Kaufman and "The King": 30 years later
"Andy wanted to be the bad guy."
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 elicit 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!”
“Did you come down here to wrestle or to act like an ass?”
WWE CLASSICS: You both had a working relationship. How did the rivalry between you two start?
LAWLER: On one of the shows, one of his opponents was this really feisty young girl named Foxy. Andy had already beaten a few of the women that night, but this Foxy, when the bell rang for their match, she charged across the ring like a veteran wrestler, picked Andy up in the air and bodyslammed him. The roof almost blew off the Coliseum. You couldn’t have written a better scenario. She wore Andy out, and he was literally trying to crawl out of the ring. Finally, she just got tired, Andy got the best of her and pinned her. But the crowd reaction through the whole thing was phenomenal.
WWE CLASSICS: What was Andy’s reaction to nearly being beaten by a woman?
LAWLER: He came backstage after that match and I said, “My god, did you hear the reaction?” And he was so excited. So I said, “Why don’t we do this? Come back next week, we’ll bring Foxy back and I’ll go out on TV and I’m going to train her. She was so close to beating you that with me in her corner, I can teach her in just a matter of days all she’d need to know to beat you.”
WWE CLASSICS: Was Foxy comfortable with that?
LAWLER: Well, she and I did an interview at the TV taping. When I gave her a second to talk, she said, “Well, I sure do need the $5,000. To be honest with you, my house burned down last Friday. But I'll tell you this, I wouldn’t marry Andy Kaufman if he was the last man on earth.” She was perfect.
WWE CLASSICS: How did the rematch between Andy and Foxy go down?
LAWLER: I was in her corner, but Foxy didn’t do nearly as well in this match as she had done in the first one. Andy just kinda manhandled her and pinned her. And then Andy started pushing the envelope. He started stomping on her, kicking on her, showing his muscles, and then got down and rubbed her face in the mat. Suddenly, 10,000 fans in the Mid-South Coliseum started yelling, “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!”
WWE CLASSICS: You knew you had to get in there do something to stop him.
LAWLER: I got in the ring, grabbed Andy by the arm, and pulled him off of her. He staggers, falls across the ring, jumps up and starts screaming, “I will sue you! You can’t put your hands on me! I will sue you for everything you’re worth! I’m a big Hollywood star and you can’t touch me!” And that’s how it all started.
WWE CLASSICS: It was time for Andy to wrestle a man, and he was scheduled to face you in April 1982. He started to make these infamous interviews that really stirred the pot, talking about having brains and being a big star from Hollywood. He made fun of Memphis residents’ southern dialect. Where did those air?
LAWLER: They aired locally on our NBC affiliate, Channel Five — WMC-TV. We had a 90-minute wrestling show every Saturday morning there on Channel Five. He would tape some in LA and some when he was here at the Coliseum. In one he said, “Ladies and gentlemen of Memphis, I’m going to do you all a favor. I’m going to teach you some personal hygiene.” And he held up a bar of soap and said, “This is soap. Say it with me. Soooaap. You run it under the water, you lather it up, and you wash under your arms, and you’ll be surprised how much better you’ll smell.”
WWE CLASSICS: What was the public’s reaction to these interviews?
LAWLER: He also did one about toilet paper, and after that one aired, the station manager, Mori Greiner, called up and said, “We can’t air more of these Andy Kaufman videos. We’re getting so many hate calls it’s tying up our switchboard. Not just on Saturday, but all week long people are calling and threatening Andy and threatening the station for airing these offensive interviews.”
WWE CLASSICS: Yeah, he really did everything he could to make people hate him. What happens when you both finally meet in the ring in April 1982?
LAWLER: We had so much media coverage. Up until that time, the only people that would cover our wrestling was the station we were on. But everybody was interested in this. Andy and I finally have this so-called match, and in the Memphis Wrestling Association, the piledriver was an illegal move. If you used a piledriver on your opponent, you were immediately disqualified. But that’s what I was famous for. That was my finishing maneuver.
WWE CLASSICS: But he wouldn’t even tangle up with you, he was prancing all around the ring. Even before the match began, he was acting like a goof, and you get on the mic and you say that famous line.
LAWLER: Yeah, I said, “Did you come down here to wrestle or to act like an ass?”
WWE CLASSICS: So how did you finally get him to fight you?
LAWLER: I got in the ring, put both hands behind my back and said, “Come on, I’m going to give you a free headlock. You’ve talked about all of these moves that you know. Put a headlock on me and let’s get this thing started.” He put me in the headlock, I hesitated for a few seconds, then lifted him up into the air and gave him a back suplex. Then I got up and immediately gave him a piledriver, and that caused the referee to ring the bell and I was disqualified.
WWE CLASSICS: What was the crowd’s reaction?
LAWLER: Well, Andy was down, so I pulled him up and gave him the second piledriver, which really pleased the crowd.
"I slapped the taste out of his mouth. I slapped him as hard as I could."
