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Jerry Lawler: Why his Andy Kaufman wrestling match still resonates

Jerry LawlerDavid LettermanComedy Central (tv network)Doctor Who (tv program)World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.

It looks as if Andy Kaufman is still dead, but just in case he's not, Jerry Lawler says their feud could pick up where it left off.

Kaufman -- the groundbreaking comic who died in 1984 and was immortalized in the song and film "Man on the Moon" -- was back in the news this week when a woman claiming to be his long-lost daughter materialized, apparently as part of an elaborate hoax. The woman claimed that Kaufman was still alive and had faked his own death. 

Lawler is the professional wrestler who waged a feud with Kaufman in the early 1980s, when the comic was launched on a bizarre side career as a wrestler who competed only against women. This culminated with the two confronting each other on David Letterman's old NBC late-night show in 1982, where Lawler slapped Kaufman and the comic responded with a stream of curse words. (You can see here, but be warned that the video contains profanity.)

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In an interview this week, Lawler told CNN, "I would like nothing better than to know that Andy was still alive and been with us all this time. But like anybody else, I really don’t know any more than what I’ve heard." He added that their feud could be revived too.

That feud -- better sit down as you read this -- was completely staged, as Lawler subsequently admitted. Even so, for anyone who was young, say between 12 and 30, during that period, the Kaufman-Lawler match was and remains a cultural touchstone. Everyone in the demographic remembers that event. Why?

Partly it has to do with the collision of two sensibilities, enacted by two men who were essentially performance artists. Lawler, then a local celebrity in his native Memphis and now a high-profile WWE broadcaster, is a beefy tough guy who goes by the moniker "The King" in the pro wrestling circuit and is known for his take-no-prisoners swagger (last year he suffered a heart attack during a match). In many respects, Lawler is a cartoon version of a certain ideal of American manhood: Get your enemies in a headlock first and ask questions later.

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Kaufman, on the other hand, had not one persona but many: He was Latka, the incomprehensible immigrant on "Taxi." He was a (very passable) Elvis impersonator. He was a comic who goaded audiences by threatening to read the entire text of "The Great Gatsby" onstage. His entire shtick consisted of trying to throw people off. And he was very good at it.

So the Lawler-Kaufman brawl -- a "meta" feud if ever there was one -- consisted of purportedly simple Americana running smack into the uncertainties and deconstructions of the post-Vietnam age. Were these guys for real? Not in a literal, sincere sense. (Was anything on Letterman's old NBC show ever sincere?) But the conflict their "feud" encapsulated was very real indeed. It's still playing out in modern America, in fact. Lawler is as red as Red State gets. Kaufman? Blue to the core.

Should we be surprised that Lawler has said that behind the scenes they were actually close friends? Of course they were. Each understood exactly what the other was doing.

What do you think of Lawler and Kaufman? Do you think their "feud" was important?

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Jerry LawlerDavid LettermanComedy Central (tv network)Doctor Who (tv program)World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.
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