Andy Kaufman Is Probably Not Still Alive… But That’s Okay

Andy Kaufman still alive?Jim Britt/ABC via Getty

Allow me to open this article with a candid admission: I want to believe that Andy Kaufman is still alive. I’ve wanted to believe that Andy Kaufman was still alive since I was first introduced to the comedic genius’ story at age 11, sparked by my fandom of Taxi (thank you, Nick at Nite) to watch Man on the Moon (thank you, HBO). I had loved his work as Latka Gravas and knew his famous Mighty Mouse gag, but wasn’t familiar with the man or his legacy — nor his dedication to very fabric of comedy — until Milos Forman and Jim Carrey painted such a colorful picture. Ever since then, I’ve read everything I could about Kaufman. I’ve watched all his old routines, reveling in his variety of hoaxes and schemes. I hung a decidedly creepy poster of the man in my college dorm room, alienating visitors with my 48 square inch print of the swarthy weirdo with the menacing stare. In short (although I guess it’s too late for that), I love Andy Kaufman. Many do. And among those is, quite likely, a large population who were really hoping that this new revelation was not a hoax.

On Monday, New York City’s Gotham Comedy Club hosted the 9th Annual Andy Kaufman Award finals — a nation-wide talent competition constructed to showcase the varied creative exploits of budding performers. The most notable performance of the night came not from a contestant, though, but from a 24-year-old young woman who took the stage beside Michael Kaufman (Andy’s brother and the founder of the award show), announcing herself to be the daughter of Andy Kaufman, and pronouncing her alleged father to be still alive. Watch the video for yourself, courtesy of Cinema Blend:

A bit of background info. In 1984, Kaufman was believed (by some) to be killed by a longstanding struggle with lung cancer… a curiosity to those who knew Kaufman as a very healthy individual who never smoked a day in his life. Due to the number of times he pulled the wool over America’s eyes — he staged so many elaborate cons, short and long, that to take anything Kaufman did at face value would be foolish — a number of people have assumed that the death was a ruse. Kaufman could have faked it for a number of reasons: Maybe to sink into a life of privacy that he might enjoy amongst his loved ones, maybe to emancipate himself from the cannibalistic vanity of the Hollywood business, or maybe, simply, because he thought it would be funny. We’d believe any and all.

Kaufman hasn’t been seen publicly since ’84, and doesn’t appear to have had any encounter with his brother Michael, with whom he shared an ostensibly good relationship. The one exception to the actor/comedian’s 30-year absentia came in 1999, at a restaurant where he planned to meet his brother had he ever decided to fake his own death. Andy didn’t show, but Michael is said to have come into the possession of a message from his brother, stating that Andy was alive, happy, living with a wife and children, and uncomfortable discarding his privacy just yet. With the passing of the Kaufman brothers’ father this past summer, Andy is said — by his alleged daughter — to be reconsidering his privacy, opening up to the idea of reconnecting with his brother, and possibly extending his publicity beyond that. The young woman revealed that Andy is a big fan and follower of the awards circuit that Michael Kaufman has set up in his name, taking special interest in Michael’s forwarding of their appreciation of comedy and performance.

And so, here we are. Wondering if this new twist of fate carries with it any veritability at all.

On the side of “Come on, this is ridiculous!” Cinema Blend acknowledges the uncanny resemblance that exists between the Kaufman daughter and theater actress Alexandra Tatarsky, who is reported to have met Michael Kaufman at a Manhattan art gallery and, quite possibly, planned the whole ordeal with Andy’s brother from there. Incidentally, Tatarsky’s father is a 58-year-old New York-based psychologist.

On the side of “Well, maybe… just maybe…” we really only have faith. Faith and the proclamations of present parties who insist that the whole scene was a genuine display of shock and emotion on the parts of both Michael and the niece he would have first met on this night.

And somewhere in the middle, airing cautiously on the side of the former mentality but with a smidgen of hope that maybe… just maybe… it’s possible that the Elvis-impersonating Foreign Man pulled off one of the greatest gags in showbiz history, do I lie. Contemplating skeptically the rare reversal of the Internet death hoax.

I’m wont to believe that the whole thing is an act. In truth, it would be amazing if Kaufman were to resurface, and not only for the reason of having my hero back among us once more, but in the showcase of a performance artist’s true devotion to the art that he pioneered in his heyday. But as much as I’d bask in the glory of Kaufman’s triumphant resurgence, there would be cons to this turn of events as well.

With the rebirth of a legend comes the rebirth of his humanity. Just like with Elvis, Tupac, Houdini, James Dean, Jim Morrison, John Belushi, and a number of other legends, a portion of the majesty of these figures’ work is owed to their untimely passing. Immortalized by the short section of time that they got the opportunity to showcase their brilliance, we remember these greats as flawless. Their images are limited to their triumphs. They are dehumanized and transformed into ideas of perfection (in their respective fields). Andy Kaufman was 35 at the time of his supposed death, having only treated us to a few years of his maniacal brain before leaving this Earth (or just leaving its eye). Back with us, Kaufman would be a man. A man, granted, who managed a 30-year prank, but a man (and a 64-year-old one, to boot) who’d have to carry forth nonstop with his genius in order to maintain “the legend.” For a while, doable. For a lifetime, impossible.

That’s why we speak with a hymnal whisper of John Lennon, but a merry appreciation of Paul McCartney. Paul is a man. An unbelievably talented force of musical creativity and chutzpah. But John, now, is just shy of a god. Granted, John was also a dark, brooding loon and Paul is a pretty even-keeled and chipper fellow. But it’s also the immortalization thing.

We’d lose the Kaufman we knew if we were to unite with one that lived today. He’d arise as a man, one living in a different kind of world that might not play conduit to the tricks at which he was such a master. And we’d eventually have to ask the inevitable question: What kind of person willingly lets their brother, parents, and friends believe he is dead for 30 years, all in the service of a joke or his own desires for privacy?

I say this not motived to castigate Kaufman, if he indeed is still out there, or to call attention to humanity’s odd glorification of the dead. I say this as an appeasement for those, like me, who really want to believe that he did it. That he faked it all, hid away, and decided, “What the hell? Let’s get the band back together!” Anything is possible. But this is probably not the case. Sadly, Andy Kaufman may very well have died back in 1984. But on that very same day, something was born: his legacy. The legendary, inimitable character that has coursed through the veins of comedians ever since, hoping to achieve this wonderful spirit’s passion for laughter, performance, and emotion. In a way, no matter what, he’s still at large. Because nobody, 30 years after disappearing, could inspire this much conversation about the veracity of his death. Andy might not be on this Earth any longer, but he continues to fool us all. And we’re all terribly grateful for it.

Thank you very much.