The Night Andy Kaufman Sabotaged “Fridays”
“I’m the bad kid in school! Who wants to wrestle?”
By early 1981, Andy Kaufman’s stand-up comedy was legendary among fellow comedians and entertainers. He had already appeared on “Saturday Night Live” nine times and was beginning his third season as Latka Gravas on “Taxi.” With his first starring role in the soon-to-be-released movie, “Heartbeeps” on the horizon, Andy was a hot commodity. An often quirky commodity, but a hot one nonetheless.
So it was natural that ABC’s fledgling late-night comedy show “Fridays” would want Andy to be a guest host. The incredible success of “Saturday Night Live” made it obvious to the networks that younger viewers wanted late-night shows catering to their interests. “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” was a hip show, but a hip show your parents watched. “Saturday Night Live” changed how television executives viewed late-night programming and ABC quickly jumped on the bandwagon. The brainchild of producers John Moffit and Bill Lee, “Fridays” was broadcast “Live from the Los Angeles Basin.” The show was a stone-cold duplication of “Saturday Night Live” and is notable for launching the careers of Larry David and Michael Richards. As cast members, David and Richards brought interesting range to the ensemble. Larry’s strong writing abilities and observational skills, along with Michael Richards unique brand of physical comedy made them immediate favorites with the audience. Years later, Larry David teamed up with a young comedian named Jerry Seinfeld to create a pilot for NBC called, “The Seinfeld Chronicles” which became the mega-hit “Seinfeld.” The George Costanza character is based largely upon the life of Larry David, and Michael Richards’ “Kramer” is arguably the biggest star of “Seinfeld.”
ABC’s desire to replicate late-night comedy in the genre of “Saturday Night Live” seemed doomed from the start. Even though “Fridays” lasted three seasons (an eternity in the uncharted waters of late-night TV), it never moved from the shadows of “The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players.” Ratings started low and never rose, despite an extremely talented cast. In the end, spotty and inconsistent writing became the show’s downfall. Struggling for higher ratings, “Fridays” needed an injection of excitement, a controversy, a trained monkey, anything to generate more viewers. Who better to host the show and generate publicity than the often unpredictable Andy Kaufman?
“They want me to say the name of the show, but I’m not gonna!”
A traditional approach to comedy was not Andy’s forte and the folks at “Fridays” weren’t sure what to expect with Andy as the guest host. Andy Kaufman practiced improvisational comedy that bordered on guerrilla theater and modern performance art. Andy considered this element of his repertoire, “pure entertainment.” To Kaufman, this pure entertainment was “living theater” — life as theater, theater as life. The fantasy of performing, combined with Andy’s dangerous mixtures of provocation, superseded everything else in his professional life. His ability to challenge the established standards of performance changed many perceptions about the entertainer/audience relationship, and perhaps will be Andy Kaufman’s true lasting legacy.
He and his ever-present partner, advisor and co-conspirator Bob Zmuda arrived early in the week ready to prepare for the live broadcast on Friday, February 20, 1981. The “Fridays” cast was honored to be working with Kaufman and Andy was pleased to be a special guest star. By all accounts, Andy performed flawlessly during rehearsals.
Broadcast from Studio 55 at the ABC Television Center in Hollywood, the show started at 8:30 PM Pacific Time in order to be telecast live to East coast viewers at 11:30. Andy appeared alone onstage at 8:25 and took the microphone in hand. His rambling, out-of-control, laugh-filled antics took the rowdy audience of 200, as well as, the “Fridays” crew by surprise. At 8:30 Andy ignored director Bob Bowker’s signal that they were now on the air live. Doubled over in self-absorbed laughter, Andy struggled to do the planned monologue as the studio audience began to hoop and holler. With a gleam in his eye Andy stopped — looked at the crowd and laid it on the line:
“All week long we’ve been rehearsing a certain way” Andy said. “I’m not gonna do it!! You know Ladies and Gentlemen this is live, you know — and I’ve never hosted a show live before, but-but I just realized something. I can do anything I want up here and they can’t do anything to me!! They told me I couldn’t say, ‘crap.’ I just did! They said I couldn’t wrestle any women, but I think I’m gonna wrestle every woman in the audience!! Come on!! Come on!! Who wants to wrestle??” With that announcement, Andy had taken the entire cast and crew of “Fridays”, the studio audience and a nation of television viewers hostage.
