To enter into the mainstream entertainment industry, one usually has to hold themselves to some sort of stereotypical norm, blending in with the rest of the Hollywood crowd whilst throwing in a morsel of your own personality. Comedian Andy Kaufman seemingly didn’t get this message when he rose to prominence in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, taking to the stage with an idiosyncratic personality and truly surreal sense of humour.
An American actor, singer, comedian, performance artist and professional wrestler, Kaufman preferred to describe himself as a “song and dance man,” with many believing his brand of humour to be distinctly ‘anti-comedy’. With a hatred of telling traditional jokes, Kaufman once told the New York Times, “I am not a comic, I have never told a joke. 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”.
Coming to the attention of Saturday Night Live in 1975 following years of working small comedy clubs earlier in the decade, Kaufman rose to prominence with his performance as Latka Gravas in the TV show Taxi whilst growing his comedy identity with the obnoxiously rude alter-ego Tony Clifton. As such a puzzling, eccentric creative, Kaufman was known for pulling off bizarre stunts all in the name of comedy and performance.
No stunt was as strange and genuinely impressive as when he performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall at the beginning of April 1979. Filling the show with several surprises, the first was planted before the performance had even begun, inviting his ‘grandmother’ on stage to watch the show from a chair beside him, only for the individual to get up from their chair at the climax and reveal themselves as the iconic Robin Williams.
This wasn’t the only old woman-related pun either, with Kaufman inviting a further actor on stage to pretend to have a heart attack and die on stage, only for the same woman to later reappear and revive herself in a (problematic) Native American headdress. Whilst such stunts helped to consolidate Kaufman as a comedic oddball, it was his final act after the show that would truly mark his name in history, inviting the entire audience out for milk and cookies.
Hiring 24 buses, Kaufman took the entire 2,800-person audience, including actor Tony Danza, out into town where they enjoyed Famous Amos cookies and half pints of Cream-O-Land milk whilst taking in the impressive entertainment on show. With jugglers, mimes, rock bands and wrestlers, Kaufman had organised an after-show extravaganza like no other, spending over $20,000 on the project.
Aghast at the sheer size of the performance, Robin Williams, who was present at the show the entire night, later exclaimed that the performance was something like “P.T. Barnum meets Jung”. Such goes to describe Kaufman quite well too, with the comedian occupying a strange space in the entertainment scene as Williams adds, “People who were heavily into hardcore drugs were going, ‘Oh, this is nice!’ This wasn’t party till you puke—this was milk and cookies! It was Howdy Buddha time”.
When the gathering finally died down, Kaufman wasn’t keen on stopping, announcing that the 3rd half of his act would begin tomorrow afternoon at the Staten Island Ferry. 300 people showed up the next day and he rewarded his loyal followers with a reading of the song ‘MacArthur Park’.
Will we ever get a personality quite as electrifyingly eccentric as Andy Kaufman again? Perhaps unfortunately not.