Last month we published an article detailing how Andy Kaufman faked his death. Shortly after this we received a message from Bob Pagani, co-creator of The Slycraft Hourand the man who witnessed meeting between Alan Abel and Andy Kaufman. He told us that not only had he witnessed it, but he arranged it. We got him on the phone for an interview and he dished on hoaxing the media, his relationship with Andy Kaufman, and that fateful meeting.
You’re a—would the term be “professional media hoaxer?”
I don’t know about the professional part. That implies money right? I’ve done a lot of it, yeah, over the last bunch of years, the last thirty years or so… or more actually. From when I first met Alan Abel and a thing or two I did when I was younger.
How did you become a hoaxer, and when did you realize you had a knack for messing with people?
When I was a kid, I grew up in the Bronx and I went to Catholic school. In Catholic school everything was “this is this” and “that’s that” and “thou shalt and thou shalt not.” They kind of teach you to live in a Leave it Beaver world. It’s all very “exactly how it should be.”
But my dad was very cynical about stuff. He fixed appliances for Westinghouse; he was the guy who would come in if your washing machine broke. He used to take me to work with him and people would always go, “Oh, you’re showing your little boy what line of work to go into?” and he would say, “No, I’m showing him what line of work not to go into.” He was very cynical about big corporations long before most people were and would tell me things that completely contradicted what I was learning in school. Over time you come to realize he’s more right than they are.
Forty years ago, during the premiere telecast of what is now the world’s longest-running sketch show, the nation was introduced to a strange man named Andy Kaufman. Perched upon the Saturday Night Live stage, armed with nothing but a small phonograph, Kaufman stood in silence as the theme to Mighty Mouse played. The audience watched in a haze of confusion. It wasn’t until Andy burst to life, lip-syncing, “Here I come to save the day!” and then snapping back into a dumbfounded and seemingly frightened tableau, that the something clicked with the audience. It’s a routine that’s funnier live than it is on paper. If that enrages you set fire to a bookstore.
Kaufman became known as a prankster who took on multiple personas to create some of the most groundbreaking bits of performance art. It began with a lovable character known to Taxi fans as Latka, but originated as “The Foreign Man.” He hailed from Caspiar, a lost island in the Caspian Sea. He spoke in broken English and had a love for bad jokes (“Take my wife, please, take her!”) and impressions, only one of which was good. This is the same character Kaufman utilized during his SNL debut; the producers of Taxi wrote him into the sitcom as the beloved Latka Graves.
The Foreign Man, Kaufman’s most sincere character, captured America’s heart. He did not know much, and in many cases he did not say much, but this created an undeniable innocence about the character. Andy performed this role with such frequency that some presumed it was his real persona.
Andy craved a reaction, not approval, from his audience. In the early ’80s he proclaimed himself “the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World” and took to the airwaves to challenge women to wrestle him on television. Months of sexist tirades followed, insinuating women were too weak to defeat him. It was intentional antagonism, and it worked—since his childhood obsession with professional wrestling, Kaufman wanted to play the bad guy. During this time, Andy performed as a guest on various talk shows, rousing women in the crowd to come onstage and wrestle him. To his credit, he was undefeated. The amount of hate mail his appearances brought outnumbered the fan mail these programs typically received. All of this escalated when Jerry “The King” Lawler challenged Kaufman to come down to Memphis and prove his worth as a wrestler by him on. Andy accepted gleefully—he and Lawler were in on it from the beginning.
Kaufman rode in as a Hollywood hotshot, puffing out his chest and threatening to sue anyone who came near him. He bought ad time before the big match on Memphis television, providing locals with instructions on how to use soap and toilet paper. By the time he arrived in the ring, he was universally detested by the locals. He was scum. Before he could prove his strength in the ring against a woman, in came Lawler who knocked Kaufman out with a piledriver. Kaufman spent the next months in a brace, claiming that he sustained a broken neck. Later, the pair bickered on Late Night with David Letterman; eventually, Lawler insisted the whole thing was set up.
