The tragic reason Andy Kaufman was banned from Saturday Night Live
Andy Kaufman, perhaps one of the greatest comedians of all time, is often overlooked in the bigger picture of the specialist art. Kaufman, typically self-deprecating, once described himself instead as a “song and dance man” and diverted attention away from his accolades, preferring to be the comedian’s comic and one who operated outside the normal boundaries of an entertainer.
“I am not a comic, I have never told a joke,” he once famously said. “The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him… My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can”—It is a promise Kaufman kept right up until his untimely death in 1984 at the age of 35.
After building up a name for himself on the comedy circuit while working in small clubs in the early 1970s, Kaufman’s routine built around his “anti-humour” oddball performance soon caught the attention of the bigwigs in television and, by 1975, he was invited to deliver a sample of his stand up for the very first season of Saturday Night Live—it would be the beginning of a long, hilarious and ultimately painful relationship.
For his entire life, Kaufman knew that he wanted to make people smile. Even from a very young age, his brain was focused on the bright lights of stardom: “While all the other kids were out playing ball and stuff, I used to stay in my room and imagine that there was a camera in the wall,” he once said of his ambition to be an entertainer. “And I used to really believe that I was putting on a television show and that it was going out to somewhere in the world.
“My parents would say, ‘Why don’t you go out and play?’ and I would say, ‘I can’t! I’m putting on my shows!'”
It is this same desire which would lead him to Studio 8H in New York City, the now-iconic home to the NBC sketch comedy show SNL. His first show, arriving on October 11, 1975, would kickstart an eight-year collaborative showcase and see the comedian make 16 SNL appearances in total. Across those highly prolific years, Kaufman created some of the most iconic comedic moments in the show’s history, skits and characters such as the Mighty Mouse singalong, Foreign Man, and many more.
“I just want the audience to have a wonderful, happy feeling inside them and leave with big smiles on their faces,” Kaufman once said of his work. “When I perform, it’s very personal. I’m sharing things I like, inviting the audience into my room,” he added. It makes his exit from Saturday Night Live even more tragic.
He continued: “I just want real reactions. I want people to laugh from the gut, be sad from the gut – or get angry from the gut.” Well, in 1983, Kaufman got those very real reactions and, unfortunately for him and the world of comedy as a whole, the reaction was a spiral of negativity.
Feverishly pushing the boundaries of comedic expression, in 1983 Kaufman would create his most infamous and controversial work for SNL. The ‘Women’s Wrestling Champion’ bit, which would see the comedian call on female volunteers from the audience to wrestle him, missed the mark and sparked an angry debate and numerous complaints. While the wrestling matches were staged, Kaufman always came out victorious and proclaimed himself “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World”.
While the negative headlines around his newest work continued to mount, Dick Ebersol who was the executive producer at the time, decided to address the topic live on air and, in a bold decision, he decided to put Kaufman’s future in the hands of the audience the comedian had been so desperate to please. Ebersol, quite simply, decided to ask the audience whether they wanted Kaufman to return to the show or, in turn, be banned forever.
In what was supposed to be a cheap joke turned desperately serious. SNL issued two telephone numbers for viewers to call in. The options? One was to ‘Keep Andy’ while the other was to ‘Dump Andy’. An entire episode of SNL was dedicated to the idea and, given Kaufman’s heavy impact on the show behind the scenes, his fellow comedians all joined suit. Mary Gross, who was given the task of reading out the ‘Dump Andy’ number, did so in an incredibly fast pace in order to make it almost impossible to decipher. Eddie Murphy, on the other hand, took a not-so-subtle approach of supporting Andy by threatening the audience in partial humour
However, as the results began to arrive, the writing was on the wall for the misunderstood genius Andy Kaufman. The SNL viewers had, tragically, decided to boot him off the show. The official stats read that 195,544 people wanted to ‘Dump Andy’ while 169,186 people voted to ‘Keep Andy’.
The disappointment and frustration of all those affiliated with Saturday Night Live was clear to see. Cast members and fellow comedians questioned the executive producer Ebersol for his disastrous plan which had resulted in one of the most unique creatives ousted. While Kaufman honoured the decision, he was heartbroken. Just one week after the vote had been revealed, the comedian purchased airtime on several local networks with his own cash and began to plead with viewers to have him back on the show.
Andy Kaufman would never return to SNL and died just a year later.