On the 18th June 2014, I took to the stage (a very small stage, but a stage nonetheless) as part of Geek Show Off to publicly declare my love for all things wrestling. I could have talked for nine minutes on so many aspects of grappling but focussed my attention on another passion of mine: Andy Kaufman. So, here’s what I had to say before a sold out London crowd: 28th July 1982 changed professional wrestling forever. That was the day that the undisputed Intergender Wrestling Champion, Andy Kaufman, laid in to the undisputed babyface of the Memphis territory, Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, on nationwide American television. ‘The Late Show with David Letterman’ was drawing 10-15 million viewers in its early years so this was the biggest single event to happen in the world of professional wrestling since 1976 when Muhammed Ali fought Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in Tokyo – but that’s a whole other story. However, it seems we’ve joined this tale mid-way. Let’s go back to the beginning. Andy Kaufman was a wrestling fan since childhood with a particular favourite being ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers. Andy was enthralled with the storylines and audience reactions. Bob Zmuda, Andy’s long time friend and partner in crime, explains that, “Years later, I would realise wrestling so appealed to Andy because of the black and white nature of its conflict: it was good vs bad, pure and simple … star vs has-been, Andy vs women, success vs failure, and, finally, life vs death.”
Up until the 1980’s there was no questioning the reality of pro wrestling. Wrestling was not thought of as ‘fake’. The 20th century wrestlers regularly put their bodies on the line to entertain thousands or maybe just dozens of fans in places like Amarillo, Knoxville and Chicago. Getting paid $20 a night they travelled thousands of miles dodging rabid fans who were known to pull a knife on visiting heels. Car tyres were slashed and wrestlers stabbed. In keeping the storylines going heels and babyfaces could never ever be seen together. Wrestlers travelled in groups to cut down costs but if your cover was blown that could be six months of hard work undone.
Andy Kaufman also thrived on messing with the audiences minds. His famous Foreign Man skit would begin with terrible imitations of Archie Bunker and Richard Nixon only to conclude with his flawless rendition of an Elvis hit after revealing a jumpsuit to raucous applause. He had fooled his audience just as the wrestling fans were fooled when their favourite babyface turned heel. He was a bad guy all along? He was a genius all along?
On one occasion as Andy’s success grew he headed backstage at Madison Square Garden to hang out with the talent and begged to wrestle for the WWF. Vince McMahon Sr, it’s owner, threw him out according to Bill Apter, a local journalist and photographer who is pivotal in this whole, crazy story. Vince Sr wanted nothing to do with outsiders let alone celebrities getting involved in the world of pro wrestling – this was before the creation of Sports Entertainment. Bill Apter came to Andy’s rescue.
That night they went to Bill’s apartment: “I’ve got Jerry Lawler’s number, shall I call him?” Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler is a Memphis legend second only to some other King. By this point Jerry was running the territory known as Continental Wrestling Association with Jerry Jarrett. The system of the territories was that each region had their own venues, talent and often their own weekly television show. The National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Champion would tour the country and if you were lucky Bobo Brazil or Killer Kowalski would come to a barn near you to duke it out with the much loved local hero.
Jerry and Jerry were known to run a modern, progressive promotion regularly creating out-of-this-world matches. There was the Lawler v Terry Funk ’empty stadium match’ at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1981, the steel cage series with Randy Savage and the Bill Dundee hair v hair feud of the 1970’s (not only did Dundee lose his barnet, the rematch ended with Mrs Dundee losing hers too).
So, when Bill Apter called Jerry Lawler in the middle of the night to ask “Do you want to get involved with Andy Kaufman?” the answer was a resounding “YES!” However, Andy was reticent. He was the Undisputed Intergender Wrestling Champion. He didn’t wrestle men. Only pretty, slender young women who he could sleep with afterwards. Lawler wasn’t his type. “No problem,” said Jerry “we’ll work something out”.
Viewers of Saturday Night Live were familiar with Andy Kaufman the comedian and viewers of TAXI were familiar with Latka, the Foreign Man character but he had also been touring colleges challenging women to wrestle. In October 1979 he persuaded the producers of Saturday Night Live to include him grappling women on air. Such blatant disregard for the rights of women angered many and when the challenge was issued, letters were sent in their hundreds. This was an alien concept for young, modern women of America. A man? Physically restraining a woman? The participants were willing, of course. Possibly lured by the promise of $1,000 prize or his hand in marriage if he could be beaten. He never was. He claimed a record in excess of 400-0 – a streak The Undertaker could never match.
To whip up the proto-divas into a frenzy Andy would play the misogyny card. “Now, I’m not saying that women are mentally inferior to men because when it comes to things like cooking and cleaning and washing the potatoes, scrubbing the carrots, raising the babies, mopping the floors – they have it all over the men, I believe that …”
Inevitably the female challengers were so angry they’d be caught off guard and beaten easily. Some more easily than others. So, in 1982, after talking with Lawler, Andy made the trip to Memphis and the feud was on. Intergender wrestling was introduced to the Tennessee audience and they were not enamoured with this newcomer and his Hollywood ways. In the ring he bitched that his opponents weren’t up to much, he was beating them in less than a minute. He wanted a woman that would stretch his abilities. That woman was Foxy Jackson.
