by Jim Hanas
t's one of those crazy things you always hope will happen on television, although, given the precautions and general uneventfulness of the medium, it almost never does.
Fifteen years ago this week, professional wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler slapped comedian Andy Kaufman out of his chair on Late Night with David Letterman, striking -- if only for a moment -- through the plastic predictability of the small screen with a flash of spontaneity that seemed to surprise everyone involved -- Kaufman, Letterman, and even Lawler. "I promise you," he says today, "I was in a dilemma right up until the last second."
NBC was inundated with phone calls from people who wanted to know if the altercation had been staged. Network lawyers interviewed the parties involved and determined that the producers had no part in planning what eventually happened in the segment.
There had been a plan, but Kaufman getting smacked wasn't part of it. They were supposed to show footage of Lawler injuring Kaufman with an apparently vicious piledriver move at the Mid-South Coliseum three months earlier; Kaufman was supposed to apologize for making fun of wrestling; Lawler was to apologize for the injury; and then Kaufman was to burst into a rendition of "What The World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love."
"You can see it in Andy's eyes and you can see it in Letterman's eyes," says Lawler. "It's like, what's wrong with this guy? Why ain't he doing what we all said we were going to do?"
And then he hit him. Unplanned, unpremeditated, unknown to Kaufman, Lawler just smacked him, out of his chair, right there on national television. That's the story.
IT ALL STARTED WITH A NIGHTCLUB act. Kaufman, who was in 1982 starring in TV's Taxi as the indeterminately foreign Latka Gravas, had been wrestling women from the audience in clubs and on Saturday Night Live and had dubbed himself the World Intergender Wrestling Champion, belt and all. It was a controversial act, done with a seriousness that inspired shock and moral outrage. And if there was laughter, it was nervous laughter, the kind Kaufman seemed to like best.
But it wasn't enough for Kauf-man. He went looking for a way to bring his bit to real live wrestling fans, and after being turned down by other organizations, he approached Eddie Marlin, promoter of matches at the Mid-South Coliseum, which eventually led him to Memphis
"Andy, I guess, was a big wrestling fan as a kid or something," Lawler says, as he reminisces about the Kaufman feud over lunch at the Half Shell. "He idolized Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, who was a big flamboyant bad guy. And so I think that this was an opportunity for Andy to live out a childhood dream, and from the time he got the go-ahead, he took on the personality of this Nature Boy Buddy Rogers. He sent some video interviews in, saying that he was going to come to Memphis and challenge some of the women of Memphis. But of course it wasn't a Latka interview or an Andy Kaufman interview, it was a bad-guy wrestler interview."
Kaufman's taunting challenges were hugely successful by the only standard that matters in the world of professional wrestling: The fans hated him. "They came out in droves," says Lawler, "not only to see Andy, but they also wanted to see him get his butt beat."
The deal was this: The audience picked the women he would wrestle and $1,000 went to the one who could pin him. In the course of four matches at the Mid-South Coliseum, none of them could, although one came close.
Foxy was a big girl who looked to outweigh Kaufman by at least a hundred pounds. As Kaufman was strutting around the ring, bragging about how easily he had pinned the earlier challengers, the bell rang and she was all over him.
"He hit on the mat, and you would have thought the roof was coming off the coliseum," Lawler remembers. "This was the first time anybody had done anything to Andy so far. She grabbed him, and I mean she was tearing him up. She was throwing him everywhere."
Kaufman finally prevailed, but it had been close enough to warrant a rematch, this time with Lawler coaching Foxy from the corner.
When Kaufman pinned her again in the rematch, he apparently got a little carried away, rubbing her face into the mat and refusing to let up. The fans went wild, yelling at Lawler to do something. So he did. He got in the ring and pushed Kaufman off her, which sent the comedian into a rage, screaming into the microphone that he was going to sue everyone, punctuating the threats with his trademark refrain, "I'm from Hollywood."
He was a big star. You couldn't do that to him.
WHETHER KAUFMAN WAS serious then or ever during his ensuing feud with Lawler is anybody's guess, which is what makes the whole chain of events so inscrutable.
