded with Lawler for almost two years, first hiring
contractors to cripple Lawler, and then eventually teaming up with
Lawler in a dizzying double-cross angle that included Jimmy “The Mouth
of the South” Hart, another Memphis star who later made it big in the
WWE. Besides the television show and the big weekly events at the
Mid-South Coliseum, Kaufman worked smaller house shows—barnstorming in
Indiana and Kentucky—a crazy life for relatively small change and zero
national exposure. It was not what any sane person would call a sound
The wrestling rag I used to edit, Wrestling’s Main Event, used
to rate wrestlers in a number of categories, only few of which are
relevant in Kaufman’s case. He had no technical wrestling skills, no
strength and whatever quickness he had was only used to run away.You
cannot compare Kaufman in any meaningful way to, say, Ric Flair,
generally respected as the greatest wrestler of all time, or Hulk
Hogan, certainly the most famous, but regarded by those in-the-know as
one of the very worst. The beauty of Kaufman is that he is largely
un-ratable. So much of his genius does not show up in the box score.
For instance, there is no category for the genius of turning
institutionalized anti-Semitism into a viable gimmick.
watch his work now, it is clear his run in Memphis stands up to any of
the great heels. His feud with Lawler was epic, one for the ages. He
was as funny as Roddy Piper in his prime, and as despicable as Dick
Cheney in his. He was the most hated Memphis-based wrestler since
is too easy to say he was “ahead of his time” (especially in a
post-Borat world), and that he did it because it was his art. He was a
real wrestling fan—naked and not ashamed. It may have been his
popularity as a television star that allowed him to go to Memphis, but
that would never be enough to carry him for more than a couple of weeks
in front of the hardcore crowds they used to breed at the Mid-South
Coliseum. His ring success didn’t come so much from some twisted
vision, rather it was born of genuine respect for wrestlers, and a deep
love and understanding for professional wrestling. If he didn’t have
that he would have been exposed as a fraud and chased from the
territory ex post haste.Wrestling is very democratic that way.
reason why he deserves the accolades of a nation—and something greater
to have taken to the grave than the Inter-Gender title belt—is for
pushing wrestling’s proprietary laws of physics past the accepted
envelope, and testing them in an alternate universe.
Andy Kaufman turned Late Night with David Letterman into
his very own supercollider, smashing the anti-matter of professional
wrestling into the dark matter of mainstream TV, and creating a
singularity where the old rules no longer applied. All at once it was
dangerous, smart, funny, brave and stupid, grand and patently absurd,
and for a moment, at least, all terribly real in a way that could not
possibly exist, and yet it stood up to the scrutiny of fans and
humorless scoffniks alike.
And that makes him No. 1 with me.
Mike Edison is the author of I
Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro
Wrestling,Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and
the Most Notorious Magazines in the World.