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Arts and Entertainment

LAist Interview: Bob Zmuda

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Bob Zmuda (Custom).jpg
Photo by Archman8 via flickr.

Photo by Archman8 via flickr.

Tomorrow night, the Silent Movie Theater hosts a very special event celebrating the release of the compelling new book Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts (Process Media). It's essentially a collection of the mail Kaufman received in response to his televised 1979 challenge to the women of America: beat me in a wrestling match and I will pay you one thousand dollars. As the book reveals, Kaufman’s provocations inspired some pretty severe reactions, evidence that he was succeeding on the most basic level. Finding out that he befriended, corresponded and had sex with some of his combatants adds aonther layer of complexity to the gag. Kaufman associate and lounge singer extraordinaire Tony Clifton was originally on the bill for tomorrow's event. Sadly, Clifton is reported to be languishing in a jail cell in Reno, NV at press time and sadly unable to appear. The event will, however, feature some live yakety-yak from Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s writer and creative partner in crime through the wrestling years, who also wrote the introduction for Guts, along with a screening of multiple rare and never-televised clips from throughout Kaufman’s career. Don't count Clifton out of the game though; a duets album is promised for next year, with REM among the acts said to be already on board.

Zmuda spoke to LAist last week by phone in a 30 minute “interview” during which this interviewer managed to ask exactly two questions. The answer to one of them is below. Part two of our interview with Zmuda will appear later this week.

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What was the first time that Andy actually stepped into the wrestling arena?

People are very intrigued about Andy. He got labeled a comedian but he really wasn’t that.. That was because the first place he started performing was the Improvisation in New York City, so he kind of got that label. But Andy couldn’t tell a joke to save his life. Some people call him the first performance artist, because what he was doing was so unique.

He just wanted a real reaction from the audience members, whether they loved him or hated him. Most performers want the audience to love them, he didn’t care. He wanted a real reaction from them. And it all stems back to when he was a little boy, growing up in Great Neck, Long Island. And his grandma would take him into the Big Apple, into New York City, and instead of taking him, maybe to a Broadway show or something, she would take him to Madison Square Garden to watch the wrestling matches. And this is where his whole concept would be shaped of what the theater was, what performance was.

And you can see the influence in his work. In other words, maybe you have the Latka character from Taxi, the “Tenkyou veddymuch” character, which to him was a good guy. And then you have Tony Clifton, who’s the kind of lounge singer, which was the Bad Guy. So Andy was totally good vs, evil. And that totally came out of the wrestling world.

And the reality is, now it's all different. Now you have wrestling, it’s become a little more of a soap opera. But in the 50s and 60s, people really believed that these people were beating the hell out of each other and killing each other. These guys used to cut their foreheads and bleed for real and all this stuff.

Andy, always in his mind, walked the line to make people think “Is this a put-on? Is this real?” Even today, you know, many people think he faked his death. This year marks the 25th anniversary of his supposed death.

Once he got older and he had his own act, we then started interjecting the wrestling into the show that he toured the country with. And how that started, his birthday was coming up. He was fascinated with these two girls, and he really wanted to be with these girls. But Andy was kind of shy… So it was his birthday, and he was having certain people over. So I figured, what am I gonna do for his birthday, and I figured, Bob, what I’m gonna do, is I’m gonna get a hold of these girls and I’m gonna fulfill one of his fantasies.

So I got a hold of these two girls, and said, "Hey, would you come to this birthday party?" So at the party I say to him, "Andy this is my gift to you." And I had a couple people bring wrestling mats out into the center of his living room. And I can see him turn red, he says "Oh no, what are you doing?" And I had these two girls come out in bikinis, and wrestle each other, and the winner of the two girls would wrestle him. That night, he slept with one of the girls. And he was “Awww! This is the greatest thing.” He realized it was totally self-indulgent.

Then he started touring the college circuit with the show, we decided to put it into the show. And then it became a bigger thing, and the publicity before we came to a college, there would be big posters on campus saying, “If you can beat Andy Kaufman in a wrestling match you’ll win $500”. Soon it became a big thing, part of the show. And they would separate the girls on one side of the arena, boys on the other side, And I would come out in my referee outfit, and we would have the audience select the girls that they wanted to wrestle. And they would always select the hottest, sexiest girl that guys wanted to see wrestle Andy, they wanted to see her be tossed around and everything. And they would always select the meanest girl, the girl that looks like she could really, you know, pin your shoulders to the mat.

And this is how it started… this birthday gift from me to him, to the college shows. And this is when he started to rile the audience. “You women are only good in the kitchen, don’t think you can ever wrestle a man!” And he loved playing the bad guy.

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And then a very smart wrestler in the South by the name of Jerry “The King” Lawler, started seeing all the publicity Andy was getting from this. So the promotor contacted George Shapiro and said, “Look, would Andy Kaufman like to wrestle a professional match with Jerry "The King" Lawler in Memphis?” Of course George Shapiro said, "No way, my client is not a professional wrestler, he’s a comedian and he’s going to get himself hurt." Well, once he told Andy this, it was like a dream come true! So Andy says “I want to go to the South, I want to go to Memphis!” And that’s when he wrestled Jerry “The King” Lawler and that’s when he hurt himself. And it all got insane at that point.

Andy figures that Jerry was a professional wrestler, and they would work something out before the match. But Jerry would never return Andy’s phone calls.

