On October 20, 1979, Andy Kaufman made his ninth appearance on Saturday Night Live. Previous audiences had laughed at his oddball routines that tread the line between comedy and performance art. Once, he led a spirited sing-a-long to “Old MacDonald Had A Farm.” Another time, he came out in a tux and read The Great Gatsby aloud in a phony English accent. His best-known spots featured the nervous Foreign Man, who did bad celebrity imitations, said, “Tank you veddy much,” then finished with a dead-on Elvis Presley tribute. Of course, Foreign Man was also the inspiration for Kaufman’s character Latka on the sitcom Taxi.
But on this night, Kaufman wanted to do something riskier.
He posed a challenge, offering $500 to any woman who could beat him in a three-minute wrestling match. Dressed in full-length white thermal underwear, baggy black swim trunks, black socks and black shoes, Kaufman strutted around, claiming he was the World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion. He goaded the females in the audience, poking fun at women’s lib, and saying that women were “meant to be in the kitchen” while “washing the potatoes, scrubbing the carrots, raising the babies.”
Kaufman got his challenger, who he proceeded to pin to the mat. It was a weird spectacle, unlike anything ever seen on network TV before.
What the audience didn’t know was that Kaufman had been wrestling women across the country for months, as part of his touring act. His friend and co-conspirator Bob Zmuda, dressed as a referee, would set up the challenge. Any woman that could pin Andy Kaufman walked away with the cash. Fifteen or twenty ladies would volunteer. Then, to prove that they weren’t using a shill, Kaufman would let the audience vote for the best candidate.
“I wanted to recapture the old days of the carnivals,” Kaufman said. “Wrestlers used to go from town to town with carnivals, and offer $500 to any man who could last in the ring with them for three minutes. So I figured if I could offer a prize and make it like a contest, it could be very exciting. But I couldn’t very well challenge men in the audience, because I’d get beaten right away. Most men are bigger than me and stronger than me. So I figured if I challenge women, they’d have a good chance to beat me.”
It should be remembered that in the 1970s, wrestling was not the polished, theatrical television event that it later became, but a low-budget, sleazy affair. And that’s what Kaufman loved about it. As a kid, his hero had been wrestler “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. “I remember the frenzy he brought to the crowd,” Kaufman said. “He was incredible. So what I wanted to do was recreate that in my act. I would have to say all these nasty things about women, just to get them to come up on stage, and to define for the audience that they should be booing me.”
They booed all right. And they sent hate mail. Despite Kaufman’s over-the-top parody of a trash-talking, chauvinistic jerk, a lot of people believed the whole thing was real. Just like they believed wrestling was real.
For Kaufman, there was a fringe benefit to the wrestling charade. He was painfully shy, and always had trouble meeting women. But rolling around on a mat for a few minutes with the opposite sex proved to be a very effective way to get dates. According to Bob Zmuda, Kaufman ended up sleeping with some of his wrestling opponents.
From 1979-1983, Kaufman wrestled over 400 women (his most publicized match was against Playboy playmate Susan Smith in 1981). He retired undefeated. The next phase of his wrestling career was his feud with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler, as documented in the classic documentary I’m From Hollywood. In 1982, in a live call-in poll, Kaufman was banned from Saturday Night Live for not being funny enough (the stunt was his idea).
Kaufman died of cancer in 1984. He was 35.
In 2009, an entertaining book called Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts! collected the best of the letters and photos that he received during his wrestling days.