Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Pumpklnhead's Question"

Not long ago, pumpkinhead wrote:

You mentioned your time at Taxi earlier.  For some reason, I crave anything I can find out about Andy Kaufman.  Have any Kaufman stories or insights?

First of all, pumpkinhead, thanks for the question.  Yes, I did work on Taxi, writing nine episodes during the show’s first four seasons, including the first episode after the pilot, entitled “One Punch Banta.”

Longtime readers will be aware that I have written about Andy Kaufman before, and what I should do is simply link pumpkinhead to that post.  The only problem is I don’t know what I called it, I don’t know when I wrote it, and I don’t remember how to link. 

The easiest thing to do is to write about Andy Kaufman again.  With alterations, because I also don’t remember what I wrote.  

Andy Kaufman billed himself as a “song and dance man”, because he wasn’t one.  That was the core of his comedic approach: “in your face” provocation. 

Kaufman’s comedy was unlike any I had ever seen before.  It almost dared the audience not to laugh.  And during his later forays into performance art, where he climbed into the ring and wrestled women, most people didn’t. 

I am not exactly sure what comedy performance art is, except maybe a rationalization for when the audience doesn’t respond.

“Hey, it’s performance art!” they proclaim, and they’re immediately off the hook. 

Or are they? 

Kaufman first became familiar to most of us through his appearances on the early Saturday Night Live (1975-76).  One of his original bits involved Kaufman lip-syncing (accompanied by wild gesticulations) to a scratchy recording of the theme from the Mighty Mouse cartoon show.  That one made me laugh a lot.  I didn’t see it as performance art.  It was just “out there” comedy.

Kaufman developed a saucer-eyed, Eastern European, “innocent” character he called “Foreign Man”, which he drew upon to make teary-eyed apologies following comedy bits that (deliberately?) went awry, often accompanied by an indecipherable, foreign-sounding jabber, and ending with a sincere,

“Thank you very much.”
The creators of Taxi incorporated “Foreign Man” into “Latka”, the character Kaufman would eventually play on the show. 

Now, veering into what I know, starting first with what I did not know.  I was unaware until I saw the Kaufman biofilm Man in the Moon (1999) that Kaufman detested appearing on Taxi.  The reason I didn’t know is that, while working on the show, Andy Kaufman was quiet, mild-mannered and totally cooperative.  (Maybe that was performance art too, and it flew completely under my radar.)

My only “up close and personal” experience with Kaufman occurred when Andy and I were seated at the same table during a party.  The man did not say a word for two hours.  My strongest recollection was that when desert-time came, Kaufman ordered chocolate cake, topped with chocolate ice cream, which he then smothered in cascading torrents chocolate syrup.

TRIVIA QUESTION:  “What did Andy Kaufman really like?”

Answer “Chocolate”, and you, my friend, are a WINNAH!

Which brings us to “Tony Clifton.”  And my eyewitness observation of an incident that, through the years, has become the stuff of show business legend.

As the “Opening Act” for his stage shows, Kaufman devised an offensive, no-talent lounge singer, whom he also played, called Tony Clifton.  (Performance artists feel successful when they get a “rise” out of the audience.  It does not necessarily have to be a positive “rise.”)

As an incentive for participating in a “conventional” sitcom, Kaufman demanded a stipulation in his contract, guaranteeing that “Tony Clifton” be hired for, I believe it was, two episodes per season.  This meant that on those two episodes, Andy Kaufman would not appear (because, you know…Andy and “Clifton” were the same guy), but instead, “Clifton” would participate, as an actor on the show. 

During the “Clifton” appearances, Kaufman, required that everyone call him “Tony.” If they didn’t, “Tony” would fly into a rage.


So the “Tony” week arrives.  “Tony Clifton” is expected to appear, for what will essentially be “performance art” on a giant canvas, five days in duration, five days, Monday through Friday, being the time it takes to produce an episode.

“Tony” is an hour and a half late.  When he finally strides in, we discover that Kaufman has immersed himself entirely into the character, including a flashy wardrobe, slicked-down hair and a mustache, a braying brashness, and an entourage, featuring a “floozy” on each arm.  (These appeared to be actual prostitutes.  I was told.  Because…you know…I have driven past them on Hollywood Boulevard, but that’s it.)

Through the week of production, word filters back to the office that Tony Clifton is seriously misbehaving, his inappropriatenesses including, but not confined to, pinching the bottoms of passing females.  For a while, this was patiently accepted as “Andy’s act.”  But by Wednesday, with only two days till show night and rehearsals far behind schedule, a “tipping point” in the proceedings had unequivocally been reached.

Something needed to be done.

The show runners marched over the soundstage to restore order.  I tagged along.  Because I wanted to see.

It was a delicate situation.  If the show runners forbade further “Clifton” shenanigans, Kaufman, pointing to his contract, might use it as a pretext to walk away from Taxi.  The show runners did not want that, seeing “Latka” as an integral element in Taxi’s success.  

Andy Kaufman held all the cards.  Whatever the show runners did, including “laying down the law”, would merely be playing into Kaufman’s “performance art” scenario.  “Fireworks” was exactly what he was looking for. 

Nobody likes boring performance art.  (Except the people who find entertainment in watching a guy sleep.  I really don’t get that.)  Kaufman would like nothing better than a confrontational “raising of the ante.”  And to that end, his provocations escalated.