WWE CLASSICS: And that was the whole match?
LAWLER: That was basically what the match consisted of. But after the match, Andy was just down. Normally in Memphis after the main event, people would make a mad rush for the exit to try and beat the traffic. But Andy had been declared the victor by disqualification, and after the bell was rung, Andy just laid there and everybody stuck around. They wanted to see how badly Andy was hurt. Bob Zmuda was checking on Andy. George Shapiro, who was Andy’s manager, was in Memphis as well for the fight. And he was in the ring all concerned. Danny Davis was managing me that night, and he was there in the ring with me. Andy was just lying there motionless like he was dead.
WWE CLASSICS: Were you concerned at all that you had injured this big star?
LAWLER: Well, finally, I tell the referee, Jerry Calhoun, a good friend of mine, “Go help Andy up, and get him back to the dressing room.” He kneels down, talks to Andy and comes back over to me and he says, “He says he wants an ambulance.” I told Calhoun, “No, no, no, just get him back to the dressing room.” So he bends down again, gets up, shakes his head and says, “He says he really wants an ambulance.”
WWE CLASSICS: Why were you so resistant to having an ambulance come to the Coliseum?
LAWLER: Very seldom had we done anything where we needed to get an ambulance. It was like $500 to get an ambulance there, but Andy tells Calhoun that he’ll pay for it. So we wait around, and all of sudden we hear the back door of the Coliseum open up. All the 10,000 people had stayed right there in the building, and here comes this ambulance. The EMTs put this big neck brace on Andy, put him on a stretcher, and took him to Saint Francis Hospital here in Memphis. He was admitted and stayed in the hospital with his neck in traction for three days. It was national publicity. All over the country on TV news shows and newspapers the very next day said that this big star had been injured in a wrestling match in Memphis.
WWE CLASSICS: So how did you end up on the David Letterman show together?
LAWLER: Finally, three days later when Andy checked out of the hospital and went back to California, he taped some more interviews saying, “This is not over! You tried to end my career! You tried to break my neck!” We aired them and we were waiting to do a rematch when I got a call to ask me to be on the David Letterman show with Andy. Like I was going to say no, right? So I said, “Yeah, what are we going to do?” They were planning to show the match, and we were going to talk about what happened.
WWE CLASSICS: But it ended up being far more than that.
LAWLER: Right. When I got to New York, Andy and I had to meet together with a segment coordinator, but he refused to do it, he would not come anywhere near me. So we went in separately. They told me we were going to be on for two segments. They said, “The first segment, Dave is going to show the clips of Andy harassing you. Then we’re going to show the clip of you piledriving Andy. After that, you’re both going to have a little bit of lighthearted confrontation. Dave will take a break, and after the break, Andy will apologize to you for making fun of wrestling. You’ll apologize to Andy for hurting his neck. Then Andy will stand up and sing “What the world needs now is love sweet love.”
WWE CLASSICS: But it didn’t quite go as planned.
LAWLER: No! What they didn’t tell me is that Dave had a bell underneath the desk that he could ring with his foot. So when Andy and I started arguing, Dave started hitting the bell going “ding ding ding ding!”
WWE CLASSICS: Dave was a wrestling fan at one point, right?
LAWLER: When we went to commercial break, Andy got up and walked away because he couldn’t stand to sit next to me. So Dave starts talking to me about when he was working in Indianapolis and did some ring announcing for Dick the Bruiser. So yeah, I guess he was kind of a fan. We got ready to go back on the air, Andy sat back down, and we got to the part where Dave was asking us both for an apology. But Andy wouldn’t apologize, and I didn’t apologize. And everything after that just sort of happened like an out of body experience. When I watch it now, it’s like somebody else was doing it.
WWE CLASSICS: Things started to get really heated once you both refused to apologize.
LAWLER: When neither one of us apologized nor did Andy sing, Dave realized it was going south. So he said, “We’ll take another break and see if we can get things sorted out.” I knew once we went to break, they were going to get rid of us. So when Paul Shaffer’s band started playing music to break, I got up out of the seat, looked Andy in the eye, and slapped the taste out of his mouth. I slapped him as hard as I could. Knocked him right out of the chair. Paul Shaffer stopped playing the music, and the place just went silent. Everybody was just stunned. Dave had no clue to what to. He said later that was the first time he completely lost control of a show. It just shocked everybody.
WWE CLASSICS: What was Andy’s reaction?
LAWLER: Andy staggered up and the security guard grabbed me and led me back to the green room. I could hear people wailing and Andy screaming, it sounded like a real bad scene. They didn’t start taping again until about 15 minutes later. Usually they just sit there for a two-minute commercial break. Finally, an intern comes in and says “Mr. Lawler? Mr. Letterman would like to know if you’d like to come back out and wrap things up.” So I walked back through the curtain, and suddenly the crowd was like a wrestling crowd. They started booing me.
WWE CLASSICS: The roles were now reversed from how it was in Memphis. Suddenly in New York City, Andy’s home turf, and you’re the villain.
