Photo: Jim Britt/Getty Images (left), Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally book cover

Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.

Bob Zmuda earned a permanent place in the comedy pantheon thanks to his groundbreaking decade as Andy Kaufman’s best friend, writer, collaborator, right-hand man, and alter-ego. Zmuda hasn’t just made promoting Kaufman’s legacy a full-time job; he’s made a second career out of having been Kaufman’s best friend. His business card really should read, “Best friend of Andy Kaufman” before writer, or producer, or philanthropist, since that’s how the public knows him and how he himself prefers to be known.

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Zmuda has thoroughly sullied his reputation as Kaufman’s invaluable collaborator by spending the decades following Kaufman’s death shamelessly exploiting his memory and legacy and using it as a springboard to angrily demand recognition as the man behind the man, the genius behind the genius. Zmuda’s efforts to callously exploit Kaufman’s enduring legacy reached a nadir in 2014 with the release of a slim volume disingenuously titled Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally, credited to Zmuda and Kaufman’s final serious girlfriend Lynne Margulies.

The book made headlines with its assertion that Kaufman faked his death as his greatest and most insane prank ever, and also that Kaufman enjoyed having sex with men and may have died of AIDS. That’d be a bold assertion to make even if the proof was rock solid, but Zmuda’s rationale for believing that Kaufman definitely faked his death—and will probably be popping up on The Tonight Show in 2019 to shock and delight us all—is flawed, to say the least. The “evidence” is simply that Kaufman talked constantly about faking his own death, and also that in the script Kaufman and Zmuda wrote for a never-to-be-filmed movie about their shared alter-ego, belligerent lounge singer Tony Clifton, Clifton dies of cancer in the same hospital that Kaufman would go on to die in in real life. Or did he? Yes, he did. I’m not going to play any of Zmuda’s bullshit “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t” games here.

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Reading The Truth, Finally, it’s very easy to believe that Kaufman genuinely died and damn near impossible to join Zmuda in pretending to believe the fiction that he’s maybe working as a hat-maker in Hoboken while biding his time before the big reveal. Zmuda seems to think that it’s an astonishing coincidence that Kaufman and Clifton would die of the same disease in the same hospital. But cancer is an incredibly common disease, and Cedars-Sinai—where Kaufman and Clifton both breathed their final breaths—is an incredibly popular dying place for celebrities, including Groucho Marx, Gilda Radner, Mel Blanc, Eazy E, River Phoenix, and Frank Sinatra. Is it a coincidence that Kaufman and Clifton died similar deaths? Sure. Is it an unbelievably uncanny coincidence that all but proves that Kaufman must have faked his death as the greatest prank of all time? Of course not.

Zmuda’s introduction to the book contains a sadly characteristic passage that unspools the book’s “shocking” revelations artlessly and obnoxiously. It reads, “As you will see, we hold nothing back. Lynne reveals for the first time that Andy was bisexual and possibly died of AIDS. I know for a fact that he faked his death and will be returning. Either of those opinions is both shocking and explosive.”

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The paragraph above is fascinating to me in its ugliness. “Either of those opinions is both shocking and explosive” might just be the clumsiest series of words ever committed to print. Where do you begin unpacking a paragraph like that? Zmuda makes his living as a writer. Yet in the book’s most important passage, he seems to have conveniently forgotten how words work. With exquisite disregard for succinctness and clarity, Zmuda writes that he knows for a fact that Kaufman faked his own death and will be returning imminently. Then he refers to the book’s explosive revelations (that Kaufman was bisexual, might have died of AIDS, and faked his death for the purpose of returning decades later) as “opinions.”

Zmuda uses the words “fact” and “opinions” interchangeably. This strange abuse of the language accidentally gets to the heart of the author’s weird agenda: In presenting his fuzzy series of “maybes” as the secret truth of Kaufman’s life and career, Zmuda is elevating what is weak even for an opinion—his fuzzy and wildly unconvincing theory that Kaufman faked his death—into a factual assertion. Hell, if Zmuda’s book didn’t ultimately reveal the truth, finally, then why would he call it The Truth, Finally?

