“The Real Andy Kaufman” is not in any mood to fool around in this unique documentary

By on April 12, 2017

The Real Andy Kaufman — directed by his friend, comedy club owner and hopeful filmmaker Seth Schultz — may be one of the only ways we can see the real Kaufman, at least the way he appeared after after a particularly awful performance at a popular Catskills resort in late 1979. Watch the complete documentary right now on our Night Flight Plus channel.

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This 85-minute documentary contains rare, live footage from Kaufman’s performance onstage the night before — either November 27th or 28th — at Kutsher’s Resort, which had by then survived for more than 100 years (it finally closed in 2013). Kutsher’s would later serve as the inspiration for the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing‘s fictional “Kellerman’s” resort.

Kaufman — who looks like he’s still reeling from exhaustion — certainly seems to be letting his guard down in this strange interview with Schultz. Their conversation feels much more like a chat between two friends than an actual interview, a rare and candid look at Kaufman when he wasn’t “on.” At one point he even tells Schultz  that he’s “not in any mood to fool around.”

Apparently actor Jim Carrey studied this for his starring role as Andy Kaufman in the bio-pic Man on the Moon.

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One of the reasons Kaufman had upset the audience was that he brought up some of his own family members (Stanley, Janice, Michael, Carol and his elderly Grandma Lillie and Grandma Pearl) and he had them tell stories (he also had his brother sing “La Bamba”), certainly not something the paying crowd had expected to see.

As we see in the film, Kaufman had, of course, also entertained them with some of what are now-classic Kaufman comedy bits: he does his “Foreign Man” — a character which he’d by then transformed into the immigrant auto mechanic character named Latka Gravas on the TV sitcom “Taxi,”  debuting on the ABC network on September 12, 1978 — and he also played the bongos while in character.

He also sang a few songs (Sinatra’s “My Way,” Fabian’s late 50’s hit “This Friendly World,” and the title song from the hugely popular musical “Oklahoma”), all of them completely off-key and off-beat with Andy doing whatever he could to destroy a couple of beloved songs that he knew the audience just happened to treasure.

He also did his popular “Mighty Mouse” sketch with the record player, and fully committed to an Elvis Presley impersonation that was pretty shocking to the audience because it was just so damn faithful to the real Elvis that it won back some of the crowd he’d just alienated with his recent awful renditions of popular hits.

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Then, of course, this being the late 70s, he also did something he’d only recently been doing onstage — he challenged and then wrestled a female Kutsher’s guest on the stage for a winner-take-all sum total prize of $50, all while his actual family watched aghast from their dining room tables.

Let’s just say it did not go over well.

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Schultz at the time owned Pip’s Comedy Club, which had been opened by his father, George Schultz (who named it for his dog) after he had already been a comic in the 1940s, doing stand-up along some of the top comics at the time.

It was a relatively small venue (just 110 seats) located in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York, but by the late 70s was already one of the oldest and most respected family-owned comedy clubs in the country, and the launching pad of many of America’s greatest comedians, including Rodney Dangerfield, David Brenner and Andrew Dice Clay. It regularly played host to comedy legends like Woody Allen, George Carlin and, of course, Andy Kaufman.

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Seth Schultz was better known as Pip’s front man, booking the talent, glad-handing the patrons and warming up the crowd with his stand-up bits, while his brother Marty worked behind-the-scenes to keep the family business running smoothly.

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Meanwhile, Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club — located in the Town of Thompson, Sullivan County, in the Catskils near Monticello, New York — was situated on 1500 acres, including a 400-room resort, with separate condos called kuchaleyns (קאָך-אַליינס , which is a Yiddish name for self-catered boarding houses, literally, “cook-alones”), a couple bungalow colonies, two summer camps, an 18-hole golf course and a lake, not to mention a really huge swimming pool (seen above).

Kutsher’s was the longest running of the so-called “Borscht Belt” grand Catskills resorts, catering to a largely Jewish-American clientele who had made it a hugely popular vacation destination, particularly for those who live close enough in New York to travel there by car.

