Had the phrase “performance artist” been a part of the lexicon in the 1970s, Andy Kaufman would surely be remembered as America’s greatest performance artist. However, Kaufman is instead regarded as a bizarre stand-up comic, perhaps the purest of the anti-comedy movement of the late ‘70s--and as the guy who wrestled women.
Kaufman remarks in The Midnight Special that he’s never written a joke in his life, but I happen to think he wrote the great joke. His life itself and certainly his art were one big punchline. Following in the tradition of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, the Discordian religion and Absurdism, Kaufman committed himself fully to the characters he played, the bits he performed and the personas he adopted. Kaufman never winked to the audience or let them in on the gag. Ergo, he was worshipped and reviled equally.
In The Midnight Special, Kaufman goofs on Elvis, wrestles the ladies, and performs “It’s A Small World” accompanied by a militant black percussion troupe. His special guests include Slim Whitman and Freddie Cannon, which may or may not have been a joke. The appearance of alter-ego, Tony Clifton was definitely a gag, the acerbic nightclub character was played by either Kaufman or his best pal Bob Zmuda (founder of Comic Relief), whomever was available at the time.
There are also several clues throughout The Midnight Special that support the theory that Kaufman’s greatest ruse was faking his own death. (He died of cancer shortly after The Midnight Special aired.)