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Is Andy Kaufman Still Alive? Probably Not

I was a judge at Monday night's Andy Kaufman Awards, where some lady who claimed to be Andy's daughter came up onstage and talked with Andy's brother, Michael. It was awkward for everyone.

by Jonathan Smith
Nov 14 2013, 12:00pm

Photo of Michael Kaufman and some lady who said she was Andy Kaufman's daughter, via the Comic's Comic

Yesterday, Defamer published an article titled “Is Andy Kaufman Still Alive?” Gothamist, the Comic’s Comic, Dangerous Minds, and others posted similar stories. The posts were based on accounts of a very strange ten minutes during Monday night’s ninth annual Andy Kaufman Awards, during which Andy’s brother Michael claimed to not know if Andy was alive, and then may or may not have been reunited onstage with his long-lost niece (Andy’s daughter). I was a judge at the (untelevised) event, so I figured I’d share what I saw and clear some stuff up.

I met Michael in January when I interviewed him about “On Creating Reality,” an Andy Kaufman exhibition at Maccarone gallery in New York. I hadn’t spoken with him since then, but last week I got an email from Wayne Rada, the producer of the Andy Kaufman Awards, saying that Michael wanted me to be a judge at the finals. I said I’d be happy to, and when I got to the Gotham Comedy Club I was told that Michael would be making a “very special announcement” at the end of the show.

After the contestants finished their sets, I went to the basement with the other three judges, who told me that, with the exception of tonight, Michael was always down there with them. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but in hindsight it seems obvious that I was asked to take Michael’s place in the judging process so he could focus on making his special announcement at the end of the show.

We probably deliberated for all of about four minutes before coming back upstairs, as the host of the show was wrapping up. Before announcing the winners, he said, Michael would like to say a few words. Michael walked up to the stage and squinted a little in the lights. He’s a soft-spoken man with mannerisms eerily similar to his brother, and when he began to speak the entire room fell silent.

I wasn’t taking notes on this part of the show, so the below description of events is based strictly on memory:

Michael started by telling us a story about a long ago Christmas Eve he had spent with Andy at a diner that advertised one of Andy’s favorite holiday dishes. After they were seated the waitress told Andy they were out of the dish, and Andy asked to use the payphone. Loud enough for the whole restaurant to hear, Andy said into the mouthpiece, Yeah, they don’t have it. So it’s an open-and-shut case? I can sue them for everything they’ve got? Great, thanks. According to Michael, the waitress came back a few minutes later and said she had miraculously found one last serving of the dish in the kitchen.

Years later, Michael said, he found a note in some of Andy’s belongings that mentioned, among other things, his plan to fake his own death. It didn’t go into specifics about how exactly he expected to carry out the act, but it did say that in 1999 he would reappear on Christmas Eve at the restaurant he went to with Michael all those years ago. Michael, feeling a bit gullible but unable to suppress his curiosity, made his way to the diner that night and got a table under a fake name that Andy sometimes used. For a while nothing happened, but then a shadowy figure walked out the front door of the diner, got into a car, and dramatically peeled out of the parking lot. A server came over and handed Michael a typed note, which he claimed had been given to him by the gentleman who had just left the restaurant and hauled ass down the highway.

At this point Michael paused, reached into his pocket, pulled out the note that was given to him that night, and read it to the audience.

The gist of it was this: Andy is alive and very not dead, happily living in anonymity somewhere far away from the pressures and artificiality that Hollywood and celebrity culture inspire. He has a daughter, whom he loves very much, and couldn’t be happier in his new life. He apologized for the pain he had inflicted on Michael and the rest of his family, but stressed that under no circumstances could news of his survival get out until after their father had passed away. The roller coaster of emotions, Andy believed, would be too much for him. And so it was that Michael Kaufman held on to his brother’s confession and kept it from the world until last Monday, roughly five months after his father’s death.

But wait, there’s more.