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By reputation, Kutsher’s was already known, and had been for many decades running, for the high caliber of comedians who had graced their ballroom stage. Some of the biggest names in comedy had performed there, including Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Jack Carter, Rodney Dangerfield, Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett, Alan King, Jerry Lewis, Bill Maher, Jackie Mason, Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Allan Sherman, Jackie Vernon and Henny Youngman, to name just a handful of the more recognizable names.

In the late 70s, Kaufman was likely quite different than the types of comedians that the customers at the resort were used to seeing at Kutsher’s.

While they were typically now seeing comics who had strayed from the “Borscht Belt” type of humor that had been popular decades earlier — a kind of rapid-fire, self-deprecating style of stage patter that was considered somewhat passé at the time — they sure weren’t used to seeing comedians like Kaufman.

Earlier that year performed at Carnegie Hall, where he invited an audience of 2800 fans to board twenty buses he’d hired to take them to the Manhattan School of Printing’s cafeteria for free milk and cookies.

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Kaufman tells Schultz — who is also seen interviewed separately in the film, talking about his friendship with the late comedian — that the nearly two-hour performance was an embarrassment to his family, who told him did not want to participate and felt coerced into doing it, and that the next morning the resort staff had taken both his and his family’s luggage and placed it in the hallways outside of their hotel rooms, encouraging them to leave. Strongly encouraging them to leave.

Kaufman had apparently insulted both the hotel staff, as well as the largely Jewish audience in attendance the night before, and as a limousine were spiriting Kaufman and his family away from the premises, he says that he rolled down the window and screamed out :“It’s people like you who give Jews a bad name!”

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Here’s part of what Seth Schultz once said about the interview:

“I wanted to make a documentary of my dad, a big club owner, but it was really more about Pips than my father in the beginning. I just rolled these four magazines of film on Andy that night, like 44 minutes. The most film I had for anyone else was like 5 or 8 minutes of footage. I just knew that no one else was shooting him, and when I called, he said why don’t you come up, I’m going to be performing at the Catskills…and it just happened. And we were there shooting and then we went backstage…and that’s where the real gem came, because Andy knew I was just a student. And when you’re rolling on the guy [and Andy] knows your not shooting for any specific station, you’re just rolling for the sake of rolling. He was so relaxed when I was doing a playful interview with him that I think it was really the only time on earth when someone really caught him off guard as Andy Kaufman from the Kaufman family…not Andy Kaufman, the comedian.”

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Originally, filmmaker Seth Schultz had planned to sell his film to PBS, but he couldn’t make that happen. About seven minutes of Kaufman’s Kutsher’s performance did end up being broadcast on the Showtime cable channel, but the entire film wasn’t aired anywhere in the early 80s.

Then, in the early evening hours of May 16, 1984, Kaufman succumbed to a rare form of lung cancer. He had been sick less than one year and died at the age of 35.

In Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey’s performance of “This Friendly World” was performed during Kaufman’s funeral.

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His last public appearance had been as the replacement host (taking over for Chevy Chase) for a comedy sketch show called “The Top,” which our contributor Michael Dare told us about here.

Seth Schultz’s footage of Kaufman would end up finding a home later on DVD. Meanwhile, Schultz and his brother would continue running Pip’s, sharing responsibilities after their father George died in 1991.

Schultz had big dreams to do other things with his life, however, including directing his own films, which he tells us about at length here in The Real Andy Kaufman (his documentary also features candid remembrances about Kaufman from some of the other comedians who worked with the comedian, but who also happen to know Schultz is hoping to parlay this footage into a big break for himself).

Schultz would pursue some of his filmmaking projects over the ensuring years, but he struggled to finish these projects and the ones he did finish, he had a hard time getting them sold and distributed into theaters.

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His life started to take a very tragic and bizarre turn after he sank considerable money into a short film combining a reenactment of the JFK assassination with a spoof of the baptismal scene from The Godfather in order to impress Oliver Stone into giving him a job.

He also focused on his own stand-up comedy and tried to get jobs as a comedic actor (Larry David gave him a small part on his HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), but his life would eventually come to a tragic end in 2008 when he ended up taking his own life, dying from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.