Kaufman wrestling Deborah Croce on the Staten Island Ferry. Photo: Bob Mantin
As as true of Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman’s most noteworthy live appearance occurred at Carnegie Hall. The date of the gig was April 26, 1979, and the show could fairly be described as the most complete summation of Kaufman’s career. He ended the evening by taken many dozens of the audience members out for milk and cookies and continued the “performance” the next day on the Staten Island Ferry, treating the random stragglers who showed up to ice cream cones.
The show was filmed and released as a VHS cassette at some point, and now we’ve got a pretty decent upload on YouTube. I won’t reveal any of the gags here—you can see those for yourself—but will supply a few observations.
The show opens with Tony Clifton singing the National Anthem (badly) and then regaling the audience with a few observations and another song until he is forcibly removed from the stage. We’ve all had two solid years of observing Donald Trump in excruciating detail; I don’t think Trump’s similarities to Tony Clifton have been emphasized enough.
The opening act is the Love Family, a cloyingly sweet family who sings “The Age of Aquarius.” Kaufman apparently encountered them at Venice Beach in L.A. The choice of opener shows the tougher side of Kaufman’s humor—it seems that the Love family members were genuinely crushed when the audience started showing its displeasure with the act. According to Gregg Sutton, a friend of Kaufman’s, “For the first time in history, the audience wanted more Clifton!” (Crushed or no, they gamely rejoined Kaufman at the end of the show for a second round of bows.)
Robin Williams, who participated in the show, captured something essential about Kaufman’s milk and cookies stunt when he called it “P.T. Barnum meets Jung”:
“People who were heavily into hardcore drugs were going, ‘Oh, this is nice!’ This wasn’t party till you puke—this was milk and cookies! It was Howdy Buddha time.”
Kaufman had executed the milk and cookies concept before, in Los Angeles. On this occasion the destination was the cafeteria of the New York School of Printing, where hundreds of small baggies of Famous Amos cookies awaited the throngs. The cookies had been donated by Famous Amos, and Kaufman repaid the favor by organizing a memorable episode around the cookie entrepreneur on Taxi.
According to Bob Zmuda, who often played the character of Tony Clifton, the Staten Island idea was an ad-lib that Kaufman sprang on the audience as a way to get them to disperse at what had become quite a late hour. Zmuda had all but forgotten about Kaufman’s promise until the next day when Kaufman idly wondered if anyone had taken him seriously. At any rate, Kaufman was a little late getting there but he did show and did treat the crowd to some more Kaufman-on-female wrestling as well as renditions of “Mighty Mouse” and “MacArthur Park.”
One reason the show is such a perfect summation of Kaufman’s career is that it includes many of the gags Kaufman is most known for. Of course the show features Kaufman’s Latka/Elvis. Want to see Kaufman wrestle a lady? That’s in here as well.
It’s been reported in various outlets that Kaufman was utterly elated with the event, and it’s easy to see why. According his father, Stanley Kaufman, the comedian “took a bath” on the show.
The video does show some clips of the milk and cookies portion of the evening but nothing from the Staten Island Ferry, alas.
For more on this event, Zmuda’s Andy Kaufman Revealed! Best Friend Tells All and Bill Zehme’s Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman are essential reading.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Save PBS! After all, it ran Andy Kaufman’s brilliant, demented ‘talk show’ in 1983
Andy Kaufman punks ‘The Dating Game,’ 1978