“The Small World of Andy Kaufman”: Night Flight remembers the ’70s & ’80s comic genius

By on January 17, 2018

If Andy Kaufman had not died from lung cancer on May 26, 1984, he’d have been 69 years old today — he was born on January 17, 1949, in New York City — and so, in that spirit, we have this 63-minute Vimeo compilation, The Small World of Andy Kaufman, featuring some of Kaufman’s finest TV moments.

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We’ve always been huge fans of Andy Kaufman’s humor here at Night Flight HQ, and if you’re also a fan you’ll want to check out Night Flight contributor Michael Dare’s personal remembrances about working with Kaufman on The Top,” a short-lived variety comedy show which debuted on Friday, January 27, 1984, on L.A.’s KTLA network.

We also suggest that you stream some of the Kaufman-related videos we’ve got over on our Night Flight Plus channel, including The Real Andy Kaufman, and My Breakfast with Blassie, filmed on location at a Sambo’s diner in downtown L.A. in the summer of 1982.

The Top With Andy Kaufman

Read more about Andy Kaufman below.

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Like many of you, our first exposure to Kaufman’s humor might have been on “Saturday Night Live,” during the NBC show’s first season.

There were excerpts from his “Foreign Man” act — his high-pitched, heavily-accented character who claimed to be from “Caspiar,” an island in the Caspian Sea — during the show’s premiere on October 11, 1975.

Kaufman also appeared on the November 8th broadcast of “SNL” to tell jokes and do some of his great celebrity impressions.

He made five appearances on the show overall, but by 1983, the show’s executive producer Dick Ebersol had grown tired of Kaufman, believing he wasn’t really funny enough to be on the show. He believed that the audience had grown tired of him too, so he decided to ask the audience whether they wanted Kaufman to ever return to the show.

There were two “900” phone numbers set up for the audience to call — one to keep booking him on the show, and one to “dump” him. Members of the “SNL” cast would come out to the lip of the main stage during the tapings to give the tally of the calls, yay or nay, as people across the country phoned in to voice their opinion.

In the end, “SNL” audience members voting from home decided they agreed with Ebersol, and Kaufman wasn’t invited back. Their loss.

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Kaufman had also appeared on rival network ABC’s short-lived “Fridays,” which basically tried to capture the same late-night comedy vibe as “SNL” airing one night earlier in the week.

Kaufman was actually kicked off that show too, briefly.

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On Friday, February 20, 1981, Kaufman appeared in a skit set in a fake restaurant.

The premise was two stoned couples — Michael Richards, later of “Seinfeld” fame, was also in the skit — when Kaufman suddenly broke character, mumbled something aloud about how he couldn’t play along anymore, he felt the skit was really stupid and lame and he just couldn’t play along anymore.

Richards eacted angrily at Kaufman blowing the sketch. He went off-camera, and then was back, and suddenly could be seen throwing cue cards at Kaufman, who responded by throwing water.

Then someone else threw butter and then suddenly, on live television, there were real actors on a TV show embroiled in a shoving match with members of the crew joining in to help separate the actors from each other. The producers abruptly cut to commercials.

In the next day’s daily newspapers, TV critics were writing about how Kaufman had lost his mind on live TV. ABC was deluged with calls and letters, asking if it was all just a put-on.

Finally a network spokesperson told the Associated Press that, yes, the prank had all been staged and Richards was one of two people who knew what Kaufman was planning to do.

Kaufman appeared on “Fridays” the next week, in a videotaped apology to home viewers.

On the show’s next season, Kaufman came back, and he announced he was a born-again Christian, and that he was engaged to Kathie Sullivan, who he said was a gospel singer from “The Lawrence Welk Show” (she really was).

Sullivan told the audience of his religious conversion and her love for him (it was all a gag; Kaufman was actually Jewish and had convinced Sullivan to play along for laughs).

You just never knew what was real with Andy Kaufman.

One time, again on “Fridays,” instead of introducing that evening’s musical guests, the Pretenders, he instead gave a rambling introduction that veered off into a speech about the dangers of drug use, and then told viewers watching at home that he’d talked too long and the show needed to go to commercial.

In 1978, Kaufman used his “Foreign Man” character as a springboard for creating a new character named Latka Gravas for an ABC sitcom, “Taxi,” which debuted on September 12, 1978, and for the next several years, TV audiences thrilled at his hilarious antics on the show.

That same year, 1978, Kaufman also appeared on “The Dating Game,” speaking in his “Foreign Man” character’s voice. It’s impossible not to love his performance.

“Taxi” became so popular that even Orson Welles admitted to being a fan.

In June of 1982, when he was guest-hosting “The Merv Griffin Show,” Welles described “Taxi” as a show that has “kept television from being a criminal felony,” before bringing on guest Andy Kaufman — who was wearing a neck brace at the time — for a brief chat. Enjoy the video.

Thanks for all the laughs, Andy Kaufman, wherever you are!

Please check out some of our previous posts and some of the Kaufman-related documentaries we’ve got waiting for you over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, 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.