Foxy was a big woman and put up a hell of a fight but succumbed to the pace of Kaufman. This is where Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler steps in. Outraged with Andy’s jibes about the South he declared at ringside that he would offer his services as a trainer to Foxy for a re-match. Andy wins but Lawler pushes him over. Humiliated in front of 10,000 people, Andy threatens to sue. This is the beginning of something huge. 5th April 1982. Andy’s first man v man match is on, brother!
For what is essentially a non-match, this is an engrossing 6 min 50 seconds. The only contact comes in the dying moments – Jerry offers to be put in a headlock which Andy accepts. Sensing a false sense of security, Jerry performs a side-suplex (Andy seems to land awkwardly) followed by a banned move, the piledriver, thus Jerry is disqualified. What the heck, he goes in for another. After spending three days in hospital, Andy emerges into a new, wrestling universe and it feels great.
Bill Apter lines up an appearance on Letterman for late July. Jerry wears fetching black shirt, red trousers combo, Andy in a check shirt and a neck brace. It starts quite relaxed, the audience laugh, Andy seems humble saying the idea was “Just teasing and fun.” Jerry goes in for the kill after Andy requests an apology. Going in to the second commercial break, Jerry gets up and slaps his foe across the face, Andy falling out of his chair. We return to the studio to find Andy behind Letterman’s desk cursing the living daylights out of ‘The King’ and throws a mug of coffee.
Now, one thing about Andy was he never swore so this tirade of “ASSHOLE!” and “MOTHERFUCKER” seemed to convince those who knew him that this was all real. So real that that was his last appearance on Letterman. I’m nearing the end of my enthralling piece but there was another whole year of wre stling for Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler. There were tag team matches with Jimmy Hart, a double cross giving Nick Bockwinkle the belt thereby relieving Jerry of his Championship, wrestling v boxing matches, fire was thrown in Andy’s face and in one final hurrah, Andy falls out with Jimmy Hart and teams up with Lawler. Could a year long feud really end with a big kiss and make up? Not on your nelly. It was a bluff all along.
It’s not surprising with the way that he took over the WWF and revolutionised the wrestling industry that Vince McMahon Jr’s apparent only regret was not teaming up with Andy all those years ago. In retrospect the feud was sewing the seeds of global sports entertainment and his fingerprints are still visible today. He cut promos to build up heat – better than many you see today, his heel persona was perfection – arrogant, superior and cowardly in his blue robe and long johns which Damien Sandow has used successfully for the WWE today.
He understood that wrestling is performance art; it is pantomime, it is comedy, it is drama, it is dance, all combined to suspend disbelief and spellbind the audience for a couple of hours. Only a few years down the line WWF would incorporate comedians, actors and musicians into their programming.
If only Andy had lived, I’m sure Vince Jr would have picked up the phone and begged him to join their traveling circus. As it was, Lawler noticed this hacking cough of Andy’s – he was getting more and more sick. Undeterred, Andy pushed on with his promos, urging the people of Tennessee to wash regularly.
In 1983 he became involved in a production of Clare Luckham’s ‘Teaneck Tanzi’ on Broadway where he took the role of the referee opposite a certain Miss Deborah Harry. It closed on it’s opening day. Despite that disappointment he pushed on with the release of another wrestling themed project. In response to the art house hit ‘My Dinner with Andre’, the husband and wife team of Johnny Legend and Linda Lautrec employed the services of Andy and his childhood hero Fred Blassie for their version entitled ‘My Breakfast with Blassie’. In an LA diner our two protagonists peruse the menu, discuss their respective careers in the ring and chat up the adjoining table of ladies.
Andy’s last public appearance was at the opening night on 20th March 1984. He died two months later on 16th May. Andy had pissed off his TAXI co-stars and probably most of his other colleagues over the years but by the time of his death his new colleagues were almost family. The wrestling fraternity is a close knit one, one who deals with injury and death all too frequently.
This is why when Andy, with his fame and recognition, jumped head first (literally) into a closed off industry like wrestling and kept the illusion going showing utmost respect, they accepted him. With today’s use of social media it’s near impossible to keep storylines from being leaked or discussed in minute detail. With 1999’s release of ‘Man in the Moon’ Lawler had to come clean about the biggest storyline in wrestling’s rich history. It was all fake.
Since 1993 WWE have inducted 120 people into their Hall of Fame. Andre The Giant being the first and Ultimate Warrior the most recent. Yes, Jerry Lawler’s there, of course, and is desperate to add Andy Kaufman to the list of wrestling legends. There are Facebook groups, petitions and Twitter campaigns dedicated to getting Andy into the celebrity wing.
In wrestling circles the legend of Andy Kaufman never died. In a 2012 storyline CM Punk feuded with Lawler, now a commentator, after he refused to acknowledge that Punk was the best in the world. Punk landed a roundhouse kick to the 62 year old’s head. Jerry’s out cold. Crowd go wild. The next morning CM Punk tweets “I did it for Andy Kaufman”.