from the archives

Kaufman! Lawler! Letterman! (and the Rest of the Episode)

Photo: Letterman/YouTube

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Early Letterman always seems strange to me. In a good way. I grew up watching Conan on Late Night, so seeing Letterman walk out onto that stage, or to hear the stripped down band play the Late Show theme song or to see Paul with hair always makes me do a mental double take at first. Growing up, Late Night with David Letterman episodes were hard to see; instead I had to settle for the occasional clips that would appear on random “NBC salute to comedy” specials. Well, from the limited scope I had, when people talked about these early Letterman episodes, it would always be about the same few moments: the Velcro wall, the appearances from Larry “Bud” Melman or Chris Elliott or the Andy Kaufman/Jerry Lawler episode.

First, a little background for those of you who haven’t seen the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon: Andy Kaufman, the popular, for lack of a more descriptive term, comedian, started incorporating wrestling into his act. To be specific, he wrestled women before declaring himself the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World. In April of 1982, professional wrestler Jerry Lawler challenged Andy to his first same-gender wrestling match. He piledrivered Kaufman into the mat two times in under a minute, and Andy was rushed to the hospital with a neck injury.

A little over three months later, on July 29th, 1982, David Letterman invited both Kaufman and Lawler on the show. Lawler is brought out first, and as the band brings him out, the audience immediately begins to boo him. You’re no doubt thinking, “of course they would. He beat up Andy Kaufman.” But just think about that for a second. The idea of someone being a guest on a late night talk show and having the audience jeer as they enter is surprisingly jarring to see, but as a professional wrestler, Lawler no doubt took it in stride. Then comes Kaufman, in a neck brace, who seems skittish and initially refuses to sit down next to Lawler.

Dave starts right in, egging the pair on. He asks Andy what he was thinking, going into the ring with someone twice his size. His answer was that he had always won against women. Lawler seems bemused by the whole event and actually begins to win the audience over when he shows a collection of clips of Andy goading Lawler to fight him. Here, Andy is the bad guy as he boasts, “I am a Hollywood star,” and that he’ll send Lawler “back to the kitchen where you belong. I am from Hollywood! I have brains!”

What transpires next is the scene that everyone remembers, and was reenacted featuring the real Letterman and Lawler in the aforementioned Man on the Moon. (Though they really play up the drama as compared to the way it really played out.) Lawler insults Kaufman, Dave tries to diffuse the situation by going to commercial, at which point Jerry stands up and slaps Andy across the face and out of his chair. When the show returns, Andy won’t come near Dave and Jerry until he finally explodes back into frame with a volley of expletives (which the original broadcast censored with a “cuckoo” sound effect instead of the standard bleep). He apologizes saying “I am sorry to use those words on television, but you are a fucking asshole!” before throwing Dave’s coffee at Lawler, who immediately goes to chase him off the stage. Once things settle down somewhat, Dave quips “I think you can use some of those words on television, but what you cannot do is throw coffee.” The entire show has spiraled out into chaos and no one knows what to do. Just as Andy steps back out, the band begins to play and the show abruptly cuts to commercial.

Someone, somehow got a copy of this moment, uncensored, and put it on to YouTube, which you can see below.

But, as is often the case with Andy Kaufman incidents, it was all a hoax. In his memoirs, It’s Good to Be the King…Sometimes, Lawler describes coming up with the idea with Andy, the two of them making his neck injury seem worse than it actually was, and just generally being good friends. Of course, this wouldn’t be revealed until ten years after Andy had passed away.

But of course, that was just one segment of the big show. I was surprised at how much of the material in the rest of the program really holds up. After the Kaufman interview a clearly somewhat frazzled (or maybe just pissed off?) Dave makes his way through an interview with David Wallechinski, an author (unfortunately, they run out of time and Arlene Ginder, the edible plants expert, was bumped that evening) but before and after the Kaufman segment were two still funny written comedy pieces.

The first desk piece was entitled “New Cable Channels,” in which Dave showcases some niche cable channels that are out there. As the bit progressed I was very surprised to see that this was basically the same exact bit Conan would do on Late Night as “Satellite Channels.” Maybe there was just something in the air over in studio 6A. The other bit was shown right after the brawl, and was a man-on-the-street pretaped piece in which Letterman went out into the city and visited the royalty of New York: The King of the Used TVs, Papaya King, Chow King and King of the Bargains. All of them are very polite and all of them are asked about Lady Di.

In so many of the programs that I’ve viewed for these articles, you can literally watch history being made before your eyes. However, for the majority of them, everybody that was involved knew what was the plan was. This episode features true chaos unfolding on screen and shows what can happen when someone decides to go off on their own. Though many have tried over the years, we’ll never have another Andy Kaufman, and we’ll probably never have a professional wrestler slap a stand-up on television.


See All
Kaufman! Lawler! Letterman! (and the Rest of the Episode)