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Andy Kaufman’s Last Performance: Michael Dare Remembers “The Top”
On January 12, 1984, the first episode of a brand new musical comedy variety show, The Top, was being taped at KTLA’s studio in Los Angeles, when the show’s host Chevy Chase came out during the opening monologue dressed as a punk rocker.
Before we tell you what happened next, here’s some background on the show itself: The Top was executive produced by Harold Ramis, who brought to the production his considerable industry clout, contacts and credibility.
Ramis had partnered with ex-New Wave Theatre producer/director David Jove and prolific music video producer Paul Flattery for The Top, which was planned to include live music performances, music videos and sketch comedy, and was conceived partially to continue the edgy spirit of New Wave Theatre (Ramis and host Peter Ivers had been friends prior to Ivers’ death the year before).
Everyone involved was hoping The Top would become the west coast underground equivalent to Saturday Night Live. The first episode featured a few of Ramis’s friends — Dan Aykroyd, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray — in addition to New Wave Theatre’s very own Robert Roll, and featured special musical performances by The Hollies, The Romantics, Cyndi Lauper, and then-12-year old violinist Lili Haydn appearing with her mother Lotus (who was married to Jove).
During Chevy’s opening monologue, he told the live audience of invited punk rockers at the taping — many of them already primed on free beer and wine handed out before the show — that he had recently decided to embrace punk rock. He’s seen wearing a spiky wig, black leather jacket and knee-high boots, and did indeed seem to be enjoying the crowd’s raw energy, even inviting some punk rockers up to join him onstage. Derf Scratch, the bassist in the L.A. punk band Fear — who were frequent performers on New Wave Theatre — was one of those who confronted Chase, getting in his face and espousing typical punk rock schtick, but it ended poorly when they got into a shoving match.
The whole episode proved to be too punk for Chevy Chase, who stormed out.
You can actually see a snippet about Chase walking off the show on this Entertainment Tonight show from Friday, January 13, 1984 (fast-forward to the 6:50 mark to see what happened)
Andy Kaufman, another friend of Ramis’s, came in a week later as the new host, and his separately-filmed host segments were inserted into the final cut of the show.
Despite debuting to good ratings on Friday, January 27, 1984, 7pm — it scored a 7.7% rating and a 14% share, representing a 28% rating increase and a 27% share increase over KTLA’s regularly scheduled shows during the 7-8pm time slot, Happy Days and LaVerne & Shirley — The Top did not survive the turmoil surrounding the production of the very first show, and KTLA executives bailed on it.
Andy Kaufman, who was actually ill with lung cancer at the time of the taping (his very last public performance), died just four months later, on May 16, 1984.
Michael Dare (polaroid photo by David Hockney)
Michael Dare remembers being one of the last people to work with Andy, and why the show was so short-lived, how/why it was developed in the first place, and the backstage drama that caused Chevy Chase to quit:
Peter Ivers was a Harvard graduate, and in memory of him, they initiated the Peter Ivers Visiting Artist Program. He had many powerful friends in Hollywood, including Harold Ramis.
Harold wanted to see the spirit of New Wave Theatre live on, so he agreed to executive produce a show called The Top for local TV, once again produced and directed by David Jove, and featuring many of the New Wave Theatre gang, including me. He also supplied Chevy Chase as a host, with guest stars Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd.
The Peter Principle immediately came into play, and I’m not talking about Ivers. Jove, who worked well with his underground crew and punk bands, editing in his own private bay in his cave-like home, was totally out of his league in the real world of television. New Wave Theatre was shot guerrilla style, and he was in charge of absolutely everything. Faced with an actual production staff, he found himself completely incapable of delegating authority, preferring instead to boss everyone around, telling them specifically what he wanted them to do, and ordering them not to do anything else. He literally ran around stopping people from doing their jobs. It was nuts. Everyone hated him.
