Loved To Be Hated

New York Press, Dec 16, 2009

“Professional wrestling interprets the universe better than any ideology I have ever seen.”—Jim Dickinson

IN THE WRESTLING business, it’s called “getting heat.” It’s what the bad guys do. It’s what puts asses in seats.

“Cheap heat” is the easy stuff. Insult the crowd and the city they live in. Tell them they are morons, their city is a dump and remind them that their baseball team hasn’t won a World Series since Moses came down from the mountain, and you’ll get them hating on you right quick. The problem is, where do you go from there? Andy Kaufman took it to new heights.

Working for the NWA wrestling promotion in Memphis—which he pronounced Maim-phis, with a degrading, faux hillbilly twang—Kaufman took to the air with a series of beauty tips for the local citizenry—whom he generally referred to as “stupid hicks.”

“I want to help you,” he offered, knocking the very concept of “condescending” into the stratosphere. “I’m going to give you tips to bring you up from the squalor you live in... the garbage that you are. This is a bar of soap. Does it look familiar to any of you? I know you probably haven’t seen one of these before… now this is what you do.Wet your hands…” After that he needed to be escorted to the ring by a SWAT team, presumably so he could get beaten properly, by another wrestler, before he was murdered by a fan. Undeterred, his next tip was a real gasser. “You may not be aware of this, but take a whiff.The foul smell in the air…” And then, charitably, he identified the source. “Ladies and gentleman, this is toilet paper.They sell it. You can buy it. You should use it.”

That he was a New York Jew and constantly threatening to sue everyone did not help endear him to the wrestling fans of America’s great South, either.

Kaufman is best remembered as the guy from Taxi and Saturday Night Live, the nerdy, avant-anti-comedian who became a successful professional wrestler—and make no mistake, he was successful. Like all the great heels before him, people paid money every week to see him get pounded. He began his wrestling career on SNL in 1979, proclaiming himself “Inter-Gender Champion,” and challenging women to wrestle him. He offered $1,000 to any woman who could beat him, and the offers came rolling in.

A new book out this month collects many of the letters Kaufman received. Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts was put together by his ex-girlfriend Lynne Margulies, with a foreword by his writing partner and friend Bob Zmuda, who also played the role of Kaufman’s alter-ego, abusive nightclub comic Tony Clifton.

We all know wrestling is not real, at least not in the sense that most people interpret “reality.” And yet I still hear it all the time, from people who don’t understand how such a clever chap as myself can be such a rabid fan of this trash. “But isn’t it fake?” they bray, like wounded coyotes.


I have seen things in the wrestling world you people would not believe: millionaires being pummeled with bedpans and jolted with defibrillators; cowboys being cut apart with the broken pieces of a child’s lawnmower toy; and an 80-year-old woman giving birth to a glove on live television. I watched with glee as the above-mentioned millionaire crowned his first-born child over the head with a TV monitor while his wife (the millionaire’s, that is) sat next to him in a wheelchair, unable to respond because he was keeping her zonked to the teeth on a steady diet of Thorazine and liquid Xanax. The same guy once had to have his head removed from the horrifying ass crack of a 500-pound Samoan man.

That’s why he is a millionaire: because he’s willing to do anything it takes to sell tickets to his show.

You know what? Falling 20 feet from the top of a steel cage onto a concrete floor is very real. It is very dangerous and it hurts—a lot.When’s the last time you got thrown through a table covered in flaming thumbtacks? Got clobbered with a metal chair, a length of chain or a metal road sign? Even knowing how to fall and how to “sell it,” getting body slammed by your average WWE behemoth will knock the wind out of you for a week of Sundays. Getting your face worked on by a madman with a cheese grater ain’t exactly a Swiss picnic, either. It leaves scars. So does barbed wire.

That the outcome of the matches is predetermined is not a detriment to the spectacle, it is wrestling’s greatest asset. If the NFL would only adopt this simple policy there would be no more blowout Super Bowls. But make no mistake:The people who excel at this game are the toughest motherfuckers in the world.

The Letterman spectacle was a set-up, although no one had bothered to tell Mr. Letterman himself, which is what makes the whole episode so patently bizarre. As if Letterman would have gone for staging a brawl on his show. Not only does it take balls like melons to prank the host of a network talk show, the conspiracy was kept a secret until Lawler finally confessed 10 years after Kaufman’s death that it was Kaufman’s idea. Until then, as far as anyone knew, the brawl was strictly legit. Andy’s confidante Bob Zmuda still insists it was all very real —although one gets the idea he may just be keeping the angle alive to score his own match with Lawler.

It’s difficult for most people to fathom why a successful comedian and actor would take off to Tennessee to work as a wrestler— after the Letterman brouhaha Kaufman feuded with Lawler for almost two years, first hiring contractors to cripple Lawler, and then eventually teaming up with Lawler in a dizzying double-cross angle that included Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart, another Memphis star who later made it big in the WWE. Besides the television show and the big weekly events at the Mid-South Coliseum, Kaufman worked smaller house shows—barnstorming in Indiana and Kentucky—a crazy life for relatively small change and zero national exposure. It was not what any sane person would call a sound career move.

The wrestling rag I used to edit, Wrestling’s Main Event, used to rate wrestlers in a number of categories, only few of which are relevant in Kaufman’s case. He had no technical wrestling skills, no strength and whatever quickness he had was only used to run away.You cannot compare Kaufman in any meaningful way to, say, Ric Flair, generally respected as the greatest wrestler of all time, or Hulk Hogan, certainly the most famous, but regarded by those in-the-know as one of the very worst. The beauty of Kaufman is that he is largely un-ratable. So much of his genius does not show up in the box score. For instance, there is no category for the genius of turning institutionalized anti-Semitism into a viable gimmick.

To watch his work now, it is clear his run in Memphis stands up to any of the great heels. His feud with Lawler was epic, one for the ages. He was as funny as Roddy Piper in his prime, and as despicable as Dick Cheney in his. He was the most hated Memphis-based wrestler since Sputnik Monroe.

It is too easy to say he was “ahead of his time” (especially in a post-Borat world), and that he did it because it was his art. He was a real wrestling fan—naked and not ashamed. It may have been his popularity as a television star that allowed him to go to Memphis, but that would never be enough to carry him for more than a couple of weeks in front of the hardcore crowds they used to breed at the Mid-South Coliseum. His ring success didn’t come so much from some twisted vision, rather it was born of genuine respect for wrestlers, and a deep love and understanding for professional wrestling. If he didn’t have that he would have been exposed as a fraud and chased from the territory ex post haste.Wrestling is very democratic that way.

The reason why he deserves the accolades of a nation—and something greater to have taken to the grave than the Inter-Gender title belt—is for pushing wrestling’s proprietary laws of physics past the accepted envelope, and testing them in an alternate universe.

Andy Kaufman turned Late Night with David Letterman into his very own supercollider, smashing the anti-matter of professional wrestling into the dark matter of mainstream TV, and creating a singularity where the old rules no longer applied. All at once it was dangerous, smart, funny, brave and stupid, grand and patently absurd, and for a moment, at least, all terribly real in a way that could not possibly exist, and yet it stood up to the scrutiny of fans and humorless scoffniks alike.

And that makes him No. 1 with me.

Mike Edison is the author of I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling,Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World.