Even I'm From Hollywood -- a documentary film made after Kaufman's 1984 death that chronicles his wrestling exploits -- doesn't help. Compiled from footage of matches, interviews, and television appearances, it includes Kaufman's friends and colleagues talking about his obsession with wrestling. Robin Williams, Tony Danza, and Marilu Henner offer conflicting testimony as to whether Kaufman was truly mad or just playing a joke that no one else was in on. He wore his World Intergender Champion belt and the thermal underwear he wrestled in under his clothes, says Williams, giving at least the impression that he had somehow slipped into wrestling's fantasy world.
On the other hand, Kaufman's friend and confidant Bob Zmuda says at one point, "Andy was quite sane."
Watching Kaufman rail against women, Lawler, and Memphis in the taped, wrestling-style interviews, it's hard to decide if he's a madman or a comic genius. You just can't tell.
LAWLER COULDN'T EIther. Even as Kaufman stood outside the ring threatening to sue everyone in sight. "I didn't know what the deal was," Lawler says. "He wouldn't let anybody in on what he was doing, and you never knew if what he was doing was real or if it was a put-on."
After Kaufman threatened to sue, Lawler challenged him to a match to settle their differences. What really happened next is unclear, although Kaufman's statements and Lawler's recollection agree that the two never got a chance to plan out the match. "I sort of think that Andy thought that once he accepted the challenge that we might meet somewhere and talk over what we were going to do. But he never asked to do that. I never could understand why he would accept that or agree to that if he didn't think there was going to be some kind of meeting between he and I, something mutually agreed upon where he wouldn't get hurt. [Instead] he just showed up, like he was showing up for a match."
Kaufman, on the other hand, told reporters before the match that he was scared he was going to get hurt and that he couldn't understand why Lawler hadn't answered his requests to meet and work up a plan.
With neither one knowing what the other was thinking, Lawler says he saw no choice but to wrestle -- and wrestle for real.
"I think, I have to hurt him," Lawler remembers telling people who asked if he intended to injure Kaufman. "For the credibility of the way I make my living. You know, if I can let a little 150-pound comedian come in there and have a match with the Southern Heavyweight Wrestling Champion and walk out unscathed, I think the people would just think we were a joke."
In other words, things had gotten out of hand. It was one of those times when the integrity of wrestling was on the line and only a burst of true violence could vouch for it.
ALTHOUGH ITS DETRACTORS claim to be certain, the subject of whether wrestling is "real" or not somehow remains a matter for debate. Wrestlers are like magicians, but instead of refusing to explain their tricks, they refuse to admit that there's any trickery at all. And that's why claims that the sport is fake always come with a question attached: "Wrestling is fake. Right?"
You won't get an answer to that question, and even when you do -- as when Lawler told the Mississippi Gaming Commission wrestling wasn't real last year in order to avoid paying a fee to promote matches at Lady Luck Casino -- the motivation for the confession is sufficiently opportunistic to keep the question open.
If the question gets too serious and evidence becomes necessary, it can be provided. Just ask John Stossel, who as a reporter for the television news magazine 20/20 asked pro wrestler Dr. D if the sport was fake in 1984 and was answered with a pair of boxed ears. He was eventually awarded a $425,000 settlement.
The rivalry between Lawler and Kaufman that climaxed on the Letterman show looks like that: an instance of a wrestler defending his sport by providing brutal proof of its reality.
ON APRIL 5, 1982, KAUFMAN evaded Lawler's grip for a while, mocking him from across the ring and stepping over the ropes every time he got too close. Finally, an exasperated Lawler allowed the comedian to put him in a headlock in the middle of the ring. That was the end. Lawler picked Kaufman off his feet and threw him to the mat and proceeded to slam his head into the canvas with two successive piledrivers. Kaufman lay on the mat for 15 minutes before he was taken by ambulance to St. Francis hospital, where he spent three days in traction.
The news accounts of the days following the match -- local, national, and wire -- are filled with modifiers like "apparently" and "alleged" as reporters guarded themselves against an eventual revelation that the whole thing was a hoax. Such a revelation never came. Officials at St. Francis assured the press that Kaufman was truly injured, that they were at full occupancy and couldn't afford to waste time or space on a gag.
George Lapides, who was and is outspoken about wrestling being phony, entered into a strange paradox by devoting his column in the Press-Scimitar to expressing his outrage at Lawler's real barbarity. Wrestling was bad because it was fake, but somehow became even worse when it appeared, for a moment, to be real. Sportwriters everywhere who were loath to dignify pro wrestling with ink, puzzled over the anomaly of a real injury in a world everyone knew was bogus through and through.