LAWLER: The roles were reversed, right. I sat down, and Andy was offstage, so Dave asked if he was going to come back. Andy said, “No, I can’t. If I come back I’m just going to say words you can’t say on TV. So I’m not coming out there.” That part wasn’t on TV, but once we came back on, Andy stormed onto the set and just started screaming profanities. I couldn’t believe it. Apparently that’s the thing that really freaked Dave out because he knew Andy would never swear. He’d never curse. Dave tries to look down at some papers on his desk. He doesn’t know what to do while Andy is screaming. Andy keeps going on and on, pounds on Dave’s desk, and Dave jumps. Then Andy grabs Dave’s cup of coffee and looks at me, shows me the cup and throws the hot coffee at me. I jump up, lunge toward him, he takes off, then the security guard takes us off.
WWE CLASSICS: What did Dave say to all of this?
LAWLER: Dave looks around and goes, “Well, I think you can say some of those words on TV. But if there’s one thing I say over and over, you cannot throw coffee.” Great quick reaction by Dave.
WWE CLASSICS: He’s the master of those.
LAWLER: Absolutely. So we were done. Dave thanked me for being there, and instead of the security guard taking me back to the green room, he takes me straight back to the elevator to try and protect me from Andy Kaufman. I go back to the hotel, and don’t hear another word from anybody. I had no clue what was going to happen until I turned the TV that night, and there it was. They showed everything, but in place of all of Andy’s curse words, they put in the sound of a cuckoo clock.
"To be a great villain, you’ve gotta get personal."
WWE CLASSICS: How soon did you know it was going to become a huge deal in the media?
LAWLER: As soon as it aired, my phone started blowing up. The New York Times, all the New York papers, everybody was calling. It just went ballistic.
WWE CLASSICS: This has become an iconic, not just wrestling moment, but a pop culture moment. After this gained legendary status, did you ever hear what Dave’s reaction was?
LAWLER: I heard that he was furious because it was so different than what was planned with his producers. I don’t think he was ever happy with it, but I also heard that his production staff referred to it for years as “The Famous Show.” That episode got so much attention and so much coverage, that they had to realize that this was one of the things that made Dave’s show famous.
WWE CLASSICS: It really went viral before there was an Internet.
LAWLER: Exactly. It is consistently listed as one of the top moments in the history of television. Thirty years later, I’m still doing interviews about it. We were talking to media just the other day for Raw 1,000, and every single one of them asked me about Andy Kaufman.
WWE CLASSICS: Out of all the great rivalries in wrestling and all the great pop culture moments, what is it about this one incident that 30 years later people are still so fascinated by?
LAWLER: It was the first time something like that had happened. I don’t know if I should tell this or not, but one night I was flying back on the plane with Vince McMahon. And he said, “You know, King, I’ve never told you this before, but I was so jealous when you got Andy Kaufman and did all that stuff with him down there in Memphis. Because he was from New York, and I thought we could have done all that stuff up here.” But he also said, “But I’ll be honest with you. There’s no way on Earth we could have done it as well as you guys did it.”
WWE CLASSICS: Wow. It would have been a totally different dynamic.
LAWLER: Yes, but it would have been a first. Vince loves firsts. To this day, you hear on Monday Night Raw that you’re going to see something for the first time ever. That’s big. And this was the first time any big deal Hollywood star was involved to that extent in wrestling. Vince realized, everybody realized, because it got so much national exposure. Everything back then was still regionalized. Cable TV hadn’t hit yet. The country was divided up into wrestling territories because of TV coverage. Once Vince saw you could use a Hollywood star to get that nationwide exposure, here comes Cyndi Lauper with Captain Lou and Wendi Richter, and then Mr. T gets brought in. The ball got rolling, and it hasn’t stopped to this day. Just in the past year, Hugh Jackman was in there punching Dolph Ziggler.
WWE CLASSICS: Yeah, you really could argue that Andy Kaufman is responsible for all of that.
LAWLER: I really feel, in my heart of hearts, that he was responsible for that. I certainly believe that Andy Kaufman deserves a spot in the celebrity wing of the WWE Hall of Fame. Without a doubt, we would not be where we are today without his involvement. I really feel that way. Even at Raw 1,000, we had Charlie Sheen challenging Daniel Bryan to a match. It’s Andy Kaufman revisited as recently as last night.
WWE CLASSICS: Where does Andy rank in the pantheon of great villains in wrestling? He was right up there.
LAWLER: He really was. To be a great villain, you’ve gotta get personal. And that’s what Andy did. He got personal with the people of Memphis by insulting their hygiene, and it went beyond just being about wrestling. He made things personal by insulting the fans themselves rather than just me. If he had ever gotten to do that on a national level, he just would have gotten better and better. He was a natural at it. He even created that sleazy lounge singer character named Tony Clifton just so he could play the bad guy. He wanted that reaction. Andy was a heel at heart.