Perhaps Kaufman’s most notorious creation was the anarchic Tony Clifton. There are multiple versions of the Clifton Creation myth, but the most notable is the one told by Kaufman and Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s writing partner: Early in his career, long before SNL, Andy made a pilgrimage to Las Vegas to see Elvis perform and eventually jump out of a closet to meet him as he exited the venue. During his stay he came across a low-grade lounge act in the form of Tony Clifton and was quite taken with the performer’s crass attitude and poor singing. Andy and Zmuda would recreate Tony Clifton for the stage that is until they began to receive threats from “the real Tony Clifton.” From that point on, Andy began booking acts for Clifton, claiming that “he owed him one.” Club bookers thought they were getting a deal on Andy Kaufman. He would show up as Clifton and refuse to break character for the entire night. There was no fooling the crowd—this was another put-on orchestrated by Kaufman. That is until one night when Clifton took the stage only to be interrupted mid-song by Andy, banging on the bongos and singing in gibberish. From there, all bets were off. Reportedly, Clifton has been performed by Kaufman, Zmuda and eventually Jim Carrey. To this day, Zmuda maintains the Tony Clifton currently performing is the real deal.
As Andy performed Latka on Taxi, he had it written into his contract that Clifton would have to make a guest appearance once a season. Figuring that Clifton was Andy, producers allowed it. What followed was one unfilmed guest spot, as Clifton showed up to the shoot drunk, accompanied by escorts. He was belligerent and disrespectful and forcibly removed from the set. But this was Tony Clifton in essence: a loudmouthed Vegas singer with no concern for his audience. Before performances he would request all audience members extinguish their cigarettes so as not to harm his voice—then out he walked, smoking a cigar. He’d sing a number or two and then transition into insulting everybody, spitting in the faces of patrons. He was big shot with no time for small timers, but he was the act people loved to hate.
Unfortunately, Andy and his characters came to an untimely end in 1984 when he died from lung cancer. Many aficionados think Kaufman’s death was his greatest role yet. He’d tricked the world with wrestling injuries and sociopathic alter egos—what better ploy than to live in secrecy while others mourned his passing? Only a year after his death, Tony Clifton went on to perform again and still does to this day. In fact, prior to Kaufman’s death, Andy and Zmuda had set to work on a screenplay for The Tony Clifton Story. In the script, Clifton would die partway through filming—his death due to the same cancer that killed Kaufman and in the film he would pass away in the exact same hospital. After that he would be replaced by Andy Kaufman, performing Clifton for the remainder of the movie. It may be a striking coincidence to some, but others, including Zmuda, insist that it all points to Andy’s plan.
In 1981, Kaufman met professional hoaxer Alan Abel; Abel finagled his own obituary into the New York Times, previously impossible for the living. Bob Pagani, a television producer, was privy to the meeting and noted Kaufman was extremely interested in Abel’s famed death hoax. Abel shared everything. Many in the Kaufman-lifer camp think this is the smoking gun—not only did Kaufman fake his death, but that he knew how and who he needed to do it.
Here at The Annual we’re prepared to print the truth: Like it or not, Kaufman faked his death and is still around today, appearing most recently on SNL’s 40th Anniversary Special (not during the In Memoriam segment, though he was included there as well). Kaufman performed that night for about four minutes as an artist who has come to be known as Kanye West.
Kanye West was “born” on June 8, 1977. SNL was between seasons, and Kaufman was looking for a project to keep him busy, so he registered a birth certificate for “Kanye Omar West.” According to Zmuda, Kaufman had no idea what he was going to do with the birth certificate, but he wanted to plant the seeds of “the ultimate foreign man.”
