For years, pro wrestling has done whatever it could get mainstream publicity. There has always been a parade of people of true fame and sometimes dubious fame through pro wrestling's ranks. For example, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Bronco Nagurski was the first pro wrestling heavyweight champion who would also be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The infamous Dr. Sam Sheppard, subject of the movie The Fugitive, found it necessary to become a pro wrestler after being released from prison as his professional reputation had been ruined.
In the 1980s, there was the WWF's Rock 'n Wrestling Connection. This brought a parade of people through the WWF. Wrestlemania II was probably the most "star-studded" event in history. It included Ricky Schroeder, Herb (from the Burger King commercials), Susan St. James (who while being an "expert commentator" for the Savage/Steele match admitted she had never watched a pro wrestling match in her life), Clara Peller (Where's the Beef?), G. Gordon Liddy, Dick Butkus, Cab Calloway, Darryl Dawkins, Joan Rivers, and six pro football players in the battle royale. However, this was all in the WWF. What was the NWA doing to go "mainstream" in the 1980s?
Well, before there was Reggie White, before there was Dennis Rodman, before even Jason Patrick, there was...Andy Kaufman! For those of you who may not know much about Andy Kaufman, he was most famous for playing Latka on Taxi. He was also a semi-regular on Saturday Night Live and did a nightclub "comedy" act.
Outside of Taxi, he was more "performance artist" than comedian. He comedy act would take bizarre turns sometimes, such as him just sitting there reading the Great Gatsby instead of telling jokes, while the crowd booed. Another time, he told the crowd that, if they were good, after the show he'd take them out for milk and cookies. True to his word, there were buses waiting outside after the show to take everyone for snacks. He was so off the wall, his friends didn't know whether the way he was acting in his real life was real or a work. In fact, when he was dying of lung cancer in the late 1980s, many fans and supposedly even his friends thought it was some sort of sick joke or performance art. It was not until after he was actually dead that many people believed he was sick in the first place. So, given that, what better type of personality to get involved in professional wrestling?
All of what most people know about is the feud between Andy Kaufman and Jerry "The King" Lawler where they almost came to blows on the Letterman show and that Lawler supposedly broke Andy Kaufman's neck.
Well, my roommate lent me a one-hour videotape titled "Andy Kaufman: I'm From Hollywood" which documents Andy's foray into professional wrestling in the early 1980s. Contrary to what I thought, the feud included a lot more than the previously mentioned events. Before he really got involved with professional wrestling, the entire thing started with Kaufman declaring himself the "Intergender Champion of Wrestling". As part of his comedy act, he would invite any women out of the crowd to attempt to beat him. Now, this part seems like it was fairly legit. While Kaufman would pull his kicks and slaps, the wrestling did seem real. He would do this on Saturday Night Live (note the show was live) without permission, much to the aggravation of the producers and other performers. Eventually, this evolved from being a part of his act, to him challenging women in the Mid-South arena during wrestling cards. Now, it's impossible to tell whether the eventual involvement of Lawler was planned from the beginning or it was an idea conceived of after Kaufman started wrestling women to get more mainstream publicity for wrestling. My guess is the latter.
Anyway, he was wrestling some woman at an arena at a Mid-South wrestling card and beat her. Jerry Lawler decided to get involved in the situation and thought that by giving the woman a few pointers, she would be able to beat Kaufman. After working with Lawler a week, she tried again to no avail. However, after the match, Kaufman started giving Lawler some lip and Lawler shoved Kaufman. That started the feud. Kaufman threatened to sue Lawler and they eventually signed a contract to meet in the ring. In the match, Kaufman spent over six minutes running away from Lawler, and the match was starting to look like Ali/Inoki. Finally, Lawler let Kaufman get him in a headlock just so Kaufman would get in the ring. Once the headlock was applied, Lawler sent Kaufman into a big belly-to-back suplex, which is the classic sucker move that professional wrestlers put on marks. From there, a piledriver (which showed you it was a work because Kaufman held onto the back of Lawler's legs as Lawler got him into position), which was banned in Memphis at the time and caused Lawler to be DQed. Then a few more piledrivers and Kaufman was taken away in an ambulance.
