Andy Kaufman, January 17th, 1949--May 16th, 1984

By Judd Hirsch

Andy Kaufman was a unique animal. He walked upright like a man, but somehow I never thought of him as a definite physical being - one that had volume or shape or any spatially measurable proportions. Any attempt to describe him pyschologically or emotionally would likewise fall short of the mark. And it would be senseless and utterly meaningless to try and compare Andy to other performers, personalities, humorists or, for that matter, other Homo sapiens. He was of the species, that much I can say with certainty, but a type heretofore unknown to me. In short, I had never met anyone like him, and I don't really expect to ever again.

I miss him already. He intriqued me every time I saw him during the entire five-year run of Taxi. And even during the off-season, when I didn't see him, he kept me wondering and fascinated. I can't say that I knew Andy Kaufman well enough to tell you what his dreams were, or whether he had a philosophy, or what moved him deeply. I can only attest to his singular effect on this civilization and, in particular, my own life and consciousness.

Many thought Andy was reclusive, difficult, even downright ornery. But I think those were the knee-jerk reactions people have to an easily misunderstood presence, to a special kind of genius. Here again I have trouble with description: His genius was not easily discernible by what he did, not even at the moment he did it, but more by his way of creating in you seemingly annoying but ultimately profound questions: "Why would anyone do this?" "Why is this funny?" "What are we being subjected to here?" His genius was something akin to what I can only describe as designless illusion. That's what he was after, and that's what he was good at.

I remember his introducing the Morman Tabernacle Choir onstage at the Huntington Hartford Theater in Los Angeles a few years back. I knew it wasn't really them - it couldn't be the real Morman Tabernacle Choir - but there they were, in full purple regalia, chanting the sound of what we thought we knew was the Morman Tabernacle Choir. Of course, they couldn't be, certainly not the actual, not the authentic Morman Tabernacle Choir, yet the question was unavoidable: "What if they were?"

Then Andy introduced "the Rockettes." And there they were - "the Rockettes"! But they weren't the Rockettes at all. Yet they filled the stage and kicked their Rockette-like legs in the air and held forth in such Rockette-like style that the only real effect left in you was the simple but gnawing question: "What if they were?" What if...? The ultimate question that propels performers, visionaries and illusionists into the most inspired aspects of their professions: What if...?

In his usual innocence, Andy was inviting us to experience with him, in a very challenging and present-tense way, this big "What if...?" We went along with it because it was Andy's illusion, in its most innocent terms, that drew us out to our own limit of possible belief - our own inner attraction to the "What if...?"

Finally, when he invited the whole audience out for "milk and cookies" after the "concert" we could only be left in a state of wonder (and warm suspicion) as to the meaning of this gesture. I remember thinking, "What will this obviously metaphorical invitation turn out to be once we hit the streets?" Imagine how surprised and delighted and ultimately charmed out of our pants we were, when at least fifteen buses showed up outside the theater to take us to our midnight snack.

The illusion became real, and we were once again gently, yet purposefully, invited into an illusionist's world - in this case, for a clear demonstration of the simplicity of friendliness.

On the other hand, I can recall getting so angry and incensed at Andy Kaufman (or, more accurately, at one of his alter egos, of which there was a plentiful supply) that I found myself physically removing him from a soundstage during a rehearsal. Yet it was during that brief but decisive act that I first experienced the Kaufman principle of "What if...?" I was, I thought, ejecting Andy Kaufman, but it was only Andy in the flesh - believe me, it was actually his manufacture, this illusion of his that I was grappling with and propelling toward the soundstage door. You see, there wasn't a trace of real belligerence or real orneriness or real bad feeling in the entire event. Just innocence and a benign invitation to an unmistakably peaceful experience of sheer audaciousness.

Andy loved to act - I know because I acted with him - but that wasn't his profession. Make no mistake, he was a professional - but his amateur standing remained intact.

Andy's gift was not his talent or his skills - it was his genius, the genius of what he dared.

And he was a humorist, but his humor was more a lightness of air than any comic design (or delivery). But to be absolutely accurate, Andy Kaufman was amused. He was so amused by his own characters that I believe most people who did not know him or his illusionistic process thought him a little bent. You see, Andy's gift was not his talent or his skills - it was his genius, the genius of what he dared. His was a rare spirit - an indomitable one. He gave himself the right to fail - and much more courageously than most.

Yes, Andy Kaufman was a unique animal.

Judd Hirsch and Andy Kaufman starred together in "Taxi." The cast, Andy used to say, was his "family".

Originally printed in Rolling Stone - July 5, 1984 (Page 60)

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Frequently Asked Questions

Andy's Last Days

The Night Andy Hosted "Fridays"

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August 8, 1996 - B.K. Momchilov
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