Most of us tend to sentimentalize and overstate the accomplishments of the dead. But NBC's "Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman" shows us that the reverse can be true too. In offering us a fond recollection of Kaufman by a hefty roster of his comedy colleagues, we're invited to laugh just as heartily as we did the first time around, and we come away with a surprising reassessment as well.
Kaufman's career lasted a brief 10 years until his death from cancer in 1985, but it ranged from rowdy clubs to Carnegie Hall (with milk and cookies for all after the show), from "Taxi" to his own prime-time comedy special and, of course, the inter-gender wrestling championship of the world.
Hosted by Bob Saget and Marilu Henner, the program captures every facet of Kaufman's career: his Elvis impersonation; his twerpy, vaguely Andalusian, Foreign Man; his strange club routines (like his bit entry in the Mighty Mouse theme song); and the alter ego he found in the cheap lounge comic Tony Clifton. It even shows home movies of Kaufman as a kid, to whom the fantasy of performing superseded everything else in life.
The show also touches on one of the things we miss beyond Kaufman's mock-ingenuous appeal--his peculiar ability to challenge the canons of performance. It clearly identifies the provocateur hidden in the empty sweetness of Kaufman's demeanor. In his outbursts, his pronounced ineptitude, the way he tried people's patience and overthrew the format of not only his act, but also everyone else's, he changed our perceptions of the show-biz moment.
Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, Richard Belzer, Rodney Dangerfield, Lily Tomlin, Carl Reiner, Garry Shandling, Judd Hirsch, Richard Lewis, Dick Van Dyke and Sinbad are among the people who recall Kaufman for us in observations that are often astute rather than self-serving.
Long before the program's end, we miss Kaufman's comic imagination and realize that no one has taken up his challenge.
* "A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman" airs at 10 tonight on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39).