Contrary to what I thought, that was not the end of the feud, it was actually more or less the beginning. There were a number of other incidents, with Andy Kaufman putting a $5,000 bounty on Lawler's head, for anyone that could put Lawler in the hospital. Kaufman would jump in and Pearl Harbor Lawler when Lawler was in the middle of matches with real wrestlers. Ken Patera was one of the many wrestlers who tried collect the bounty, to no avail.
Eventually, the Letterman incident, which many people think started the feud, happened on 7/29/82. The incident culminated with Kaufman throwing hot, scalding coffee onto Lawler and Lawler giving Kaufman a shove and Kaufman letting loose a string of profanities. The incident, to the uninitiated, looked totally legit. Kaufman filed a lawsuit against NBC and said that, when he won, he was going to use the money to buy NBC and turn it into a 24-hour wrestling network. NBC was forced to respond and threatened to ban Kaufman from NBC programming.
After the NBC incident, the feud did not abate and, in fact, it escalated. Kaufman became aligned with Jimmy Hart and The Assassins. Kaufman also turned himself into a megaheel, insulting the people of Tennessee. He would do "public service announcements" during wrestling shows and The Jerry Lawler Show for the people of Tennessee. He taught them what soap was, taught ladies how to shave their armpits and legs, and introduced the people of Tennessee to toilet paper. Watching these old clips, it is easy to see how much these spots must have infuriated the people of Tennessee. In fact, I recently lent to videotape to a buddy of mine from Tennessee, and fifteen years after the fact, my friend got really angry watching the tape. In addition to ridiculing their hygiene, he would ridicule their accents, lack of intelligence, their poverty, and anything else he could think of. (Frighteningly enough, during one of the segments, he starts coughing, which was probably related to his impending death from lung cancer.) While Kaufman seemed to win the war of words, Lawler would continually get the better of Kaufman in the arena, even going so far as to throw fire into Kaufman's face on one occasion.
So, Kaufman, Jimmy Hart, and his stable are all aligned against Lawler, the hometown hero. Eventually, as often happens with the dastardly heels, Kaufman and Hart come to blows when Hart's bungling causes Kaufman to take a beating. Kaufman eventually comes on to Lawler's show, begging Lawler to be his partner against Hart and the Assassin, offering Lawler $10,000 to be his partner. Lawler said he didn't want the money. Lawler would agree to be Kaufman's partner on one condition, that after that match, Kaufman would get out of wrestling for good. Kaufman said he would do anything to get Lawler as his partner, so he agreed.
The match is signed. Lawler and the Assassin start the match. Hart and Assassin start double teaming Lawler. Kaufman comes up behind his partner, taps him on the shoulder, and throws salt in his eyes! The three ruffians start stomping a mudhole in Lawler. Afterwards, Kaufman is giddy with happiness.
Seemingly, the feud ends at that point, and it is not clear whether it is because of Kaufman getting out of wrestling on his own or because of his failing health.
The entire videotape is cut into with comments from Robin Williams, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, and Andy's friends saying how Andy went over the edge with the wrestling thing, and how even in his personal life he wore wrestling tights and his Intergender Championship Belt under his clothes 24 hours a day. In fact, I recently bought a book from the 1980s about television totally unrelated to wrestling and it had a section with tips from the stars on how they stay in shape. Andy Kaufman said he does it by wrestling women and defending his intergender championship. I say, give Kaufman credit, he did a better job of becoming a part of professional wrestling than Dennis Rodman.
Anyway, if you are old enough to remember this feud, and you want to find out more about it, you'll definitely want to rent this videotape if you can find it. It is distributed by Shanachie Entertainment, Co. Also, Kaufman did another cult movie, "My Breakfast With Blassie", a documentary of his time spent with "The King of Men" Fred Blassie. If you are interested in seeing something a little more bizarre, check out my review of it.