The patron saint of trolling humor, New York-born Kaufman spent his all-too-brief career pioneering an impossible-to-define brand of comedy that relished in the uncomfortable and the outlandish. For a brand-new late-night comedy show seeking to revolutionize stale TV comedy formulas, Saturday Night Live seized upon Kaufman for its first-ever episode, allowing Kaufman to nervously shuffle from foot to foot as the old cartoon Mighty Mouse theme played on a scratchy record player at his side, only coming to electric life upon lip-synching the “Here I come to save the day!” chorus.
It was an outre piece of conceptual comedy (Kaufman pauses to take a drink of water between choruses, seemingly worn out by his efforts) that nonetheless emerged as a true crowd-pleaser, Kaufman’s seeming guileless showmanship one of the highlights of that first show. Not that Kaufman rested on his comic laurels. The comedian’s career on and off Saturday Night Live escalated in strangeness and confrontational courage by squandering potential goodwill engendered by his undeniable talents as a performer with an increasing desire to up the ante and turn up the audiences’ irritation.
On SNL, Kaufman alternated Mighty Mouse-style inspired silliness with increasingly meta bits such as having his popular “Foreign Man” character (later refashioned as Taxi’s Latka Gravas) break down in tears after several of his jokes bomb, only for his strangled cries to segue into a musical number accompanied by Kaufman’s bongo virtuosity. But that was nothing compared to Kaufman’s deliberately off-putting SNL gambits as the years went on, as in his extended appearance simply reading from The Great Gatsby on the Season 3 Art Garfunkel-hosted episode, his English-accented persona becoming more and more annoyed the more the audience does at his interminable reading. And that’s all before Kaufman dove into the battle of the sexes by declaring himself the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World,” by inviting female audience members (secretly audience plants) to fight him onstage.
The professional wrestling world was especially inviting for (although not to) Kaufman, the sport’s blurring of lines between performance and perception (termed “kayfabe” in the industry) a perfect place for Kaufman to ply his signature style of comedy as confrontation. Indeed, Kaufman’s final appearance on Saturday Night Live remained (and, to some extent, still remains) enshrined in the realm of the “worked shoot,” in which actual and faked conflict intertwined in a real-world spectacle of onstage and backstage heat.
Watch When Andy Kaufman Was Voted Off ‘SNL’
As the tale unfolded, in late 1982, Kaufman and then-SNL producer Dick Ebersol were heard getting into a screaming fight backstage after Ebersol reportedly cut one of Kaufman’s latest button-pushing guest spots from an episode. After that, Ebersol, making a rare onscreen appearance on the show (unlike former and future producer Lorne Michaels, who’s become a recurring character), popped up during the Nov. 13, 1982, episode (hosted by notoriously crabby Robert Blake) to explain that, according to Ebersol, Kaufman’s spot was cut because the comedian had “misled us into thinking, right up until airtime, that his material was up to the show’s standards.” Continuing, Ebersol, to the crowd’s enthusiastic agreement, opined that Kaufman just wasn’t funny anymore.
Kaufman’s brand of straight-faced hoaxing had long kept audiences off guard, the previous year seeing him get into an apparently real on-air fight with Michael Richards on the set of ABC’s live SNL clone Fridays and getting into another physical altercation with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler on a 1982 episode of Late Night With David Letterman. That Ebersol’s public condemnation of Kaufman could be yet another work was a possibility, even as the public still puzzled over just what, if anything, about Kaufman’s life and career could be taken at face value. (That the notoriously humorless Ebersol seemed genuinely concerned with “setting the record straight” about his booking decisions helped sell the concept as much as anything.)
As with so much of Kaufman’s material, the whole incident was a set-up between the comedian and Ebersol, with even many at Saturday Night Live kept in the dark, some complaining publicly about how Kaufman was being treated. Kaufman and Ebersol doubled down the following week, when, on the episode hosted by 7-year-old Drew Barrymore, cast member Gary Kroeger came onstage and, next to a photograph of Kaufman, announced that SNL would be holding a live telephone poll to determine whether or not Andy Kaufman would ever appear on SNL again. “This show is live and we’re doing this for real,” Kroeger assured the audience, dutifully warning callers that they’d be charged 50 cents every time they called one of two 900 numbers to cast their vote.
And it was, indeed, for real, as Kaufman and Ebersol kept the truth behind their feud secret both in advance and for years afterward. During the show, both Mary Gross and a shirtless Eddie Murphy emerged at points to give out the two numbers, remind West Coast viewers that they’d be watching too late to get in on the pivotal poll and make their impassioned pitches to sway the vote in Kaufman’s favor. Gross read out the “Dump Andy” phone number fast enough for viewers to likely miss it, while Murphy, expressing his friendship with and admiration for Kaufman, threatened to “punch in the mouth” anyone who voted to ban him from the show. There was even a person-on-the-street segment, where New Yorkers were vocally split on Kaufman, including an uncredited Ed Asner popping up to throw his vote in the “Dump Andy” column.
Throughout the episode, things don’t look promising, with the initial count seeing Kaufman losing by approximately 10,000 votes. Ultimately, as the cast gathered with Barrymore for the goodnights, it was up to Kroeger to deliver the final tally: “Keep Andy” received 169,186 votes, while “Dump Andy” ran away with it, tallying a whopping 195,544. Kaufman, Kroeger noted sadly, would never be on Saturday Night Live again.
Watch When Andy Kaufman Was Voted Off ‘SNL’
And he never would be. Kaufman was secretly saddened by the outcome, even if it allowed him to continue mining the bit for all it was worth, with the comedian even spending money to buy local TV airtime in three affordable minor markets (Des Moines, Macon and Omaha) to deliver a seemingly heartfelt and suitably low-rent appeal for viewers to flood NBC with calls of support. SNL kept up the gag, too, with the Dec. 11, 1982, episode seeing then “Weekend Update” anchor (technically then called “Saturday Night News,” thanks to Ebersol) Brad Hall playing one of “semiretired comedian” Kaufman’s ads before announcing that Kaufman now owed NBC $80,000.
Kaufman maintained his secrets so well that his shocking 1983 diagnosis with a rare form of lung cancer was seen by many as but another boundary-pushing joke by the lifelong nonsmoker and health-food fanatic. The same goes for Kaufman’s death the following year, with persistent rumors circulating that Kaufman had long talked about faking his death fueling conspiracy theories from fans hopeful that the comedian would emerge alive at some point when he felt it would get the most gratifying response. Fans are still waiting, as it’s become only too clear that not even Andy Kaufman would carry out a gag this long. Kaufman indeed died at the age of 35 on May 16, 1984, never having returned to Saturday Night Live.