A Mat On The Moon
How Andy Kaufman saved pro wrestling

The stories of sex, violence, and wrestling that have wafted off the set of the recently completed Man on the Moon are worthy of the man who inspired the film. Did Jim Carrey, who stars as visionary wrestler Andy Kaufman, really put actress Courtney Love in a "Boston Crab" hold for refusing to share her dope with him? Has former wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler really undergone a sex change operation allowing him to battle World Wrestling Federation star Chyna under the name Jeraldine? Are there really three different endings to the film? And what of that persistent rumor that Andy himself appears in a scene with Jim Carrey…?

Rumors aside, the biopic's December release will propel Kaufman's wrestling provocations back into the media.

See also...
... by Mat Honan
... by Junior Downey
... in the Dirt section
... from July 26, 1999

Indeed, before the shameless kiddy baiting of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, before Jesse Ventura could even spell the word "governor," it was Andy Kaufman -- athlete, comedian, and undisputed Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion -- who single-handedly charted the future course of pro wrestling and transformed the sport forever.

Kaufman saw in wrestling epic tales from the golden age -- replete with heroes, villains, impossible feats, and remarkable salvations. "Wrestling is the basis of all drama," said Kaufman. "It dates back to the ancient Greeks."

"If I play my cards right, I could bring network wrestling back to TV. Unfortunately, to most people, wrestling is a laughingstock," said Kaufman in 1981. "But fortunately, I'm reaching people who otherwise wouldn't watch it."

Exactly. If it weren't for Andy Kaufman, Stone Cold Steve Austin would be no better known than Fred Blassie, Joe Stretcher, or any number of other talented individuals who labored in the ring while pro-wrestling languished. Instead, Kaufman brought wrestling back into the spotlight. More importantly, he made it an acceptable diversion for effete intellectual snobs and Hollywood trendsters.

But How?

For those who haven't seen I'm From Hollywood one of the thousands of times it's aired on Comedy Central, here's a brief synopsis of Andy's days locked in the punch.

According to Bob Zmuda's new book Andy Kaufman Revealed!, Andy first stepped into the ring in 1978, on his 29th birthday. His friend and writing partner Zmuda had arranged for a few of their female friends to wrestle each other for Andy's entertainment -- a fetish Kaufman shared with his idol Elvis Presley. At first, the girls just wrestled each other, but before long Kaufman had installed a mat in his bedroom, where wrestling served as Andy's unique method of foreplay.

It wasn't long before Andy took the act to nightclubs, proclaiming himself the "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion." After a couple of years wrestling women at venues across the country, including the Hollywood Improv, on NBC's Saturday Night Live, and even against Playboy Playmate Susan Smith in Atlantic City, he was ready for the big time.

"I come from Hollywood where I make motion pictures and television shows, and I expect to be treated with respect when I step into the wrestling ring!"

So announced Kaufman in early 1982 -- three years into his reign as inter-gender champ. This particular evening, he was defending his title against one Miss Foxy at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee when local wrestler Jerry Lawler, in a shocking display of bad sportsmanship, entered the ring unannounced and knocked him to the mat.

In response, Kaufman made an April 1st appearance on Late Night with David Letterman and announced he would take on Lawler.

Up until this point, Kaufman had only wrestled women, whom he described as "oatmeal north of the eyebrows." He also maintained that the secret to his success in the ring was the superior brainpower of those in the entertainment industry (an idea he picked up from pro-wrestler Fred Blassie). When this theory was put into practice years later by Vince McMahon and his WWF, it would be seen as a quantum leap forward for wrestling. But in the early 1980s, most fans were unwilling to face the inevitable future of their sport.

Psychological warfare à la Kaufman hit the Memphis airwaves in the days preceding the event. Television ads included footage of Andy wrestling a confused-looking obese woman by his Beverly Hills pool and a lecture on hygiene in which he admonished the citizens of Memphis to use toilet paper and soap more conscientiously, "so it wouldn't smell so bad down there." It was clear by this point that Kaufman was already thinking beyond Memphis and was determined to bring wrestling, absent from the airwaves since its 1950s heyday, back to network TV.

For his part, Lawler sputtered and fumed in the media. But when confronted with the anemic Kaufman in the wrestling ring, he was more than up to the challenge. After a truly bizarre windmill punch offensive left Kaufman exhausted and vulnerable, Lawler applied a piledriver move that landed the comedian in a hospital bed sporting a neck brace and vowing Hollywood's revenge. Sixteen years later, Man on the Moon star Jim Carrey would also feel Lawler's wrath when the wrestler, who plays himself in the movie, injured Carrey's neck during filming.

A planned July reconciliation between Kaufman and Lawler on Letterman led to a violent altercation that left a visibly shaken Letterman groping for a station break. Until order was restored on the set, the wrestlers went at it for the benefit of the studio audience.

The Joke's on Us

But here's the thing: It was all an act. When Andy Kaufman stepped into the ring in Memphis, he wasn't kidding: He was wrestling. And that was the joke, because although Kaufman took it very seriously, professional wrestling is inherently the biggest prank of them all. It's the ultimate deception -- the participants and the audience know the show is staged, yet they all take it dead seriously.

Likewise, Andy's audience, and the media, took his antics seriously. They thought he was joking, but they couldn't conceive of the dimensions of the farce. The basic premise, which was that Jerry Lawler was in on it from the get go, somehow managed to escape the media and Andy's fans alike. Everything was staged, the winners, the losers, the neck brace, everything. It was, after all, wrestling, where each move is scripted long before it ever takes place. The bread and butter of a big-name star like Jerry Lawler is his ability to put opponents in moves such as piledrivers -- which should leave them quadriplegics -- without actually injuring them.

Everyone bought it. Just as they buy the rumors surrounding Man on the Moon today. Did Lawler really snap Jim Carrey's neck, or was it just a reprise of Kaufman's own ploy?

The Future Is Now

Professional wrestling is more popular now than ever before, and we have Andy Kaufman to thank for that. After Kaufman blazed across the scene, wrestlers were showing up in Rocky movies, Andre the Giant appeared in The Princess Bride, and Hulk Hogan battled Cindy Lauper and Captain Lou Albano on prime time MTV, flaunting the "rock and wrestling connection."

Some would argue that when Kaufman injected wrestling back into the popular consciousness, he was at least partially responsible for the introduction of low culture into the prevailing zeitgeist. And they would be right. Andy was raised on television, and considered himself more of an entertainer than a comedian. Trash is entertaining; it's what we want. Hell, Andy is even partly responsible for that daily dose of wrestlemania, The Jerry Springer Show. Andy's childhood friend Burt Dubrow is Springer's co-creator and executive producer. Dubrow had never seen talk show guests slug one another on live TV until Andy and pal Bob Zmuda staged a slugfest on one of Dubrow's early efforts called Bananaz.

Andy Kaufman died in May 1984 of a rare form of lung cancer. Or so they say. Meanwhile, the publicity juggernaut around Man on the Moon marches on. Did Jim Carrey really attempt suicide by trying to think faster than he could talk? Did a certain disgruntled makeup artist for Ms. Love really pen a tell-all on-set diary titled "Stretch marks and Silicone"? And what of the talk around the Academy concerning an Oscar nod for Carol Kane and her breakthrough performance as herself?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Junior Downey is the author of the novel Tight Pants, Black Heart, which won the PEN/Faulkner award for bad writing.

Mat Honan is a Senior Editor at GettingIt, and one of Tony Clifton's bestest buddies.