The Truth, Finally just plain feels icky. Zmuda might cynically be presenting it as yet another loving tribute to his creative soulmate Andy Kaufman, but it reeks of exploitation. It feels as if Zmuda had to justify cranking out another cash-in book and the only way he could do so would be by shifting his take on Kaufman’s death from, “Maybe he faked it because he’s such a kooky kook,” to, “Oh yeah, he definitely faked it” and, “Oh yeah, how bout now he’s also bisexual and maybe he had AIDS too?”

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Zmuda is nowhere near as terrible a writer as that passage would suggest, but later he tops it with this gem about his experiences helping find someone to play him in Man On The Moon—the biopic about Kaufman—the making of which takes up an awful lot of space here.

Zmuda writes,

For a while, I considered Philip Seymour Hoffman. I went to the video store and rented Boogie Nights. I was in for a real shocker when in the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman tried to kiss Mark Wahlberg. I thought to myself, “Jesus Christ, I don’t want some gay guy playing me,” and nixed Hoffman immediately. Years later, I was in the American Airlines lounge at Heathrow Airport and I spotted Philip making out with one of the hottest chicks I’d ever seen. They were really going at it, and I thought to myself what a dummy I was. He wasn’t gay. He was just one hell of an actor. I was quite saddened years later when I heard that Philip had died of an overdose.

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This passage conveys the following:

  1. Zmuda doesn’t understand that “acting” involves making pretend to be different people. Sometimes an actor plays a character with a sexual preference other than their own. This is what is known in professional circles as “acting.”
  2. Zmuda similarly doesn’t understand that there are people in the world who are sexually attracted to both men and women, and that these people (let’s make up a word for them like “bisexual”) might be going at it hot and heavy with one of the hottest chicks Zmuda has ever seen, and still be sexually attracted to men.
  3. Zmuda doesn’t have a problem with people thinking he’s the kind of reactionary homophobe who’d freak out at the prospect of a gay actor playing him.
  4. Zmuda was quite saddened by Hoffman’s overdose, now that he understood that Hoffman was a world-class heterosexual cocksmith and not the character he played in one of the dozens of movies he made. So maybe I’m being too hard on Zmuda. Maybe he is a great guy after all.

Zmuda’s grudge-filled account of the making of Man On The Moon takes up so much of the book’s 200 pages that at times The Truth, Finally feels like a lengthy transcription of a Man On The Moon commentary. About half the book is devoted to the film’s contentious filming and Zmuda’s belief that Jim Carrey—who played Kaufman in the film—is the living embodiment of Kaufman. Zmuda is a good storyteller with some great stories. In the most colorful anecdote, Zmuda writes about pulling an old switcheroo on Hugh Hefner during the making of Man On The Moon.

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The story goes that the perpetually star-obsessed Hefner was excited about the prospect of Carrey showing up for a party at the Playboy mansion, so Hefner was told that a wholly unrecognizable Carrey would be attending the party incognito, under layers of padding and prosthetics, as Tony Clifton. It was imperative to keep Hefner from knowing that under all that prosthetics was not Carrey but repellent comedy parasite Bob Zmuda. Then, at a certain time in the evening, Carrey would show up at the mansion as himself and everyone would have a good laugh at Hef’s expense.

The ruse went so swimmingly that, as Zmuda relates, while he was in costume as Clifton he had a sordid sexual fling with a sexy young woman who thought she was participating in sexual acts with Carrey, not Zmuda. Zmuda seems tickled pink by this story, but it feels like what Zmuda did was less a sassy prank than a sex crime of some sort.

Zmuda spends much of the book’s first half gushing about Carrey’s genius, in whom he clearly saw an explosive talent he could exploit shamelessly in the years and decades ahead. Sure enough, he got half of a book out of hanging out with Carrey. He also tried to get a documentary out of it, when he and Margulies shot a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Man On The Moon that Zmuda pimps throughout the book as a lost masterpiece that Jim Carrey doesn’t want released for unknown reasons.