After jumping around clucking like a chicken and generally acting defiant Andy continued, “I feel like the bad kid in school!” Co-producer and script supervisor Jack Burns and John Moffit pointed at their watches and pleaded with Andy to finish the monologue — he refused. Finally the theme music began and Andy reluctantly walked offstage. From that moment on the show was out of synch. A flustered Burns stumbled through the introduction and as one audience member later described it, “After Andy’s rant at the beginning, a tension just filled the studio. For the rest of the show you felt an adrenaline rush like you get after narrowly avoiding injury in a car accident.”
With the exception of “The Masked Magician” sketch (Bob Zmuda as a snubbed and disgruntled magician bent on exposing the secrets of magic in order to exact revenge on the “magician’s union”), Andy purposely made mistakes whenever in front of the camera. The audience was not sure what to think; the cast and crew, however, were beginning to get very angry.
To this day it is not known how many of the members of Fridays were in on Andy’s hoax. At a minimum, it can be assumed that Kaufman, Moffit, Bowker, Burns and Richards knew about it from the start. With Moffit’s permission, Andy purposely self-destructs during a live television broadcast. Bowker and Burns knew of Andy’s intent to “improvise,” but did not know exactly what Andy meant by that. “How would the cast react when Andy flubbed his lines? What would the audience think? What would happen would be anyone’s guess and whatever that would be — would at least be interesting,” they thought. Once again, Andy had successfully created another piece of living theater. Until things got a little out of hand…
“Why is everyone so uptight??”
The last sketch of the night featured four friends (two married couples) out for dinner on a Saturday night. Each one had brought along a joint thinking that, for one reason or another, no one else smoked dope. So when each person left the table, what he or she did was sneak into the restroom to get stoned. At first, Andy played the part as written. When it was his turn to get up and “go get high” he returned and stopped the sketch complaining, “I feel stupid.” Melanie Chartoff and Maryedith Burrell were dumbfounded. (You don’t stop a sketch in the middle of a live telecast!) Michael Richards stood up, walked offstage, grabbed the cue cards and tossed them in front of Andy. Andy responded by throwing a glass of water on Richards. Exasperated, Chartoff and Burrell began throwing bread and butter at Andy as stagehands and cast-members moved to jump into the fray. Jack Burns shouted (to Director Bob Bowker), “Bob cut to commercial!!” as Andy began yelling at Chartoff for throwing butter in his hair. Burns, after moving Chartoff and Burrell aside, lunged at Andy. People everywhere began pushing and pulling at Andy (see photo above) and Andy was terrified. Finally, cooler heads prevailed and Kaufman was escorted off the stage as the studio audience sat in stunned silence. After a commercial break the final two minutes of the show became an improvised farewell. Brandis Kemp quipped, “We’d like to thank the portion of Andy that showed up tonight.”
In typically unpredictable Kaufman fashion, Andy did not attend the cast party after the show (held in the soundstage next door). During the party, calls from East coast television stations began to flood the ABC switchboard. Word of the on-air fisticuffs spread to national newswires and the incident was featured in newspapers the next day. Kaufman, Moffit, Bowker, Burns and Richards never revealed that the incident was a “work” planned in advance, and this generated more controversy and speculation regarding the continuing strange saga of Andy Kaufman. Many people close to the show were horrified by Kaufman’s actions and felt betrayed by his lack of professionalism.
Despite their “televised brawl,” Melanie Chartoff remembers a sweeter, gentler, less controversial Andy Kaufman. At the conclusion of Thursday afternoons rehearsal, Andy asked her to join him for dinner. Melanie agreed, but wanting to jog first, asked Andy if he would like to come along. In the fading evening twilight, Andy sat in the grandstand and watched as Melanie circled the track. “He said `Hi’ every time I went by,” she recalls. “Anyone who was close to him felt enormous love.”