The story of Andy Kaufman’s ban from Saturday Night Live is a long and tangled one. And, in keeping with the boundary-pushing comedian’s career goal of keeping audiences guessing, the payoff of the late comedian’s final SNL appearance only doubled down on the controversy surrounding Kaufman’s tumultuous time on the groundbreaking sketch comedy series.
As the story goes, Kaufman and then Saturday Night Live producer Dick Ebersol got into a screaming, profanity-laden argument backstage during the Nov. 13, 1982, episode, reportedly because Ebersol had cut Kaufman’s latest guest appearance at the very last minute. Kaufman stormed off, and, during the episode, Ebersol made a rare appearance on the show itself, explaining that Kaufman’s material had grown stale and that Kaufman simply wasn’t funny anymore.
It was a strange and uneasy thing to watch, which, naturally, was all part of the plan. Kaufman, whose recent stint as the self-created “intergender wrestling champion” saw the comic grappling with women during his act and at pro wrestling venues, had succeeded in generating a lot of negative publicity, as was Kaufman’s intention. So the idea that the notoriously controlling Ebersol would take to SNL to trash Kaufman was at least plausible — which is how he and Kaufman wanted it. The next week, SNL announced an unprecedented call-in vote in which viewers could dial one of two 900 numbers to determine whether Andy Kaufman would ever be invited back to Saturday Night Live.
The vote was played straight by the cast — because almost all of them were, like the audience, in the dark. Kaufman, according to Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s account of the early days of SNL, Saturday Night, spent the week leading up to the vote worrying that the vote — cooked up as it had been between he and Ebersol — would go against him. And that’s just what happened, with 195,544 callers voting (at 50 cents per call) to ban Kaufman from SNL forever. Kaufman never would appear on Saturday Night Live again, before the comedian died from a rare lung cancer just over a year later at the age of 35.
Or rather, Kaufman never appeared live on Saturday Night Live again. It was on the Jan. 22, 1983, episode of the show, hosted by Lily Tomlin, that SNL viewers were treated to what appeared to be another gratuitous cheap shot at the now-exiled comedian. With cast member Brad Hall acting as the anchor for Ebersol’s “Weekend Update” news segment (temporarily retitled “Saturday Night News”), Kaufman was given one more kick while he was down. Hall, accurately reporting that Kaufman had been buying ad space on TV stations around the country, explained that the “semiretired comedian” was desperately begging America for another chance to come back to Saturday Night Live.
Watch When Andy Kaufman Was Voted Off ‘SNL’
Hall then aired Kaufman’s actual ad, which the anchor explained had run only in the more affordable markets of Macon, Ga., Des Moines, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb. In it, Kaufman stands uncomfortably posed in front of a backdrop of blue-screened pine trees and explains that he’s using his own money to purchase airtime at individual stations in an attempt to get Ebersol and SNL to rescind his ban. Kaufman plays it utterly straight, thanking Saturday Night Live for “all the great years” and thanking the “169,000 people” who voted to keep him on the show (the total was 169,186), explaining that it made him feel good that so many people appreciated his work.
“That’s pretty sad,” Hall noted sadly as the ad ends, earning a chuckle from the confused audience, before going on to note that not only is Kaufman still banned, “but he now owes the NBC network $80,000 and some change.” Andy Kaufman’s comedy was a one-of-a-kind blend of showmanship and provocation, and this final bit on the show that helped elevate his career (Kaufman was on the very first SNL episode in 1975) was a perfect encapsulation of Kaufman’s inimitable style. Kaufman did cook up the whole idea with Ebersol, even though he relished his recurring spotlight on the show.
Just as his supposed feud with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler was revealed as a hoax long after Kaufman’s death, almost everyone at Saturday Night Live was kept clueless as to the real stakes behind the vote. On a podcast appearance, cast member Gary Kroeger noted that he regrets being the one to introduce the 900 numbers on that fateful night, explaining that he imagined it all to be a joke.
Kroeger was half right: While Kaufman was behind the stunt, he was still committed to abiding by the result. His subsequent, low-rent public pleas for a stay of SNL execution were another piece of Kaufman’s performance art but were also no doubt intended to bring him back into the show’s orbit. That SNL aired his pleas only to mock him one final time was just the icing on the cake, a meta-textual gag that left those watching baffled and uneasily amused. It may not have been how Andy Kaufman wanted his tenure on Saturday Night Live to end, but it’s tough to imagine he wasn’t pleased to go out on such a strange and chaotic note.