Late Night Legend Andy Kaufman Died 40 Years Ago Today

Forty years ago today, late-night TV lost one of its most influential players—and perhaps its most polarizing.

Andy Kaufman, who passed away on May 16, 1984, became a prominent figure in comedy thanks to appearances on programs like Saturday Night Live, Late Night with David Letterman, and Fridays.

Often described as a performance artist, an anti-comic, and a prankster, Kaufman aimed not to make audiences laugh, but to make them question. While he would ultimately become something of a household name when his“Foreign Man” character was worked into the sitcom Taxi, Kaufman only took the role to enable his more eccentric comedy acts, put-ons, and performance art experiments—which often took place in late night.

Intent on committing to the bit, Kaufman didn’t have as many TV shows eager to embrace him as the most successful traditional comics did. But in 1975, he managed to find a home on a new NBC late-night program that was willing to take risks. Over the next seven years, SNL became a crucial playground for Kaufman, offering him some of his earliest TV appearances. But it would also be the place that broke his heart.

Kaufman appeared on the first-ever episode of Saturday Night Live, performing his famous “Mighty Mouse” routine. (The behind-the-scenes happenings of this episode are set to be dramatized in the upcoming movie SNL 1975. Actor Nicholas Braun was seen filming outside 30 Rock dressed as Kaufman.)

Kaufman’s warm reception at SNL eventually froze over as he increasingly tested audiences’ patience. He courted controversy with his discomfiting acts, elaborate hoaxes, and—most contentiously—wrestling women on national television. Some of those matches took place during his late-night guest spots, including one on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show in 1979, and another on SNL later that same year.

As Kaufman generated controversy with viewers, tensions also grew between him and SNL. But it was Andy himself who approached then-SNL showrunner Dick Ebersol with an idea that would end his run on the show. In November 1982, SNL held a vote asking viewers whether Kaufman should be banned from ever appearing on the program again. Kaufman was confident that viewers would vote in his favor when he pitched the bit. Ebersol had warned him that, because it cost viewers $0.50 per vote, SNL would be forced to abide by the final decision, lest the show be found liable for fraud.

By the end of the night, over 169,000 votes were entered to “keep Andy.” But over 195,500 came in to “dump” him. Kaufman was banished from SNL for good.

Or was he? The show tested the waters for a return appearance two months later with a pre-taped appearance, but some negative viewer feedback sealed his fate. Kaufman would never return to SNL, leaving him to feel betrayed by Ebersol and the program. 

His tumultuous exit notwithstanding, Kaufman made 16 appearances on the show overall, and is remembered as an integral part of its early years.

Another possible reason Kaufman fell out of favor at SNL was his decision to make appearances on ABC’s SNL knockoff, Fridays.

In his first appearance, he appeared to sabotage a sketch, resulting in an on-camera brawl as the show cut to commercial.

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A week later, Kaufman returned to Fridays to apologize. Only his time, he appeared to sabotage the apology.

Later that year, he’d make one more visit to the show, claiming to be a born-again Christian and newly engaged to a gospel singer.

But Kaufman’s most famous appearance took place on Late Night With David Letterman. Over several years in the ealy ’80s, Letterman would prove to be Kaufman’s most consistent ally. This began even before Letterman’s tenure in late-night, when Kaufman appeared on his short-lived 1980 morning show The David Letterman Show disheveled and coughing, claiming to have fallen on hard times, and panhandling in the audience before being removed by security.

When Letterman launched Late Night in 1982, Kaufman was among the first month’s guests. And later that year, he’d create one of the most famous moments in the history of Letterman’s late-night run. Following a much-publicized wrestling match with Jerry Lawler that allegedly left Kaufman in a neck brace, Letterman welcomed Kaufman and Lawler onto the show. What started as a tense joint interview ultimately became a physical altercation. Lawler slapped Kaufman across the face, knocking him out of his chair. After a break, Kaufman retaliated by throwing coffee on Lawler amid an expletive-filled rant. 

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Again, audiences were left unsure of what was real and what wasn’t.

While Letterman would later confess that Kaufman kept him informed of his plans for each appearance, he always played the part of unexpecting host. Kaufman would make ten appearances overall on Late Night with David Letterman between 1982-1983, each one weird in its own way. But according to Lawler, Letterman was grateful for that weirdness. As the wrestler recalled years later, “Dave told me, ‘For years we referred to that as the famous show… because that show made us famous.’”

After a battle with lung cancer, Kaufman died in 1984 at the age of 35. His friends and collaborators would go on to note that, toward the end of his life,  Kaufman had been discussing plans to fake his own death. He had spoken of waiting one year, ten years, or even thirty years, before reappearing on TV to reveal he was still alive — perhaps on Fridays.

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