Man-Eating Space Lizards: When V Was a TV Smash

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

American broadcast television in the 1980s didn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. Shows like Hill Street Blues were outliers, crowded off the schedule by head-hammering episodic series featuring mercenaries (The A-Team), car chases (The Dukes of Hazzard), or soapy melodrama (Dynasty).

On its surface, V appeared to be no different. A two-part miniseries airing on consecutive evenings in May 1983, it told the story of the “Visitors,” gregarious aliens who arrive on Earth in three-mile-long spaceships and greet humans with a bargain: Let the Visitors harvest a chemical needed for their continued survival and receive advanced medical knowledge in return.

As the humanoid aliens reveal themselves to be malevolent lizard-like creatures who prefer to dine on humans rather than prolong their lives, V took on the look and feel of a pulpy sci-fi epic—the kind of thing that could be easily summarized in one Amazing Stories cover image from the 1940s. But writer Kenneth Johnson had something far more subversive in mind. The Visitors were stand-ins for fascists, and V was a cautionary tale about the perils of complacency.

Warner Home Video

A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Johnson had broken into television with a writing stint on The Six Million Dollar Man, for which he conceived a female counterpart in the form of Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner). Sommers got her own series, The Bionic Woman, which Johnson produced until he was tasked with adapting The Incredible Hulk as a live-action drama.

It was around this time that Johnson became fascinated with a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist group that rises to power in the United States. Johnson reworked the concept into Storm Warnings, a feature-length screenplay; that work landed on the desk of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, who encouraged Johnson to adapt it into a television miniseries by casting Soviets or the Chinese as the antagonists.

Tartikoff’s request made sense. The miniseries format, which took off in the 1970s with Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, was drawing record numbers of viewers. The Thorn Birds, about a priest who is tempted to break his vow of celibacy by a younger woman, was a hit; so was Shogun, about a 17th century man who shipwrecks in Japan and becomes a pawn in a war between samurai. (Both starred Richard Chamberlain.) Storm Warnings had an appropriately sprawling narrative with multiple characters, a feat of creative engineering Johnson was encouraged to use after reading War and Peace.

But the writer was less enthused about casting a foreign superpower as a rival. Tartikoff then suggested aliens, the allegorical turf of Rod Serling that had fueled many a socially-conscious episode of The Twilight Zone. Johnson later told Starlog he “ran screaming from the room” at the suggestion, but eventually warmed to it. Storm Warnings became V: NBC committed $13 million to produce the four-hour drama.

Warner Home Video

While a generous budget for television, the scope of Johnson’s idea taxed every available dollar. A 60-foot-long model of one of the Visitor ships was built; a giant hangar intended to depict the inside was made to scale, albeit cut in half; matte effects, with the ships laid over a background painting, depicted their unsettling arrival over Earth’s major cities. A feature with those same ambitions might take months of pre-production planning: Johnson got three weeks.

Whatever was lacking in the special effects and costumes—Johnson opted for a regal, military-inspired garb for his aliens that hasn’t aged well—never diluted the real attraction of V. Following a television cameraman (Marc Singer) and a botanist (Faye Grant) as they grow suspicious of the true intentions of the Visitors, the series quickly turns into an examination of what happens when a population is seduced by the promise of a helping hand. Celebrities and world leaders endorse the Visitors; scientists questioning their motives are corralled and delivered to ships for “re-education.” By the time their foot soldier Diana (Jane Badler) is seen devouring a guinea pig, Singer and his cohorts have decided to form a resistance to push back against being turned into alien kibble. For viewers who didn’t care for the subtext, there was still the birth of a lizard baby to talk about with coworkers and friends the next morning.

In a departure from conventional advertising, NBC decided to take a conservative approach with V. Posters in subway stations and bus stops depicted illustrations of the Visitors in propaganda-style posters; later, a “V” would be spray-painted over the ads. There was never any mention of the series.

The premiere of V drew a 40 share, which meant 40 percent of all households watching television at that hour were watching the lizard people establish their dominance on Earth. Tartikoff even granted Johnson the ability to run 15 minutes past the allotted two-hour time slot, cutting into local newscasts. On night two, V maintained much of that audience.

What might have turned out to be a lucrative franchise for NBC quickly lost its way. Tartikoff wanted Johnson to oversee a weekly drama continuing the story of the resistance while ramping up their licensing efforts; Johnson argued that the premise would be too expensive for the format and suggested a two-hour movie air every month or two instead.

Amazon

In the end, neither quite got their wish. Another miniseries, V: The Final Battle, aired in 1984, but Johnson disowned it after extensive rewrites. V: The Series followed, but lasted just one season. Johnson lamented that the network had taken his cautionary tale and turned it into a spectacle, with gunfights and lizard people eating small animals taking the place of the allegory.