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When Carrey nixes a Tony Clifton-centric publicity campaign for Man On The Moon (centered on Zmuda as Clifton, of course), Carrey makes the leap from being one of the awesome people who helps Zmuda get his conception of Kaufman’s life and work out to the masses into one of those monsters who cruelly and inexplicably tries to keep Zmuda from delivering his take on Kaufman’s life and legacy as often and officially as possible. When Carrey turns on Zmuda, he joins Kaufman’s dad Stanley and brother and sister, Dick Ebersol, Danny DeVito, and pretty much the whole cast of Taxi as the book’s villains.

When Zmuda isn’t airing grievances or offering incredibly unconvincing arguments as to why and how Kaufman faked his death, he’s playing up his role in Kaufman’s career, as in this passage where Robert Klein tells Zmuda that Kaufman would be nothing without his genius and drive. Zmuda, ever the selfless caretaker of Kaufman’s legacy, is all, “Tell me something I don’t know”:

[Klein] blurted out, “You know, nobody would give a damn about Kaufman if it wasn’t for you.” I said, “I beg your pardon.” “It’s true,” he continued. “Andy was a minor talent, but thanks to you, he’s achieved legendary status.” At first, I wasn’t sure how to take it. Surely it was a backhanded compliment. Klein said, “Don’t get me wrong. Andy was a lovely guy. I liked him. We often talked. But you’re taking him to a whole new level.” I said, “He died young and should be recognized for his work.” He countered, “Well, Za-muda, you’re a good friend. I hope his family appreciates all you’re doing for his memory.” “Oh yeah,” I said. “They do.”

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Zmuda then uses this exchange as an opportunity to rip into Kaufman’s family for not understanding or appreciating their son’s genius. Zmuda clearly feels like he and Margulies alone should control everything involving Kaufman, and is horrified that Kaufman’s family has ideas about him that conflict strongly with Zmuda’s own.

Zmuda claims Kaufman didn’t come out as gay because he was mortified as to what his parents might say, but Zmuda isn’t exactly a paragon of tolerance. As Zmuda’s charming anecdote about being freaked out at the idea of a possibly gay actor playing him suggests, The Truth, Finally is not terribly sensitive in its depiction of Kaufman’s supposed bisexuality. It contains passages like the following:

So why did [Andy] get so aroused when he wrestled men? I’ve since looked closely at the match where Andy was given the pile driver by Jerry Lawler, and yep, he is “pitching a tent” as he gets carried off on a stretcher.

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Zmuda and Margulies have apparently appointed themselves an Andy Kaufman Boner Patrol as part of their self-anointed role as the sacred protectors of Kaufman’s legacy. In this capacity, they decided that this particular boner supports their assertion that Kaufman was a closeted homosexual who, for good measure, might very well have died from AIDS.

Assume, as a thought exercise more than anything else, that Zmuda is being honest and sincere about his motivations for writing the book. Assume that he is only concerned with his friend’s legacy and that Zmuda wrote this book because he genuinely thinks that Kaufman is alive and that these new “revelations” are so important they merit another book being written.

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Even under this most perversely flattering of readings, Zmuda is still a raging asshole because he’s completely ruining Kaufman’s surprise. If Kaufman had kept his “promise” to Zmuda and returned 30 years after faking his death, it’d be much less of a story. In this alternate universe, Kaufman wouldn’t be pulling the world’s greatest prank: he’d just be following Zmuda’s hackneyed script.

The Truth, Finally resembles the truth less than it does an elaborate literary game of Weekend At Bernie’s where Zmuda spends 200 pages pathetically waving the arms of Kaufman’s dead body around in a desperate and pathetic attempt to make it look like he’s still alive, and still up to mischief with his best buddy Bob Zmuda. That kind of corpse-based ventriloquism was desperately unfunny in Weekend At Bernie’s and it’s just as brutally unfunny here. It’s also sleazy, depressing, and an unforgivable insult to the dead icon Zmuda is ostensibly honoring.