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RSVP : Celluloid Salute to Comic Andy Kaufman

March 22, 1995|MARK EHRMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lights, cameras and autograph hounds surrounded the Improv in West Hollywood on Monday evening for the celebrity screening of "A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman." The one-hour NBC/Comic Relief special (airing March 29) culls the cream of the late comedian's bizarre conceptual routines from "Saturday Night Live," as Latka Gravas on "Taxi" and in other TV and stage performances, with testimony from Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, Judd Hirsch, Lorne Michaels and others.

The party, hosted by comedian Shadoe Stevens, paid further tribute to Kaufman, who died of cancer May 16, 1984.

"The special was something I always wanted to do," said executive producer George Shapiro, who was Kaufman's manager. "Andy always said--he was kidding around--that 'I'd like to disappear for 10 years and come back.' It's just ironic that it's a little over 10 years since he left us."

More than 250 people showed up including "Comedy Salute" executive producers Shapiro, Howard West and Bob Zmuda, and film co-hosts Marilu Henner and Bob Saget; plus Carl Reiner, Jerry Seinfeld, Estelle Harris, Michael Richards, Alan Thicke, Estelle Getty, Richard Lewis, Jon Lovitz, Bobcat Goldthwait, Eric Idle and most of the casts of "Pride and Joy," "NewsRadio" and "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Kaufman's father, brother and sister also attended.

In addition to the screening and the usual round of speeches, the guests were treated to--or assaulted by--Kaufman's notorious alter ego, the abrasive lounge act known as Tony Clifton, performed by Zmuda. The Clifton redux, like Kaufman's original, assayed such classic song-and-dance numbers as "I Will Surveev," insulted audience members and poured a glass over the head of one hapless guest who allowed himself to be cajoled onstage for an audience-participation bit.

"I met him for the first time at Catch a Rising Star," recalled comedian Reiner, who was credited with discovering Kaufman. "I went nuts. I thought he was the funniest, strangest, most wonderful original I'd ever seen. I told George Shapiro--I reproduced the act for him--I said, 'You got to help this guy.' He hadn't made $50 yet."

"He only came in two days a week and he would never get out of character for Latka," said "Taxi" co-star Henner. "People would scream 'Do Elvis!' and he would do Latka as Elvis. He was completely pure. Whatever character he was doing, whatever scam he was pulling on his audience, it had a purity to it. He was totally committed to whatever he was doing."

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