I was hired as head writer because Ramis insisted that he hire a head writer. Jove made it quite clear to me that every single word uttered by anybody on the show was to be written by him and him alone. I pointed out that Chase, Dangerfield, Murray, and Aykroyd were pretty funny guys, and he might want to give them some leeway to do their own material, but he would have none of it. No one would do any of their own material. They would only say what Jove told them to say. I was welcome to attend every conference so that it would look like I was earning my pay, but I would not be allowed to actually write anything. Thus I got to personally witness one of the greatest self-destructs I’ve ever seen.
At the first writer’s meeting, there was me, Jove, Chase, and Ramis. First Ramis introduced everybody and told his version of what the show should be, the version he thought would make the network happy. Then Chase got up, walked around the room talking, and for fifteen minutes was the funniest human being I had ever seen. At this point he hadn’t done any television since Saturday Night Live, and he clearly found his role as movie star stifling. He was simply bursting with hilarious ideas. I took copious notes and saw my career ahead of me in bright lights as the head writer of Chevy’s comeback show, which would clearly be one of the funniest on television.
It was Jove’s turn. One by one, he shot down every single one of Chevy and Harold’s ideas. He made it very clear what the show was going to be. Despite what Ramis had told the network, it was going to be the David Jove show. He then ran through HIS list of ideas, like constantly cutting back to the control booth, which would be run by animals. Like the talk show portion of the show which would feature nothing but baby ducks. Like his wife and child performing a song. One by one, Chevy and Harold shot down every single one of David’s ideas. There was a horrifying silence. Chevy threw out another idea. David turned it down. David threw out another idea. Harold turned it down, throwing out another idea of his own. David turned it down.
Finally, Chevy said “Why don’t we satirize Thriller?” which was Michael Jackson’s latest video that had just started airing that week. This was my cue. Just before the meeting, I had told David my idea for satirizing Thriller with Chevy Chase, replacing the words “it’s a thriller in the night” with the words “it’s a Chevy in the night,” and having Chevy turn into a Chevy instead of a werewolf. Chevy and Harold looked at me and I said “That’s a good idea,” but just as I was about to tell my concept and justify my presence in the room, I felt a kick under the table. I looked at Jove, who surreptitiously lifted up his shirt to reveal a revolver in his belt. The message was pretty obvious: if I told my idea, which Chevy and Harold would clearly like, he would shoot me. I kept my mouth shut. The meeting ended in stalemate and a death threat.
Finally, it was time to shoot the opening episode with a live audience. The rehearsal with the bands had gone well. Jove had scored quite a coup getting Cyndi Lauper to perform “Time After Time.” She was fantastic. The audience packed in, full of punks who were fans of the original New Wave Theatre, and expecting more of the same. Jove, who was used to actually being on the stage as the main hand-held camera operator, found himself stuck in the booth in back, having no idea how to give orders to the crew on the stage. As it turned out, he wouldn’t need to.
There was a fanfare, an announcer said “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s THE TOP!” I had written Chevy several opening monologues. Chevy had written himself an opening monologue. But right before he went on, Jove had gone up to him and made him put on a punk costume with a spiked wig, telling him to just go on stage as a punk and wing it. Chevy came on stage in his punk costume, looking pretty uncomfortable since he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do next. The opening music kept playing. He stood there. A bunch of punks in the front row, aroused by the music, jumped on stage and started slam dancing.
A word here about slam dancing. Slam dancing consists of jumping up and down like you’re on a pogo stick while bouncing off of those near you. That’s it. It works particularly well on a VERY crowded dance floor with VERY loud music; everyone caroming off each other like a million balls in an insane punk pinball game. Unless you know that slam dancing is a dance, you would have no idea that you were witnessing something other than a riot.
Chevy had apparently never seen slam dancing. All he knew was that a bunch of punk assholes were jumping up and down trying to bounce off him. He pushed one of them away. They pushed back. He pushed back. Chevy got cold-cocked and knocked off the stage. He got up, walked to his dressing room, and didn’t come out. The show was over after a full thirty seconds of production.It was a disaster and everyone blamed Jove. Chevy blamed him for not letting him do the monologue he wanted to do. He quit and refused to work with Jove again. I blamed Jove for not doing MY opening. Harold blamed Jove for inviting the punks in the first place and seating them in the front row. Jove blamed the system for not letting him be on the stage where he could have stopped it from happening instead of being cooped up in the booth.
