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Why does Andy Kaufman still fascinate?

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Internet buzzed this week after reports that Andy Kaufman might be alive
  • Kaufman's brother ultimately said he felt he was victim of hoax
  • People want to believe because "it would be the longest joke ever told"

By Wayne Drash

It was vintage Andy Kaufman: New rumors that he might be alive.

This time, his younger brother gave it credence. Never mind that Michael Kaufman said he was with his brother when he died in 1984. Three decades later, he was now reading from a mysterious letter purportedly written by Andy in 1999 and standing onstage with a woman who presented herself as the comedian's 24-year-old daughter.

The announcement just happened to be made at a New York comedy club during the annual Andy Kaufman Awards show.

We lapped it up. Because we sooooo wanted to believe it was true: The comedic genius would finally make his grand return. An aging Tony Clifton. A triumphant Latka Gravas. A limping Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World.

Anything to keep the hope alive.

Then, Michael Kaufman hit us with the next line: He believes he's the victim of a hoax.

Kaufman has already been immortalized in the R.E.M. song "Man on the Moon" and in the Jim Carrey movie by the same name. His wrestling antics with Jerry "The King" Lawler are forever etched into American lore from Kaufman's infamous expletive-laced tirade on "Late Night with David Letterman."

This week's news got us wondering why Kaufman still fascinates. Here are five reasons, in a reverse-order fashion he would appreciate:

5. The Ultimate Internet Troll

Kaufman was Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat two decades before "Borat" hit the big screen. He was "Jackass" and "Punk'd" rolled into one.

Kaufman was the Internet troll before the Internet was created.

"He was like that annoying house fly who won't leave you alone," says Bob Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. "He was the opposite of a super villain. It's not like he could freeze the world or burn the world up. He could just irritate the daylights out of the world."

4. The Big Rematch

Let's face it: How much fun would it be to see Kaufman step into the ring with Lawler one more time?

Maybe an Aging-Loser-Leave-Town match. Even Lawler pines for that moment. As the rumors swirled this week of Kaufman being alive, Lawler challenged Kaufman to hop back into the ring. "We would have to have a rematch," Lawler told CNN. "We could rekindle the feud with no problem."

3. Milk and Cookies

He once took an entire audience out for milk and cookies after a show. Enough said.

2. Love Him, Hate Him

If you're 40 or older, you likely have some memory of Kaufman. On the sitcom "Taxi." On "Saturday Night Live." From Letterman. From comedy clubs. From wrestling.

For that generation, Americans will always remember Kaufman -- as a comedic genius, as a befuddling buffoon, as a bulging-eyed maniac.

"What Andy Kaufman was doing was so new and so groundbreaking," says Syracuse's Thompson. "The idea that you would derive humor out of stupidity and absolute nothingness, I think, was really fascinating."

"He was doing a critique of the out-of-control American celebrity back when most people didn't even realize it was out of control."

1. The Longest Joke Ever

Kaufman always talked about faking his death -- and doing so would be keeping within character, playing a joke long past the point of annoyance. The nation loves practical jokes, and clinging to the possibility that Kaufman is still alive lets us feel like we're still playing along.

"Andy Kaufman was often about doing an awful lot of stuff and enduring an awful lot of hatred and scorn before the punch line ever arrived, if it ever did," Thompson says.

Think about it: The setup comes in 1984 and the punch line gets delivered nearly 30 years later.

"You so want it to be true because it would be one of the greatest things to ever happen in the history of comedy," he says. "It would be the longest joke ever told."
   
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