A few days after his father died, Michael said he received a call from a mystery woman who claimed to be Andy’s daughter. Her dad, she said (who had never revealed his real identity to her, by the way), had been terribly upset recently for reasons his family couldn’t figure out. Seeing that they were concerned, Andy came clean and told them all about how a few decades back he was one of the most famous comedians on the planet, a frequent guest on the first season of SNL, star of Taxi, and a wrestler of ladies on national television. He told them about Michael too, and that’s why she was reaching out to him.

Michael explained to his audience that his supposed niece said Andy had watched the awards in previous years and thoroughly enjoyed them, and one day hoped to be able to attend. Michael asked if the mystery woman would attend this year in place of her father, and she told him she would try.

The punchline of this terribly long and convoluted story was that Michael looked out into the crowd and said that he didn’t know the woman’s name, but if she was in the theater, could she please come up to the stage? Aside from one of the contestants, who was sobbing hysterically from stage left, the place was as quiet as a tomb. We all craned our necks left and right to see if someone was standing or approaching the stage. No one got up. This crippling awkward moment hung in the air for about 30 seconds before a woman passed in front of me with her hands cupped over her face, timidly walking toward the stage.

She got up there and talked to Michael for about ten minutes. She said she didn’t know he was going to ask her to come up onstage, that she wasn’t prepared, and that she was still sort of in shock about the whole thing. It was, again, awkward as hell. Michael asked her personal things about Andy, like how many toothbrushes he keeps in the bathroom (six [???]), if he had a job at the moment (he’s a stay-at-home dad), and what he looks like now (he has a bunch of facial hair). A lot of the time she was trying to avoid eye contact and seemed really uncomfortable. She said she had no idea about her father’s past until he told her, at which point she had googled the hell out of him and watched all the videos she could find online (no word on what she thought of Jim Carey’s performance in Man on the Moon). At the end Michael said he would walk her out, and they left the stage together.

To me, the woman had come off like an unconvincing actor playing a part in a very weird, fairly convoluted prank.

About five minutes later Michael came back in and collapsed next to me on the couch at the back of the club. He might have been crying. I was trying not to look at him because I had no idea what to say—I didn’t want to ask him if he was OK, and what it was like being reunited with his maybe-niece, because I didn’t believe that woman was his niece. On the other hand, why was he keeping up the charade in the back of a dark venue, where hardly anyone could see him? Seeming dazed, almost like a person who had just woken up after a seizure, he meekly tapped me on the arm with a CD that one of the contestants had given out to everyone and asked if I’d gotten one. I said I had, and then asked him how he was holding up. He wasn’t sure, he said. I asked him what had happened when he went outside with the woman, and he told me he had given her money for a cab because he had no idea where she lived or how much cash she had. When I asked if he had gotten her name, or the name Andy is going by these days, he said he hadn’t even thought to ask.

I reached out to Michael yesterday via email and asked if he had anything new to say about Monday night. He replied:

"I haven't learned of anything new. I guess I've learned to expect the unexpected... Not sure what else to say, except, I'm far from certain about anything..." [sic]

Is Andy Kaufman still alive, and did his daughter come onstage Monday night? Probably not. But who the hell really knows? If anyone were going to fake his own death, then have his brother publicly read a fake letter about his planning to fake his own death 19 years later, then have that brother reunite with his “fake” niece onstage, all to obscure the truth that the girl’s father actually had faked his own death and started a new life, it would be Andy Kaufman.

The only thing we know for sure is that Michael Kaufman put on the best performance at the Andy Kaufman Awards this year.

UPDATE: The Smoking Gun reports that the woman on stage is a 24-year-old actress named Alexandra Tatarsky, whose father is a doctor in Manhattan and not, in fact, a comedy legend who died five years before she was born.


More Kaufman:

Kaufman on Kaufman: An Interview with Andy's Brother

On the Road with Tony Clifton

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