Lawler was brazen, spouting off to the press about how he'd meant to injure Kaufman, about how he was glad he had, and about how the comedian deserved it for mocking wrestling.
Kaufman was sheepish. "Before the match, I thought wrestling was phony," he told a reporter, "I guess I learned different." He vowed to never enter the ring again, and on Saturday Night Live shortly after the incident, footage of the bout was shown as Kaufman -- still wearing a neck brace -- offered a watery-eyed apology to those he had offended with his wrestling exploits.
No one laughed. Not even nervously.
THREE MONTHS LATER, THE TWO combatants were sitting there, watching the tape again, talking to David Letterman. Kaufman was still wearing his neck brace as Lawler mulled over what he should do. "I'm thinking if I just go up there and apologize," Lawler says, "everybody down here's going to think less of me, and I'm doing all this stuff that's helping Andy, but then I'm thinking what can I do?"
We all know the answer he came up with. Before the segment faded to commercial, Lawler stood up and slapped Kaufman clear out of his chair. Kaufman responded after the break by tossing a cup of coffee in Lawler's lap and pronouncing a stream of profanities, pounding on Letterman's desk as the host fiddled with papers like he was trying to mind his own business.
Lawler says he received telegrams from wrestling promoters across the country, thanking him for taking care of Andy Kaufman.
KAUFMAN DIED OF LUNG CANcer May 16, 1984, at the age of 35, just two years after his feud with Lawler. Between the bout at the Mid-South Coliseum and the Letterman episode, the rivalry stands as the ultimate chapter in the persisting legend of the late-comedian. Often said to be "ahead of his time," it may be that his time is approaching. I'm From Hollywood, Taxi, and his SNL appearances can be found all over the cable dial, and a biopic of his life to be directed by Milos Forman and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski -- the trio behind The People vs. Larry Flynt -- is in the early stages of production and could be out by the end of 1998. Some even believe that Kaufman isn't dead at all, just pulling the ultimate joke.
There is no more wrestling at the Mid-South Coliseum, where more than 8,000 fans came to see the Kaufman/Lawler match. The King now plies his trade on weekly USWA broadcasts and on the USA Network's Monday Night Raw, as well as at the Big One Expo Center on North Hollywood and Lady Luck Casino in Mississippi. "It was a legendary event," he says of his feud with Kaufman. "It really changed the direction of the professional wrestling industry."
KAUFMAN WAS MADE FOR WREStling. As a comedian whose bits included reading The Great Gatsby aloud until the crowd grew tired and left, he understood the value of wrestling's central tenant: If you don't let anyone in on it, no one will ever know for sure what to make of it. People might think you're kidding, but if you refuse to drop character and simply ask them what they think is so funny, they'll have no choice but to laugh, nervously.
Even beyond their connections to Elvis -- Kaufman was known for an uncanny impersonation that continues even after his death in the Elvis-like rumors that he is still alive; Lawler's nickname, of course, is "The King" -- the two had that tenant in common.
"He wouldn't let anybody in on what he was doing and you never knew if what he was doing was real or if it was a put." Lawler's description of Kaufman sounds like a description of Lawler himself. If the comedian needed a conspirator who would never give up the secret, who better than Lawler?
The partnership between the two actually continued well after their appearance on Letterman, and Kaufman did not give up wrestling as he promised. The rivalry continued in arenas around the county with plots and plans and double-crosses, and the two met in many rematches. One such match, held in Louisville a year later, garnered only a brief article in the local paper. The outcome was the same. Lawler finished Kaufman off with a pile-driver.
As a result of that first match, however, both got what they wanted. Kaufman is still hailed as a comic genius, and Lawler has a tape or two to serve as a warning to those who would claim that his sport is phony. Whatever really happened, it blurred the line between reality and pretend, leaving everyone wondering about the difference.
If the truth could ever be found out, we might discover that the whole thing was staged and call it a big hoax. But Kaufman picked his partner well. Lawler knows how to ride the thin line between truth and fiction and makes a living by not separating the two.
In other words, we'll never know, and even if one assumes the whole thing was staged, the Kaufman/Lawler feud will continue to come with a question attached.
Because it was all just a big joke. Right?