The network was still owed a show. Harold Ramis took charge. He arranged for a second taping a week later, getting Andy Kaufman to fill in as host. He threw out Jove’s script and got a pair of handcuffs to keep him in his seat in the production room during taping. During one production meeting, he took a phone call, walking around the room, stretching the cord of the phone as he walked. When the conversation ended, he was on the other side of the room, and he simple let go of the phone, which flew across the room hitting David Jove smack in the middle of the forehead. It was the funniest moment of the whole production.
The second shooting was much more controlled. No punks allowed. Backstage before the show, Kaufman was as friendly as could be. There was not a hint of star ego as I hung out with him in the dressing room, taking his picture as they put on his make-up. As head writer of the show, I had absolutely nothing to do with the words that were to come out of his mouth, so I asked him what routines or characters he would be doing. “None,” he said. “Just myself.”
There was a fanfare and Dan Aykroyd’s voice came over the loudspeakers: “Under no circumstances attempt to watch this show without a working television set.” The monitors showed rapid, one frame cuts of star fields (one of Jove’s specialties), then cut to the control booth, which was manned by three guys wearing big paper mache animal masks. A deep announcer’s voice filled the room. “And now, from Hollywood California, the entertainment capital of the world, we welcome you to The Top!”
The list of guests followed: Cyndi Lauper, The Romantics, The Hollies, special guests Dan Aykroyd, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray, Lili and Lotus, and Robert Roll as George Gerkon. “This is your suicidal announcer, Bill Martin,” he concluded as the screen showed a baby duck walking around a miniature talk show set. Cut to a living room full of aliens watching a TV set. “And now your host, Andy Kaufman.”
Finally, he went on stage, doing an opening that wasn’t written by me, but contained remnants of Jove reworked by Ramis. It was nothing special. “Hi everybody” he waved. “Hi Andy” the whole audience replied. Then a phone rang and Andy answered it. On the monitor, we saw a tape of Rodney Dangerfield on the phone saying “Andy, what’s going on? When are you going to show Rappin’ Rodney? I gotta go to the bathroom.”
Andy did a double, a triple, a quadruple take looking at the phone. The screen cut to a little old lady saying “Now you stay tuned to The Top.” A multi-colored fright wig appeared on her head. “Do you hear me?” she said shaking her finger at the screen. Cut to commercial.
During the rest of the show, Andy did little more than introduced the guests and take calls from Rodney. Aykroyd and Murray were wasted in a pre-taped segment which looked like Jove just got them stoned and babbling at each other. Dangerfield’s segment consisted of the phone calls to Kaufman and his Rappin’ Rodney video. The closest thing to comedy was supplied by Robert Roll doing a totally incomprehensible commercial satire written by Jove.
When the show was aired, there was no writing credit. During the final credits, which were shown over a rather sweet performance of a song about heaven by Jove’s wife and daughter, Lotus Weinstock and Lili Hayden, I was called a “Creative Consultant.”
Kaufman’s performance in The Top seems to be unique in his career. He wasn’t playing a character. He wasn’t putting anyone on. He wasn’t trying to be funny. There was an absolute lack of irony. It actually wasn’t a performance; he was simply being himself, doing a favor for a friend, dropping every facade he had ever used, dropping any attempt at being clever or cute or even entertaining. Other than the remarkable circumstances leading to his filling in for Chevy Chase, it wasn’t even worth writing about. He smiled a lot and just came off as a totally nice guy, without pretense, someone you could share a beer with. Anyone tuning in to see any of his trademark idiosyncrasies would have been pretty disappointed.
At the time, I saw it as a complete waste of his phenomenal talents, but looking back now, I see it as a moment of incredible clarity. He probably knew he was dying. He didn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He could afford to just be himself, and that was good enough.
“I’m sorry, but that’s the way it goes,” he said. “Good-bye from The Top.”
He put his hand over his heart, looked at the audience, wide-eyed and innocent, and said “We love you” before walking off the stage.
He died four months later. It was his last public appearance.