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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Putting Humor in a Hammerlock and Counting to 3

September 25, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

I love being a Hollywood columnist. New York columnists write about crime. Chicago columnists write about politics. San Francisco columnists write about a wide variety of sexual lifestyles. Washington columnists write about crime, politics and a wide variety of sexual lifestyles.

They can have it.

I write about Hollywood, because this is a company town. It's the entertainment capital of the world, if you can call some of today's entertainment entertainment.

(For example, the CBS fall schedule.)

Show biz is something Southern Californians have in common. It infects us. We have tinselitis. It doesn't matter if you live in Orange County, L.A. or the San Fernando Valley--although I now hear that the Valley is trying to secede from Southern California and be known as Southern Oregon.

I believe most of us enjoy a good Hollywood story.

We need a break from California politics. We get sick of Washington sex. We are tired of crime being up, the stock market being down and President Clinton being both.

We could use a laugh.

*

That's why I was happy that a hilarious Hollywood story unfolded this week, involving some hilarious people--the late Andy Kaufman, the great Jim Carrey and professional wrestlers.

Let me set the scene:

Carrey is making a movie in which he plays Kaufman. It is being directed by Milos Forman, who previously made films about Mozart and Larry Flynt, two people seldom mentioned in the same sentence.

Andy Kaufman was a comedian--or an actor, or something--who died in 1984. He was so weird, some people don't believe he really died. He used to impersonate Elvis. This could be the ultimate Elvis impersonation, if neither is actually dead.

To most people, Kaufman is best known for playing a character on the 1978-83 TV series "Taxi" who spoke an indecipherable language. I couldn't understand half of what he said. It was like listening to my accountant.

Kaufman's act was equally cryptic. He once appeared on "Saturday Night Live" and did nothing but stand on an empty stage, reading aloud from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." No gag. No punch line. He just kept reading page after page until NBC cut to a commercial.

With Andy, there were three possibilities:

(a) You got the joke. (b) You didn't get the joke. (c) There was no joke to get.

Which brings us to the wrestling.

In the last years of his life--presuming he's gone--Kaufman kept challenging people to wrestle.

At first, he wrestled women. Kaufman would dare women in an audience to come up and pin him. He would boast that no woman alive could defeat him. He wasn't big, but he would flex a muscle as if it were Mr. Universe's, then preen like Gorgeous George.

There was no material, no act.

He just wrestled.

And then came the men. For reasons known only to him, Kaufman began going to professional wrestling shows, antagonizing grapplers and their fans. He had two favorite targets. One was the city of Memphis, where the crowds screamed for blood as Kaufman made faces and mocked the way they talked.

The other was Jerry Lawler.

Lawler made a living in the ring. He was a large man who wore a beard with no mustache, making him look like a Captain Ahab in tights. If you saw them side by side, you knew that Kaufman couldn't have hurt Lawler with a harpoon.

But in a feud real or faked, Kaufman provoked Lawler, who dropped Kaufman on his fool head, putting him in the hospital. Kaufman then apologized, then spat at Lawler, who then dropped him again on his fool head.

This went on for months, until Kaufman's death. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.

*

A couple days ago, Jim Carrey stepped in a ring at L.A.'s Grand Olympic Auditorium to wrestle Jerry Lawler. And while re-creating what happened 14 years ago, Carrey apparently spat at Lawler, who apparently put Carrey in the hospital.

Let's see if I have this straight:

While wrestling, which is fake, Kaufman gets hurt by a wrestler who isn't faking. Then while making a film, which is fake, about wrestling, which is fake, Carrey gets hurt by the same wrestler, who isn't faking.

I don't know which one's Dumb and which is Dumber, but I know this:

I'm a fan of Jim Carrey's. So maybe he should try something safer, like Gatsby.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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