An Excerpt from Andy Kaufman Revealed! by Bob Zmuda
A Foreign Man
It wasn't an act, it was a happening.
As I cozied up to my vodka that night, I watched an array of young, talented unknowns named Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler, Joe Piscopo, Richard Belzer, and Larry David take the Improv's stage. (Larry would later co-create, write, and produce a little show called "Seinfeld.") During breaks between acts, a shaggy-haired young foreigner could be heard from the back of the room begging, then demanding, that Budd Friedman let him on the stage. The strange young man with the odd accent got the attention of everyone in the packed house as he and Friedman went back and forth about his being permitted onstage. I didn't know Budd Friedman, but I thought he was being overly patient with this sad loser.
Finally, near the end of the evening, after numerous noisy discussions between Friedman and the weirdo, the club owner threw up his hands and relented. Taking the microphone, he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together and welcome a visitor from afar, Mr. Andy Kaufman."
I didn't know much about comedy clubs, but I did know that going last was an honor. Still, this kook with the thick, unplaced accent had begged his way on as the closing act. The volleys between Budd Friedman and this guy were themselves worth the price of admission. I also remembered the law of the street for comedians and aspiring actors: pushiness works. I, along with the rest of the audience, sat back and waited for the schnook to bomb.
It didn't take long. Walking out into the spotlight, this goofy guy with eyes wider than the Hudson began with a few extremely lame impressions, or "emetations," as he called them. He started with Archie Bunker, slid into Ed Sullivan, and finished with our president, Tricky Dick Nixon. Even though each "emetation" was worse than the previous one, he emitted a rough charisma that began to grow on me. But despite that, the guy's sorry impressions, exacerbated by his indefinable accent, made me figure Friedman would be reaching for the hook in about two seconds. To my surprise, he didn't, and the man continued with his hopelessly amateurish act, a routine I was beginning to think he'd practiced only slightly in the cabarets of Budapest or Prague.
As his "act" painfully continued, some of the audience could not contain themselves and began snorting. They were not laughing with him, they were laughing at him. Some of the more sensitive shot the laughers disapproving glances, embarrassed by the discomfort this poor yutz had visited on himself and now the congregation. When he announced he was now going to do "de Elbis Presley" there was a collective groan from the house. Given this was 1973, years before Elvis impersonations would be in vogue, nobody gave a rat's ass about Elvis. I looked to Budd Friedman in the back, expecting him to rush forward to put this bonehead out our misery, but he just stood there, arms crossed, calmly awaiting the train wreck.
This poor Iron Curtain comedian then fumbled around in a tired little valise, found a comb, and began raking his hair into an Elvis coif. He reached back in and pulled out some props. He combed his hair again. I had been trying to suppress a laugh, for fear of hurting his feelings, but now I couldn't help it: amazingly, this guy was making the act of combing his hair funny. I started to pull for him at this point, excited that he'd managed to get the audience laughing with him. Suddenly the house lights went down and a single follow-spot illuminated the man on stage. The organized theatrics of that one light instantly indicated that perhaps all was not what it appeared to be.
After a few more hair combs -- just enough to whip the crowd into a laughing frenzy -- this weird young foreigner began an amazing transformation. Accompanied by the strains of Strauss's famous opening from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," he donned a spangled jacket, popped up the generous collar, hefted an acoustic guitar, and I was damned if he wasn't starting to really look like Elvis. Then he curled his lip in that perfect Elvisian arc, and the crowd screamed.
I was asking myself, Who the fuck is this guy? when I sensed that we all may have been had. The classical music segued into a rock 'n' roll riff and he launched into a stage strut in that patented Elvis prowl. It seemed as if the very act of stalking back and forth and bowing repeatedly in such brilliant mimicry was actually conjuring some sort of "Elvis life force" out of the ether. After a few circuits across the stage, arms flourishing in some air karate and those commanding eyes leveled on us, he grabbed the microphone and spoke. But this time, the poor foreign soul, the cringing little man we had admired and mocked for having the guts to stand before us, was gone. The voice was now rich, sultry...and from the Deep South, as in America.
"Thank yeh verra much...you can just stare at me while ah catch mah breath."
My jaw dropped. This was no impression, this was Elvis. Then, as the trademark lip twitch went out of control, he deadpanned, "There's somethin' wrong with mah lip." That brought a big laugh, partly because it was funny, but probably more so because we were all still in shock. I was satisfied that this was pretty impressive -- that his tribute to Elvis was good even if he wasn't really going to sing -- what happened next blew my mind.
Suddenly lights began to flash and he launched into "Treat Me Like a Fool." He was actually singing instead of lip-synching, and he was great. He followed that first number with a killer rendition of "Jailhouse Rock" that brought the house down. At the end of the act, this person, who or whatever he was -- I still wasn't sure -- nodded politely, eyes agog, and said, "Dank you veddy much."