So the promotor calls Andy and says, “This is great that you’re gonna do this but the tickets aren’t doing very well. There’s a morning wrestling show on Saturdays on TV, can you make some videos and send them to us so we can get the audience riled up and make you the bad guy.” Because Jerry “The King” Lawler was the good guy, he was a hero in the South.

So we dressed Andy up with gold chains around his neck and had him sipping cocktails poolside and doing these ridiculous commercials saying “Hi .. I’m Andy Kaufman, you know me, I’m from Hollywood… I am a star and when I come to a nothing place like Memphis, Tennessee I'm sure you people will want to line up to shake my hand, and maybe I’ll shake your hand. But I need to tell you first about this great product they developed up North here, and it's called soap. Hay-all, ahm from Maimphis Taina-sea, huh Mistuh Lawluh, izzat da way yoo awl tawk down they-uh, Mistuh Lawlah? DUUUUH?"

So the promotor calls up and says “Oh Andy this is great! Make more of these, the ticket sales are doing great!” And we made another one where he plays this kind of Northern Jewish guy going, "And we understand there’s another product that you don’t use in the South, that we’ve been using for many a year, wonderful product, we all use it up North here, and it’s called, uhm... toilet paper!!!

So we just kept getting people crazier and crazier. But we still can’t get Jerry Lawler on the phone with Andy. At all.

Now the place is sold out. So we go down to Memphis. And we get there, and we go down to the hotel, the Holiday Inn, to check in. And they say “I’m very sorry but you can’t stay here.” “Well, why not?” “Well, we’ve had about four bomb threats.” So they had to put us in a private house.

The wrestling match was going to be the next night. Still, after a month, Jerry Lawler is not taking Andy's calls.

So now we’re down there with George Shapiro, his manager. And I start thinking “This is a setup.” Because people hated Andy Kaufman at that time.

So that morning, there’s a live wrestling show on the radio. It was like a talk show. And the promotor says, "Well if you want to come in, we’ve got Jerry in the studio live here." It’s the first time I saw Andy up at 7:30 AM, he hated getting up early especially if he was performing later that night. But he got up and we went to the TV station so we can meet this guy.

They escorted us to the Green Room, Andy, George Shapiro and myself. And Jerry "The King" Lawler is sitting on the sofa in the Green Room. Andy very politely walks over and says “Hi Jerry, I’m Andy Kaufman. It’s a pleasure meeting you,” and holds out his hand. Jerry will not shake his hand, but (hocking sound), spits on the ground and he goes “Jew Boy,” and he walks out of the room.

George is talking to the promotor saying, “Look, I’m not sending my client in there, this is all screwy.” The promotor says, “What are you talking about? The place is sold out. Read the contract. If Andy doesn’t show up, you guys owe me a check for $40 thousand.” Aw, boy. Of course Andy wasn’t about to pay $40 thousand.

Legally, if a wrestling match starts and it goes on for a minute, then it’s a legal match. So we figure Andy can run away from Jerry “The King” Lawler for a minute, as long as it’s a minute and Andy leaves the ring, then it’s legal. People will be disappointed, it’s not the big match, but we don’t have to pay the $40 thousand.

When we walked in, they had to bring us from the back room to the square circle, which was set up in the middle of the Memphis Coliseum, with a Memphis SWAT Team of about ten officers with riot gear on and shields. And people were throwing so much stuff. They escorted us with shields up to the wrestling ring. And a chant broke out: “Kill The Jew!” “Kill The Jew!” It was scary.

The match started. Andy ran around for a minute, and then Jerry did a strange thing. He said “Andy, it’s OK. I’ll put my hands behind my back, and put me in a choke hold.” If you watch the tape, you can see me screaming “No, Andy, don’t do it! I don't trust this guy!" And right then, Jerry gives him the Piledriver - an illegal wrestling move. That’s when you turn him upside down and pound the guy head-first into the mat.

Andy of course then blacked out, Jerry “The King” Lawler, who is a pig, picked my guy up again and gave him a second Piledriver to the head. Andy was knocked unconscious.

Because it was a neck injury and a back injury, they had to bring the ambulance into the Coliseum, moved chairs and backed right up to the ring, and took one of those special stretchers for back injuries, you know the ones with the two sections. He was taken out, and I was just about ready to walk into the ambulance, and the ambulance attendant said “No, no, only two family members allowed”, and closed the door in my face. The ambulance took off, I’m left at the ring.

Now that the star attraction Andy Kaufman is gone, the Memphis SWAT Team that escorted us to the ring has dispersed. Now I have to walk back to the dressing room, past about eight thousand fans who are screaming for blood. Yelling at me “That’s the friend of the Jew!” I thought I was gonna get killed.

I don’t know why I did this, it was just instinct. I realized, I’m never gonna get back to the dressing room alive. These people had tasted blood, this had become a total Roman Coliseum scene, there was no security for me. So what I did, I saw the biggest guy. And I’m not a tough guy… I saw the biggest guy, standing off to the side, I went up to him, and slapped him real hard in the face. And just walked real tough, and people just went, “This guy’s crazy.” I got back to the dressing room, I crawled out a window, ran out onto the street and got a cab to take me to the hospital where Andy was.

End of part one.

Dear Andy Kaufman: I Hate Your Guts release party at the Silent Movie Theater, 611 N Fairfax on Thursday, December 3. 8 pm show is sold out, tickets for the 10:30 pm show were still available at press time for $15 from Brown Paper Tickets.

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