V was revived by ABC in 2009, but low ratings led to a quick demise after two seasons. Other shows and movies like 1996’s Independence Day had borrowed heavily from Johnson, wearing out the premise. In 2007, Johnson published V: The Second Generation, a novel based on one of his follow-up scripts.

The miniseries format would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s before serialized dramas with shortened seasons edged them off television schedules. Like The Thorn Birds, V remains one of the most well-remembered entries in the medium, due in no small part to Johnson’s nods to levity. When the aliens arrive, a high school band plays the Star Wars theme.

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

Face masks are going to be the norm for the foreseeable future, and with that in mind, designers and manufacturers have answered the call by providing options that are tailored for different lifestyles and fashion tastes. Almost every mask below is on sale, so you can find one that fits your needs without overspending.

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Home Essentials

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Brio

The breathable, stretchy fabric in these 3D masks makes them a comfortable option for daily use.

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This cotton mask pack is washable and comfortable. Use the two as a matching set with your best friend or significant other, or keep the spare for laundry day.

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RipleyRader

Don’t let masks get in the way of staying active. These double-layer cotton masks are breathable but still protect against those airborne particles.

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Elicto

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Designer Face Covers

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Eargasm Earplugs

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Design Safe

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Its All Good

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Prices subject to change.

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The Brief, Bizarre Pro Wrestling Career of Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman.
Andy Kaufman.
Joan Adlen Photography, Getty Images

For a period of time in the early 1980s, the most hated man in Memphis, Tennessee, was a comedian from Long Island.

Andy Kaufman had spent years as a stand-up comic perfecting his own peculiar brand of antagonistic performance art, inciting anger among audiences by reading verbatim from The Great Gatsby, pantomiming the theme song from Mighty Mouse, and taking naps onstage. Even as he enjoyed mainstream success with a prominent role as Latka Gravas on the popular sitcom Taxi, Kaufman still yearned to stir discontent. He was, in the vernacular of professional wrestling, a “heel”—someone who draws attention by riling up crowds.

In 1981, Kaufman decided to adopt a heel persona where it would be best served: in the ring. With little athletic ability, no experience, and relatively little money to be earned, he became a professional wrestler and one of the biggest attractions the Memphis area had ever seen.

He did this by challenging and wrestling women.

 

Kaufman had grown up on Long Island and perfected his craft in unpaid appearances in comedy clubs before garnering attention for his guest spots on Saturday Night Live. Taxi followed, as did a successful tour, where Kaufman would do anything from impersonate Elvis Presley to escort 2000 fans out for milk and cookies after performing at Carnegie Hall.

As a child, Kaufman had been a fan of professional wrestling and an admirer of “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. He once saw Rogers grapple with Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden, with Rogers—the villain—drawing boos from the crowd. It was this memory that probably came calling back to Kaufman when, in 1977, he began issuing challenges to women in the audience. If they pinned him, he said, he would give them $1000.

Andy Kaufman’s wrestling memorabilia on display at New York City's Maccarone gallery.Jack Szwergold via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Estimates on how many times Kaufman wrestled with a woman range from 60 to more than 400. Though some matches may have been staged, Kaufman did appear to be engaged in real physical contests with many of the volunteers. While it had the expected result for his audience—they were alternately amused and confused—Kaufman wanted to do it on a larger stage. He made his proposal during an appearance on Saturday Night Live on October 20, 1979, wearing his now-familiar wrestling outfit of black trunks over white long johns. Kaufman explained that he wasn’t interested in wrestling men because they might beat him, but he would take on any woman who dared.

A pregnant woman volunteered, but Kaufman refused to wrestle her. Instead, he faced Mimi Lambert, a dancer and Lacoste sportswear heiress, who was pinned after several minutes. For no apparent reason, a triumphant Kaufman then challenged Olympic swimmer Diana Nyad to a match, with $10,000 on the line if she won, before clucking like a chicken.

 

Andy Kaufman returned to Saturday Night Live several more times that year to continue his challenges, at one point even “threatening” host (and future Golden Girl) Bea Arthur.

Finally, Kaufman found an opponent in Diana Peckham, the daughter of Olympic wrestling coach James Peckham, and wrestled her on the December 22, 1979 episode of SNL. Though Kaufman had childhood hero Buddy Rogers in his corner, he was unable to beat Peckham and the bout was declared a draw.

Kaufman then began phoning wrestling promoters, including prominent New York promoter Vince McMahon Sr., and told them he had crowned himself the World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion and was willing to defend his title against all comers. He was undefeated, save for one loss to six women at once at a Chippendales club in Los Angeles.

As usual, Kaufman was ahead of his time. This was in 1981, years before McMahon’s son, Vince McMahon Jr., would elevate the business with spectacles like WrestleMania and celebrity appearances by Mr. T, Cyndi Lauper, and Liberace. In a short while, he likely would have been welcomed into the fold. But McMahon Sr., a wrestling traditionalist, wasn't interested.

