Kaufman and "The King": 30 years later

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  1. Kaufman and "The King": 30 years later


    Andy Kaufman insisted he was never a comedian — he was a performance artist, and his legendary rivalry with the "King of Memphis, Jerry Lawler, was as close to a masterpiece as sports-entertainment has ever seen. Sports-entertainment had never before so prominently featured an actor at Kaufman’s degree of fame, and his involvement paved the way for celebrities in rings for decades to come.

    In 1982, Kaufman was one of the most controversial actors in show business, starring as the lovable Latka Gravas on the sitcom “Taxi,” and having appeared on polarizing “Saturday Night Live” segments. But Andy always had been fascinated by the world of professional wrestling, and through an odd turn of events, he ended up entangled in one the industry’s most bitter rivalries with WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Lawler. Their conflict escalated from local Memphis, Tenn., television to an infamous duel on the July 28th edition of “Late Night with David Letterman,” solidifying its place in not only the annals of wrestling history, but also all of pop culture. One day after the historic 1,000th episode of Raw, WWE Classics sat down with Jerry Lawler to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this other important moment in television history.

    WWE CLASSICS: Before you met Andy, did you know that he had begun to refer to himself as the "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World," and wrestled women as part of his nightclub act?

    JERRY LAWLER: The only thing I knew about Andy was just what I’d seen on “Taxi.” I didn’t even know that much about his history before, that he was a standup comic, and anything that he had done before “Taxi.” I only really knew him as the lovable character Latka on the TV show. And, of course, at the time “Taxi” was one of the top network shows in the country.

    WWE CLASSICS: So how did he come to be part of your wrestling company in Memphis?

    LAWLER: I had heard that Andy already tried to incorporate wrestling women out of the audience at his different nightclub performances and comedy shows, and apparently it was not being received all that well. People would go to a comedy club to see Andy, and all of a sudden he would bring out a mat and [Andy’s best friend and writing partner] Bob Zmuda in a referee shirt and he’s challenging women out of the audience to come up there and grapple with him. Nobody was enjoying it but Andy. So Andy went to one of WWE’s shows in New York City and approached Vince McMahon Sr. with the idea of wrestling women out of the audience at an actual wrestling event. Andy felt like he wanted to get a crowd response from people that had actually come to see a wrestling show. My understanding is that Vince Sr. explained to Andy that, “Our fans are skeptical anyway, and I’m hesitant to involve a Hollywood actor in our wrestling show. I don’t want people to think that all of our wrestlers are actors.” So, he kind of nicely gave Andy the brush-off.

    WWE CLASSICS: And after that he turned to your company in Memphis?

    LAWLER: My friend [wrestling journalist] Bill Apter happened to be at that show in New York. He knew Andy and told him, “I’ve got a friend, Jerry Lawler, and he promotes wrestling that draws 10,000 fans every week down at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. I’ll give you Jerry’s number, and I think he might be interested in it.”

    WWE CLASSICS: And you were receptive to Andy’s idea?

    LAWLER: When I received a call from Andy Kaufman, I jumped on it right away. I was looking for us to get any kind of rub at all from a major Hollywood star coming to my hometown of Memphis and appearing at a wrestling event. The whole idea was that Andy was going to come down and wrestle some women out of the audience, which he did.

    WWE CLASSICS: What were your initial impressions of Andy?

    LAWLER: Bill had told me, “You may hear that Andy’s strange or kind of weird, or a little bit out there, but nothing could be further from the truth. He’s just a really nice, quiet, humble kid.” And sure enough, when I met him, I was just so taken aback by this guy who’s on one of the top TV shows in the country, a major television star, and he was just like the nicest, most well-mannered guy that you’d ever meet. Andy and I were the same age when we met, and he never, not once, ever called me by my first name. It was always, “Mr. Lawler.”

    WWE CLASSICS: He had so much respect for sports-entertainment.

    LAWLER: Yes, he did — a tremendous amount of respect for the business. As a kid, it made such a big impact on him. Andy told me, “I would watch the wrestling so closely, and I was amazed at the response that the wrestlers could get from the crowd. One of the things that really impressed me was that some of those guys could go out there and intentionally make people despise them, but at the same time they were still popular.” And that, maybe, scarred poor Andy for life, because that’s literally what he wanted to do. He wanted to be the bad guy.

    WWE CLASSICS: Andy didn’t want to tell jokes, he just wanted to get a reaction.

    LAWLER: Andy explained to me on our first meeting, “I’m not a comedian. I’ve never gone out and told a joke in my life. I’m just a performance artist.” He would do things to illicit a reaction from his audience, and the funny thing was Andy enjoyed getting a negative reaction more so than a positive reaction. Those were the words out of his mouth: “I wanna play a bad guy.”

    WWE CLASSICS: What happened on the first show he did in Memphis?

    LAWLER: Andy wanted to step in the middle of the ring, and challenge women. The first night that he did it, women came down, and we let the audience literally pick who Andy’s opponents were going to be. The next thing you know, we’ve got five women lined up, and we just rang the bell. Andy made some crazy comments beforehand. I think he offered $5,000 to any of the women that could beat him. It just got more ridiculous. He said to one woman, “If you can beat me, I’ll marry you!” Just crazy stuff. We drew a capacity crowd, a complete sellout. People came out to see the big TV star. I honestly believe that his intentions were to do just that one show and get it out of his system, but I saw dollar signs. So I said, “Andy that was great. We run a show here every week. You need to come back and do it again. We’ll really pump it up big on TV this Saturday.” And he said, “Really? I can come back and do it again?” And I said, “Of course!”

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