Before people decry this as blackface gone too far, it should be noted that it’s much more complex than that. Shortly after contacting Alan Abel, Kaufman got in touch with John Howard Griffin, investigative journalist and author of the book Black Like Me, to learn how he had had his skin professionally darkened by a doctor. Kaufman set out to see if such a transition could become permanent. It is believed that for the 12 years following his “death” Kaufman underwent extensive surgeries while living in secrecy in Puerto Rico. Not once did he perform as Tony Clifton; rather, he spent those years working in seclusion, perfecting the character, from his humble beginnings (writing a rap entitled “Green Eggs and Ham”) to spending a year in Nanjing, China as an exchange student. In 1996, Kanye, as performed by Andy Kaufman, was ready to hit the music scene. It may seem far-fetched, but we paid a police sketch artist to approximate what Andy Kaufman would look like today following a series of intricate black market surgeries. Rest assured, Kaufye walks among us.
One of Kaufye’s most acclaimed songs, Jesus Walks, off the album College Dropout, is a fitting retelling of Kaufman’s own story. That is, a man dies, only to come back more powerful and relevant than ever before. Though some did not understand the initial parallel, Kaufye began his recent Yeezus campaign to hammer home that you can come back from the dead. While his music has gained both critical and commercial acceptance, the persona of Kanye West can be likened to the Inter-gender Wrestling Champ of years past.
Kaufye courted controversy. In 2005, Kaufye took to the stage of a Hurricane Katrina concert televised by NBC and stated, “George Bush [didn’t] care about black people.” While that statement may be entirely factual, Kaufye became known as a man who ruffles feathers and certainly isn’t afraid to upset the middle class whites who brought Bush into power or to bite the NBC hands that put him on TV. Years later, America’s sweetheart Taylor Swift would be on the verge of accepting an MTV Video Award when Kaufye stormed the stage like an upset toddler, proclaiming, “Beyoncé had the best music video of all time!” By this point the viewing public had had it with Kaufye; he showed the unwavering arrogance of Tony Clifton and the universal unlikability of the Intergender Wrestling Champ.
After this, he laid low for a while—no high-profile freakouts, but low-profile tweets that would eventually go viral. “Sometimes I get emotional over fonts.” “I specifically ordered persian rugs with cherub imagery. What do I have to do to get a simple persian rug with cherub imagery uuuuugh.” This prompted further questions—who was Kaufye? What was he going through? The man had amassed so much wealth and spent it so extravagantly that even the wealthy were baffled. Kaufye become so inaccessible that his own peers could not understand or attain his level of grandeur. He had become the ultimate foreign man.
Of course the goal of any foreign man is to become accepted by society, to lose the label of foreign. So, why wouldn’t Kaufye use his influence and wealth to gain acceptance into the world’s most powerful society, the Illuminati? The character of Kaufye has been known to contort his hands into the shape of a pyramid during photo ops, a well-known symbol of the Illuminati. In addition to this, Illuminati symbolism can be seen his work. The music for his song “POWER” features Kaufye posed between masonic pillars as he wears a necklace featuring the Egyptian god Horus. In “Runaway” he befriends a fallen angel, while the cover of Watch The Throne features a double-headed phoenix.
Kaufye’s involvement with the Illuminati has given him untold control over the music industry, and the public find themselves subjected to radio waves populated by Kaufye and other performance-artists-turned-Illuminati-infused musicians (ie. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé). Having this kind of power is something that seems a no-brainer for the character of Kanye West, and it makes even more sense given the history of Andy Kaufman.
Though Kaufman never showed an outward interest in the Illuminati or other secret societies, he was fascinated by social experiments and changing the ways we thought and behaved. Inclusion in a secret society that transcends all government, pulling the strings, would give Kaufman the freedom to execute pranks and experiments on a global scale. What if nations were pitted against each other? What happens when musicians hold more power than presidents? Andy Kaufman is up there finding the answers. And as for SNL40, what better way to maintain a secret allegiance with the reptilians than to pay a visit Lorne Michaels and Dan Aykroyd’s semi-annual gathering and post-show sacrifice?