Dismayed, Kaufman turned to friend and wrestling journalist Bill Apter, who recommended the comedian get in touch with Jerry Lawler, the most popular wrestler in Memphis. With partner Jerry Jarrett, Lawler ran the region's Continental Wrestling Association, or CWA. Lawler was intrigued by the proposal and suggested Kaufman come to Memphis. While he had no real in-ring ability, he was recognizable and his male chauvinist persona was likely to draw attention.

For months, Kaufman sent in tapes taunting the locals. On October 12, 1981, Kaufman finally appeared at Tennessee's Mid-South Coliseum and wrestled three women in a row. On November 23, he took on four women. The fourth, Foxy Brown, managed to wrestle Kaufman to a draw. Both Lawler and Kaufman knew a rematch with Brown—with Lawler in her corner—would be a success.

It was. Kaufman defeated Brown convincingly on November 30, 1981, which led to Lawler jumping into the ring to confront Kaufman for his unsportsmanlike conduct. It was at this point that Kaufman and Lawler realized they had something special. Lawler, the Memphis hero, was standing up to Kaufman, the Hollywood outsider who had no respect for women. The crowd’s response was electrifying to Kaufman, who saw an opportunity to take his admiration of Buddy Rogers one step further and actually wrestle a man.

 

For months, viewers of local pro wrestling programming in Memphis watched as Kaufman sent in more videos heckling them. “I’m from Hollywood!” he said. He taught them how to use soap, a skill he insisted they lacked, and played into offensive Southern stereotypes. He insisted women “belonged in the kitchen” and that their time was best spent “scrubbing potatoes.” If Kaufman were to ever walk down the streets of Memphis unescorted, it could have been a problem.

Finally, Kaufman and Lawler squared off on April 5, 1982. Roughly 11,200 fans showed up to the Mid-South Coliseum eager to see Lawler silence Kaufman, invested in the outcome even though a portion of them probably realized the two were playing roles. (They had even rehearsed moves at referee Jerry Calhoun’s house two nights prior.) The bout lasted less than seven minutes, with Kaufman spending much of that time avoiding Lawler and offering little offense beyond a simple headlock. Finally, the wrestler got his hands on the comedian, sending him to the mat with consecutive piledrivers.

It was far from the end of the show. Kaufman spent 15 minutes in the ring, legs twitching, before insisting Lawler call for an ambulance. (Lawler told him it would cost $250 for the real thing to arrive. Kaufman promised he would pay for it.) He was hauled off on a stretcher and spent the next several days giving interviews from a hospital bed, insisting he had suffered real injuries in a legitimate contest. While Kaufman told Lawler the piledrivers had hurt him, it was unlikely the injuries were severe enough to require a three-day hospital stay.

Yet Kaufman's testimony was apparently enough to mislead The New York Times, which reported on his convalescence as being legitimate:

“[Lawler] insisted the bout be a real thing. It was, too … As a result, said George Shapiro, the comedian’s manager, Mr. Kaufman suffered cuts on the top of his head, strained neck muscles, and a compressed space between the fourth and fifth vertebra. Hospital officials listed him in good condition yesterday.”

In a 2012 piece for CNN, author Wayne Drash recalled being a kid in Memphis and going to school the day after the bout. A child who was convinced Kaufman was really hurt suggested the class pray for him. He was booed.

 

Though their rivalry had seemingly reached a conclusion, Kaufman and Lawler believed they could continue their feud on a larger stage. On July 28, 1982, the two were booked to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, which had only been on the air since February of that year. During the interview, Kaufman—sporting a neck brace—continued his vitriol against Lawler, which led to the wrestler slapping him across the face while a bewildered Letterman watched.

As with Kaufman’s “injuries,” the mainstream media was slow to recognize that the incident was orchestrated. Kaufman helped legitimize it by filing a $200 million lawsuit against NBC, insisting he would soon take it over and make it an all-wrestling network. The bouts with Lawler continued to draw crowds in Memphis as well as Indiana and Florida, which prompted Vince McMahon Jr. to later tell Lawler that he was jealous of the Memphis wrestling territory. It had master heel Andy Kaufman at its disposal.

Kaufman never lost his taste for wrestling. He appeared in 1983’s My Breakfast with Blassie, a parody of the chatty 1981 character piece My Dinner with Andre, alongside famous wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie. He also played a ring referee in Teaneck Tanzi, a Broadway musical about a woman (Deborah Harry of Blondie fame) who wrestles the men in her life. It opened and closed in one night.

Kaufman succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 35 on May 16, 1984. Had he lived, he would likely have continued to climb between the ropes. Recalling their time together, Lawler once said that Kaufman expressed a wish. If only he could quit acting, he said, he wanted to wrestle full-time.

 

Additional Sources:
Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman.