Man on the Moon

USA 1999

Reviewed by Leslie Felperin


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The US. The comedian Andy Kaufman introduces the story of his life. As a child, he fantasises about performing on television. By the mid 70s, he is working small clubs in LA as a stand-up comedian. George Shapiro, an agent, signs Andy and gets him an appearance on the comedy show Saturday Night Live. This brings an offer of a regular role on a new sitcom called Taxi. Andy reluctantly takes the part on condition the producers guarantee a guest slot for his friend Tony Clifton, an obnoxious lounge singer who insults his audience. George learns Clifton is really Andy, working with a plant, Bob Zmuda, his partner who sometimes plays Clifton as well.

Taxi becomes a hit, but Andy yearns to push his comedy further. He gets the opportunity to make a special, but the material proves too bizarre for the network. He starts a new act wrestling women. Through this he meets his future wife Lynne, and eventually falls afoul of professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, although their antagonism is staged. Many of his fans turn against Andy, deciding he's either offensive or not funny any more. Taxi is cancelled. Andy discovers he has a rare form of lung cancer. He gives a triumphant performance at Carnegie Hall but dies soon after. His funeral is stage-managed as he wanted it. Some time later, Tony Clifton performs at an LA club, sparking rumours Andy is still alive.


Clearly, if you're going to spend $52 million making a movie about a now-obscure comedian from the 70s, you have to believe his life is extraordinary in some way. (It's probably rule number one in the textbook for film-school courses called Advanced Screenwriting: Biopics.) Indeed on paper, Andy Kaufman's life story sounds thrillingly unlikely. Here's an introverted situationist manqué who rose to fame and fortune by singing along to the theme tune from Mighty Mouse, pretending to be a inept refugee and physically assaulting people. As every good biopic protagonist should, he duly died tragically young, of lung cancer at the age of 36. (Allegedly he didn't even smoke, which is in itself pretty funny.)

The problem is that while Kaufman's life story has its required quota of bizarre-yet-true events, it's doomed to failure as mainstream entertainment because Kaufman wasn't terribly likeable as a person. More importantly, he was the master of a comedy style that, as his agent George in the film tells him, is "only funny to two people in the universe." He means Kaufman and his partner Bob Zmuda, although we should clearly include Man on the Moon's director Milos Forman and star Jim Carrey among the fans of Kaufman's particular brand of wit and whimsy.

It's to their and the film's credit that it only half-heartedly tries to sweeten these acrid pills. Kaufman, uncannily and superbly impersonated by Carrey right down the flaring eyelids and gratingly fey Latka voice, remains in the movie a bit of an arrogant prick, whose psychology the film either audaciously refuses to flesh out - or spinelessly can't because of the risk of litigation from surviving friends and relatives. (This makes Lynne Margulies, Kaufman's wife, no more than a functional straight man in a peasant blouse throughout.) In many ways, Kaufman is kin to the hero of Forman's last film, The People vs. Larry Flynt. Both Kaufman and porn-magnate-turned-first-amendment-champion Flynt are dodgy, deeply flawed characters whom Forman (a Czech refugee who has always revered his adopted country's ideal of self-realisation, no matter how obnoxious the result) delights in heroising. While Kaufman doesn't have the same historical importance as Flynt, he has supporters who champion to this day his 'subversive' performances, such as reading The Great Gatsby deadpan on stage for hours - stunts almost always more amusing when described than when observed.

Again you have to give the film credit for not wussing out and for letting Carrey's recreations of Kaufman's turns risk boring us. At a key point, Kaufman asks his transcendental-meditation guru what the secret of comedy is, to which comes the reply: "Silence." As often as not, this finds a correlative in the sound of no hands clapping and no one laughing at his act, but it's linked to the way Kaufman would push comic timing to the limits of tolerance. In one excellent scene, we see him arguing with the network executives producing his special about exactly how many seconds the show can mimic the vertical-hold fritzing on viewers' televisions before it will set off a nationwide bout of set-banging.

Likewise, the movie tries to encapsulate Kaufman's subversiveness formally in little self-reflexive frills and trimmings. We see Kaufman in a montage working on the set of Taxi, with all its original cast members playing themselves (the years have been more unkind to some than to others), apart from Danny DeVito who is already playing George (he was the show's biggest discovery apart from Kaufman and Christopher Lloyd). Jerry Lawler and David Letterman re-enact a famous fight on the latter's show between Kaufman and Lawler, edited in such a way to maximise the revelation in the next scene that this too was just another pre-planned stunt. Man on the Moon opens with Kaufman telling us he thinks the film is so bad he's decided to cut straight to the end. So the final credits roll before Kaufman comes back to explain that was just to frighten off the people who wouldn't understand it. Unfortunately, there's not as much to understand as Kaufman, Forman, Carrey et al think.


