The Great Ruse: The comedic genius who rocked wrestling
Andy Kaufman danced around the wrestling ring in a ridiculous outfit and jumped up and down like an ape. The star of the hit TV show “Taxi” pointed to his head and mocked the Memphis crowd.
“I’m from Hollywood. I have brains!” he declared.
Fans pelted him with Dixie cups.
On this April night 30 years ago, the New York native worked fans inside the Mid-South Coliseum into a chaotic frenzy. In a river town notorious for its rough-and-tumble roots, the coliseum was crammed with the rowdiest characters Memphis had to offer.
The place reeked of Jack Daniels, Marlboro and Skoal. So dangerous was the crowd that one wrestler carried a shank at all times after being stabbed by a fan.
Long before comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat hit the screen, there was Kaufman, the comedic genius with wiry hair and bulging eyes who pushed the envelope of performance art on a real-time stage. And the whole wrestling episode—inside the ring and out—was performance art at its peak. For Kaufman, the fact that so few people caught on made it all the better.
“The reason he’s still remembered is he took that idea of being a despicable bad guy and he took it to a whole new level,” says Bob Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University.
“His badness came not from wanting to take over the world; his badness came from being just so irritating. This was a character, probably more than any I can think of in American popular culture history, that within seconds of hearing him open his mouth, you really wanted to hit him in the face.”
Kaufman’s wrestling antics would later be immortalized in his infamous expletive-laced tirade on “Late Night with David Letterman,” in the R.E.M. song “Man on the Moon” and in the Jim Carrey movie by the same name.
But there in the ring, Kaufman proved to be what everyone in Memphis already knew: The nation’s biggest wuss. He’d sent videos showing residents how to use soap, he’d proclaimed Memphis to be the nation’s redneck capital, he’d wrestled women in a city where they were only to be respected.
The way the pencil-necked geek pranced around the ring with his chest swelled, the way he scratched his armpits like a monkey—well, by God, the arrogant som’bitch needed a whooping.
He’d accepted a challenge from Jerry “The King” Lawler, the city’s heroic champion. But when the bell chimed, Kaufman avoided Lawler at all cost, running around the ring as fast as he could as soon the barrel-chested king approached. A frustrated Lawler, playing his part to the hilt, climbed from the ring and grabbed the PA microphone.
“Did you come down here to wrestle or act like an ass?” Lawler said to wild cheers.
It was the start of one of the greatest ruses of all time, when two men captivated an entire city and puzzled the nation, when Kaufman became the most hated person to ever walk the streets of Memphis.
Their act would get wilder and crazier in the ensuing months, with more matches and more taunts.
As a 10-year-old, I watched the drama unfold from the sixth row. It was genuinely exquisite to witness the night when the King gave the twerp what he deserved.
To be honest, the name Andy Kaufman still makes me nauseated, the way he dumped on us. I’m also well aware this makes me among the ultimate dupes, a kid who fell for the whole thing: Kaufman’s broken vertebrae, his neck brace, his vile evilness.
And it took years for me to recognize Kaufman for what he was: theatrical genius.
The wrestling community still refuses to recognize it. Thirty years after arguably the most entertaining man ever entered the ring, Kaufman remains shut out. The WWE Hall of Fame won’t allow him in.
“His absence from the Hall of Fame is conspicuous,” Thompson says. “He is one of the really important members of the pantheon of that form.
“All those big bad guys in wrestling are ones that are so outside of our own experience. How often do we really come up against people like that? Whereas Andy Kaufman was a bad guy of the type we might encounter in the office, in the classroom and in our daily lives. He was a kind of annoying that we could really identify with. That’s what makes Kaufman so memorable.”
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Andy Kaufman, wrestler