You could literally see nerves beginning to fray.  The Taxi cast was tiring of the charade.  This was especially true of Tony Danza, who refused to continue calling Andy Kaufman “Tony”, his exact words being,  “I’ve had enough of this shit!”

Rehearsals were now at a standstill.  The clock was ticking.  The costs of the continual delays were escalating.  There was even talk of “pushing” the filming to Saturday.  That would be really expensive.  Hourly rates go crazy on Saturdays.

Finally, the show runners had had enough.

They fired “Tony Clifton.” 

Let me say that again, another way.  They dismissed a fictional character from the show.

“Tony Clifton” adamantly refused to leave.  He had a contract, and that contract permitted him to do the show.  The show runners threatened to call “Security” and have “Clifton” apprehended, and walked off the Paramount lot.  “Tony” scoffed at their threats.  (While, inside, Andy Kaufman was undoubtedly eating it all up.) 

Finally, Judd Hirsch, the unofficial “Dad” of the acting company, moved up behind “Clifton”, wrapped his arms around “Tony”/Andy’s waist, lifted him off the floor, and carried him out of the studio. 

(An actor was quickly contracted to replace “Clifton” on the show, and with minimal rehearsal, performed adequately, if not memorably, during the filming.  The filming went off on schedule, though the episode did not rise beyond mediocre.  One wonders how much better it could have been, were it not for the “Tony Clifton Experiment.”)

I had sat in the bleachers that Wednesday afternoon, watching the entire debacle unfold before me.  And, though I kept it to myself in deference to my bosses, I found that confrontational showdown, which, in part, was being played out for my benefit, absolutely hilarious.

Thanks for your question, pumpkinhead.  It may have led me to learn something about myself.

It’s possible I am not as down on performance art as I think.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; your war stories are great and I liked this one a lot. Judd Hirsch sounds awesome.

I always point out character actors to my kids when we watch a film declaring, "see without him/her this movie/tv show just wouldn't work". Mr. Hirsch is a very good character actor, do you have any stories about him or other character actors you've worked with?


JED said...

You mentioned Andy Kaufman in two other posts. I think this is the one you were thinking about:

I found this by typing Andy Kaufman in the box that appears on the top-left of the page when we first see your blog. There is a small magnifying glass to the right of it. Once I entered the text, I clicked the magnifying glass and Blogger searched through your blog and it listed all the blog entries where that text was found.

It also found this post where you mention Andy Kaufman once.

Jim Dodd

Canda said...

I was a writer on a variety special that featured Counntry Music Singers, and Andy was to do a guest spot. We weren't happy with his idea, so I sat at dinner with Andy and his manager, and the manager informed Andy that Tony Clifton said he didn't like the idea and didn't want him to do it.

Kafman's eyes got scary, and his face was filled with worry. He asked, "Did Tony really say that?" The manager said, "Yes, he did". Kaufman dropped the idea. He was either a great comic actor or a schizophrenic.

Keith said...

I'm almost certain that Andy's "irritating the audience" acts were for the audience's benefit as much as his own.

His acts allowed audiences to become justifiably furious. Being angry as well as "in the right" is just as enjoyable as laughter. Professional wrestling was the perfect arena for this.

pumpkinhead said...

Thanks for answering my question!

angel said...

How to find a post. Type in an appropriate word in the search area on the screen where your blog posts are located. In the case of Andy Kaufman, use Kaufman. All posts containing that word will appear (sorted by date). Click on view for the one that looks the most likely and repeat until you find it. Blogger has a spectacular search engine. Very powerful. :-)
After you have found it and viewed it, copy the line on the webpage line, up at the top of the webpage itself. Then write some pithy word like HERE and then highlight it (the same way you copy a line up at the top of the webpage). There is a place above the area where you are writing the post that says link. Hit that button and it will give you a place to paste the web address of the page on Andy Kaufman that you just found. Hit done (or whatever it says) and the link should show up in the post you are currently writing. Good Luck, Mr. Phelps...

Johnny Walker said...

I'm not convinced that Andy was all that unhappy on TAXI. A lot of the stuff in MAN ON THE MOON was from Bob Zmuda, who is an unreliable witness to put it mildly.

Kaufman certainly liked to put people on, but I don't think he really enjoyed making people angry, he just liked messing with people's expectations.

As frustrated as the cast and crew must have gotten on that day, I'm sure it's hilarious when they look back at it. The fact that "Tony" didn't return to the stage after Hirsh carried him out just shows he enjoyed playing along.

You can be annoyed and amused at the same time :)

Ultimately I think you only have to watch Andy's appearances -- not the fictionalized ones, the actual ones -- to see that Andy was in total control, and that most of the time the audience got it and loved it.

MAN ON THE MOON created a bizarre myth that, if true, would have left Andy without any sort of a career or fanbase.

Johnny Walker said...

No idea why I'm doing this, but I wanted to add another comment (which will probably go unread for the rest of eternity), but one more thing about MAN ON THE MOON:

When they recreated that scene, it wasn't funny. Yet, you were there, in the position that the "camera" would be so many years later when it was recreated... and it was absolutely hilarious.

That sums up everything that was wrong with that movie.