Milos Forman
Danny DeVito
Michael Shamberg
Stacey Sher
Scott Alexander
Larry Karaszewski
Director of Photography
Anastas Michos
Christopher Tellefsen
Lynzee Klingman
Production Designer
Patrizia von Brandenstein
©Universal Studios
Production Companies
Mutual Film Company and Universal Pictures present a Jersey Films/
Cinehaus production in association with Shapiro/West Productions
Executive Producers
George Shapiro
Howard West
Michael Hausman
Co-executive Producer
Bob Zmuda
Associate Producers
Scott Ferguson
Pamela Abdy
Production Supervisor
Gerry Robert Byrne
Unit Supervisor
Henning Molfenter
Production Office Co-ordinators
Jacqui Popelka
NY Crew:
Chrissie Davis
Unit Production Manager
Michael Hausman
Location Managers
Jim Maceo
New York Crew:
Tom Whelan
Gerry Robert Byrne
Rebecca L. Murray
Assistant Directors
David McGiffert
Stephen Hagen
Tim Engle
Michael Risoli
NY Crew:
Michael I. Smith
Script Supervisor
Wilma Garscadden-Gahret
Francine Maisler
Kathleen Driscoll-Mohler
Kathryn Eisenstein
Jon Strotheide
Creative Consultant
Lynne Margulies
Aerial Cameraman
Lake Tahoe Aerial Unit:
Stan McClain
Camera Operators
Mitch Dubin
Kim Marks
Scott Sakamoto
New York Crew:
Tom Weston
Visual Effects Produced by
Balsmeyer & Everett
Visual Effects Supervisor:
Randall Balsmeyer
Front Screen Projection
Hansard Enterprises
Special Effects Co-ordinator
Larry Fioritto
Special Effects
Virgil Sanchez
Graphic Artist
Steve Samanen
Howdy Doody Puppeteers
Rene and His Artists
Doug Seymore
Art Directors
James Truesdale
New York Crew:
Ray Kluga
Set Decorators
Maria Nay
New York Crew:
Karin Wiesel
Conceptual Storyboard Artist
Tom Southwell
Costume Designer
Jeffrey Kurland
Costume Supervisors
Elaine Maser
NY Crew Men's:
Benjamin Wilson
NY Crew Women's:
Melissa Stanton
Make-up Department Head
Ve Neill
Key Make-up
Bill Corso
New York Crew:
Marianne Skiba
Original Tony Clifton Make-up Design
Bob Zmuda
Hair Department Head
Yolanda Toussieng
Key Hair Stylists
Kathe Swanson
New York Crew:
Patricia Grande
Hair Stylist
Lee Ann Brittenham
Title Design
Balsmeyer & Everett
Balsmeyer & Everett
The Effects House
Alexander Janko
Eddie Horst
Music Supervisors
Anita Camarata
Kaylin Frank
Music Editors
Shari Schwartz Johanson
Missy Cohen
Live Recordings Engineer/Mixer
Joel Moss
Additional Engineers
Jimmy Hoyson
Fred Vogler
Ric Wilson
Pat McCarthy
Jamie Candiloro
"Also sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss, arranged by Charlie Brissette; "Angela" by/performed by Bob James; "Bartered Bride Overture" by Bedrich Smetana, performed by New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein; "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Lee Perkins; "Fanfare for Andy", "Here's Tony" by Charlie Brissette, Ed Mitchell; "Funiculi Funicula" by Luigi Denza arranged by Charlie Brissette; "The Great Beyond" by Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, performed by R.E.M.; "Going the Distance" by/performed by Bill Conti; "Hanshan Temple" (trad) arranged by Yang Terng Yow; "Hallelujah Chorus" by George Frederic Handel arranged by Charlie Brissette; "Here Comes Santa Claus" by Gene Autry, Oakly Haldeman arranged by Charlie Brissette; "It's Howdy Doody Time" by Robert Smith, Edward Kean; "I've Gotta Be Me" by Walter Marks arranged by Norman Mamey; "I Will Survive" by Frederick Perren, Dino Fekaris arranged by Charlie Brissette; "Jailhouse Rock" by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller; "Jingle, Jangle, Jingle" by Joseph J. Lilley, Frank Loesser arranged by Norman Mamey; "Kiss You All Over" by Mike Chapman, Nicky Chinn, performed by Exile; "La Cumparsita" by G.H. Matos Rodríguez, performed by José Basso & His Orchestra; main & end title from "Lassie" by William Lava; "Man on the Moon" by Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, performed by R.E.M.; "March & Fanfare" by Richard Greene, performed by The Bobs; "Mighty Mouse Theme" by Marshall Barer, Jimmy Carroll, Philip Scheib, performed by The Sandpipers; "Oh, the Cow Goes Moo" by Andy Kaufman; "One More Song for You" by Michael O'Martian, Stormie O'Martian, performed by Andy Kaufman; "Parade of Charioteers" from "Ben Hur" by Miklós