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.

Wednesday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Computer Monitors, Plant-Based Protein Powder, and Blu-ray Sets

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 2. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

A Hair-Raising History of the Flowbee

The Flowbee revolutionized the highly suspect idea of cutting one's own hair.
The Flowbee revolutionized the highly suspect idea of cutting one's own hair.
I Love Fun, YouTube

Like many great ideas, there is some confusion surrounding how California-based carpenter Rick Hunts was struck by inspiration for the Flowbee. The infomercial sensation of the late 1980s is a vacuum cleaner attachment that straightens hair, munches on it with clippers, and then sucks the trimmings into the canister.

In one version, Hunts is beguiled by a television show he saw in 1979 that demonstrated a person getting their hair cut while hanging upside-down, freeing their locks for clipping. Another has Hunts using a vacuum to get sawdust from his workshop out of his hair and having an epiphany.

The latter sounds more like the kind of mythologizing that accompanies inventors—one questions the wisdom of using a vacuum to remove sawdust from their hair rather than simply showering—but it doesn’t matter much. However he came upon the notion, Hunts’s vision of an at-home substitution for a barber was the Soloflex of hairstyling. It promised convenience, affordability, and the novelty of boasting your hair had been trimmed by a Hoover upright.

Hunts’s device, which he initially dubbed the Vacucut, took six to seven years to develop. By one estimate, he went through four prototypes—the last one involving 50 modifications—before he perfected the vacuum attachment. (Hunts’s children—or, more specifically, their hair—were used for testing.) The Vacucut took hair anywhere from a half-inch to six inches in length and, thanks to the suction of the vacuum, pulled it straight in the same way a stylist holds hair between their fingers. Once extended, clippers inside the attachment trimmed the excess, which wound up in the vacuum.

It required no skill and no additional pairs of hands; the length was adjustable using the included spacers. Owing to the air flow and the fact the device made a buzzing noise similar to a bee, Hunts decided to rename it the Flowbee, with a bumblebee-esque black and yellow color scheme.

Hunts, who raised more than $100,000 from investors and even sold his cabinet shop to obtain additional funds to mass market his creation, clearly felt the Flowbee would be a slam-dunk. He approached major personal grooming companies like Conair, Norelco, and Remington to see if they’d be interested in the Flowbee. He also approached beauty salons to see if they’d consider selling them to customers. He later recalled that all of them said the idea was nuts. In the case of the salons, they were afraid the Flowbee might actually work as advertised and see a reduction in foot traffic from people content to cut their own hair. 

Dismayed, Hunts took to trying to move product out of his garage. He also went to county fairs, where he would have a volunteer come up on stage. One side of the person’s head would be trimmed with scissors, the other side with the Flowbee. The results were comparable, and Hunts began selling a modest amount of inventory at $150 each.

The reaction of the county fair crowd may have been on Hunts’s mind when he saw an infomercial one evening for a food-sealing product. The program-length paid advertisements were really just barker shows broadcast to a mass audience. The Flowbee, Hunts knew, needed to be demonstrated. So Hunts spent $30,000 to produce and buy airtime for a 30-minute spot that began airing in 1988. Soon, the entire country was watching people aim a vacuum nozzle at their heads and clip their own hair.

The Flowbee entered popular culture, getting mentions in films like 1992’s Wayne’s World, where Garth (Dana Carvey) is menaced by a Suck Kut, and on shows like Party of Five. Imitators like the RoboCut and the Hairdini appeared to bite into market share, but the Flowbee enjoyed brand recognition. A Flowbee Pet Groomer was introduced, and Flowbee barbershops were considered. By 1992, the Flowbee was being sold in major retail chains. By 1993, Hunts’s San Diego-based company, Flowbee International, had sold 200,000 units. By 2000, the number was 2 million. While that may not sound like a lot, consider that this was a vacuum cleaner attachment selling for $69.95 to $150 retail that was intended for use on one’s head.

While millions of people enjoyed the Flowbee’s kitsch appeal, some people thought it sucked. Stylists believed it lacked the artistry of a professional, while others complained it wasn’t effective on hair longer than six inches or on curly locks. It was also difficult for the Flowbee to trim the sides or around the ears. George Clooney, however, swears by it; in December 2020, he admitted that he's been using one to cut his own hair for decades.

While they no longer air infomercials, Flowbee International is still in business—and has seen increased interest in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic as people avoid salons and look for alternatives to becoming Howard Hughes. Unfortunately, health concerns have prompted a cessation of activity at the Flowbee factory in Kerrville, Texas. They don’t intend to ship new product (which now sells for $99) until things settle down. The RoboCut, however, is still shipping.