The moment was months in the making.
Kaufman had earned fame via his signature stand-up material and portrayal of Latka on the hit sitcom Cab then surprised fans by becoming a wrestler. The scripted performances, unique storylines and extreme personalities all appealed to his unique sense of humor. Part of Kaufman’s schtick was wrestling women, proclaiming himself the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World” and offering a $1,000 reward to any woman who could find him.
He wanted to bring the act to a mainstream wrestling circuit. Kaufman approached Vince McMahon of the former World Wrestling Federation but was rebuffed. Kaufman then sought the advice of Bill Apter, a wrestling journalist he had befriended while performing the intersex wrestling routine. Apter suggested Kaufman contact Lawler, explaining that he and the Mid-Southern Wrestling promotional team would “do anything for shock value.”
Apter later claimed that this was “the start of what we know as sports entertainment today.”
Of course, Lawler was up for the challenge. Behind the scenes, the two were friends and collaborators, but in public they were rivals, with Kaufman regularly mocking the plucky wrestler and his hometown of Memphis. Their famous match on April 5, 1982 remains legendary – a wildly entertaining bout that saw Lawler pin Kaufman to the mat twice. The comedian was taken out in an ambulance, but it was all in plain sight. He was still wearing a neck brace when the two appeared Letterman.
“I think when Andy was born, his father wanted a boy and his mother wanted a girl, and they were both satisfied,” said Lawler, one of several barbs thrown Kaufman’s way.
Kaufman, for his part, remained soft-spoken in the early parts of the interview, suggesting he was simply “playing bad-guy wrestler” before their infamous match. At one point, Kaufman asked Lawler for an apology. Lawler scoffed in response, accusing Kaufman of being desperate for attention: “He did it all for publicity. That’s why he’s still wearing, I don’t know if it’s a neck brace or a flea collar.”
Things escalated from there, and Kaufman even suggested legal action over his injuries.
Watch Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler on ‘The Late Show With David Letterman’
“I could have sued you,” Kaufman insisted. “I could have sued you for all you’re worth—and I didn’t because I’m not that kind of guy.” Lawler replied, “What kind of guy are you?” As Letterman tried to calm the two down and go to a commercial, Lawler casually rose from his chair, turned and delivered a thunderous punch across Kaufman’s face.
After a break, the show returned. Lawler sat again, but Kaufman was furiously pacing the studio. “I will sue you for everything you have!” Kaufman shouted as part of a gang-ordered tirade. He then threw a cup of coffee at Lawler and fled the stage.
The feud became a massive pop culture story, with many fans believing their bad blood was real. “Everything blew up,” Lawler recounted Ye Mason during a podcast interview decades later. “It was the talk of – not just the wrestling world, but it was the talk of [the whole world].”
In truth, jokes on Letterman – much like their match in Memphis – was planned, although the most memorable moment happened in an instant.
“We had an outline of what Dave and his crew wanted us to do, but it completely went off the rails,” Lawler told Mason, revealing that the original idea was to have the two men apologize to each other .
“You need to know that once you and I kiss and make out on network TV, that’s going to be the end of you and me fighting down in Memphis,” Lawler recalled telling Kaufman during a phone call before 1 p.m. Letterman appearance. Kaufman agreed, and after a long pause he thought, “I wonder what would happen if you just dragged off and dragged me?”
Lawler rejected the idea, suggesting that the network would not air such violence. Still, the concept was in the back of Lawler’s mind during the Letterman taping. As their second segment was closing, he decided to act. “It was like an out-of-body experience,” Lawler admitted. “I don’t even know what I was thinking, but I knew it was we will be gone [to commercial] After this. And somehow what Andy had said came into my mind and I just stood up and looked him in the eye and pulled him off and knocked him off the chair.”
Lawler insists that “Andy never knew he was going to get beat up. Dave certainly never knew Andy was going to get beat up – and I didn’t know Andy was going to get beat up until I hit him.”
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