Rózsa, performed by Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams; "Raag Mian Ki Todi" arranged and performed by Akbar Khan; "Rock the Boat" by Waldo Holmes, performed by The Hues Corporation; "Rose Marie" by Rudoph Friml, Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, Herbert Stothart, performed by Andy Kaufman; "Route 69" by Charlie Brissette, Ed Mitchell, performed by Tom Armbruster; "The Thing" by Lenny Pickett, performed by Lenny Pickett & the House Band; "Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor" by Gaetano Donizetti, performed by Clara Cluck; "This Friendly World" by Kenneth Darby arranged by Norman Mamey; "Volare" by Mitchell Parish, Franco Migliacci, Domenico Modugno arranged by Norman Mamey
Jaymi Marshall
Production Sound Mixer
Chris Newman
Re-recording Mixer
Michael Barry
Supervising Sound Editor
Ron Bochar
Dialogue Editor
Nicholas Renbeck
Sound Effects Editors
Lewis Goldstein
Ben Cheah
Background Vocals:
David Kramer's Looping Group
David Bolton
Supervising Editors:
Phil Stockton
Hal Levinsohn
Kam Chan
Marko Costanzo
George A. Lara
Jennifer Ralston
Tim O'shea
TV Sitcom Technical Adviser
Peter Bonerz
Stunt Co-ordinator
Buddy Joe Hooker
Aerial Co-ordinator
New York Crew:
Gerry Robert Byrne
Helicopter Pilot
Lake Tahoe Aerial Unit:
Dirk Vahle
Jim Carrey
Andy Kaufman
Danny DeVito
George Shapiro
Courtney Love
Lynne Margulies
Paul Giamatti
Bob Zmuda
Tony Clifton
Vincent Schiavelli
Maynard Smith, ABC executive
Peter Bonerz
Ed Weinberger, 'Taxi' director
Jerry Lawler
Gerry Becker
Stanley Kaufman
Greyson Pendry
little Michael Kaufman
Brittany Colonna
baby Carol Kaufman
Leslie Lyles
Janice Kaufman
Bobby Boriello
little Andy Kaufman
George Shapiro
Mr Besserman
Budd Friedman
Tom Dreesen
wiseass comic
Thomas Armbruster
improv piano player
Pamela Abdy
Diane Barnett
Wendy Polland
little Wendy
Cash Oshman
Matt Price
Christina Cabot
meditation students
Richard Belzer
himself, SNL announcer
Melanie Vesey
Carol Kaufman
Michael Kelly
Michael Kaufman
Miles Chapin
SNL assistant
Dr Isadore Rosenfeld
ABC executive
Molly Schaffer
Maynard Smith's assistant
Howard West
Greg Travis
Maureen Mueller
ABC executives
Phil Perlman
Mama Rivoli's angry guy
Jessica Devlin
Mama Rivoli's diner
Jeff Thomas
Andy's stand-in
Randall Carver
Howard Keystone
Taxi marching man
Howdy Doody
Brent Briscoe
heavyset technician
Ray Bokhour
Patton Oswalt
blue collar guys
Caroline Gibson
sorority girl
Conrad Roberts
college promoter
Jeff Zabel
college student
Marilyn Sokol
Angela Jones
Lemonade, hooker
Krystina Carson
Gerry Robert Byrne
Taxi AD/stage manager
Mark Davenport
LA Times reporter
Bert F. Balsam
Lonnie Hamilton
Ron Sanchez
Billy Lucas
Taxi security guards
Patricia Scanlon
Ed Weinberger's secretary
Max Alexander
Harrah's booker
Ed Mitchell
Harrah's conductor
Reiko Aylesworth
Michael Villani
Merv Griffin
Maria Maglaris
irate Merv spectator
Heath Hyche
Merv's guest co-ordinator
Robert Holeman
boxing trainer
James Ross
wrestling commentator
Tamara Bossett
Foxy Jackson
Gene LeBell
Foxy Jackson referee
Bob Zmuda
Jack Burns
Brian Peck
Friday's announcer
Caroline Rhea
Friday's Melanie
Mary Lynn Rajskub
Friday's Mary
Phil Lenkowsky
Friday's tech director
Rob Steiner
Friday's control booth tech
Claudia Jaffee
Friday's floor director
Mando Guerrero
Jerry Lawler referee
Lance Russell
ring announcer
Ladi Von jansky
stadium photographer
K.P. Palmer
Mark Majetti
Deana Ann Aburto
Memphis paramedics
Mews Small
David Elliott
TM administrators
Fredd Wayne
bland doctor
Tracey Walter
National Enquirer editor
David Koechner
Jeanine Jackson
National Enquirer reporters
Johnny Legend
wild-haired guru
Doris Eaton Travis
Eleanor Gould
Greg Sutton
Carnegie Hall conductor
Sydney Lassick
crystal healer
Yoshi Jenkins
Jun Roxas
Lance Alarcon
Comedy Store patron
D.J. Johnson
Comedy Store waiter
Melissa Carrey
Comedy Store waitress
Danielle Burgio
Karen Martin
Linda Cevallos
Tabatha Mays
Betsy Chang
Katie Miller
Jennifer Chavarria
Jessica Moore
Shirry Dolgin
Tara Nicole
Lisa Eaton
Mia Pitts
Melanie Gage
Kelly Sheerin
Catherine Hader
Alison Simpson
Betsy Harris
Melinda Songer
Kelly Jones
Michon Suyama
Tricia Lilly
Michelle Swanson
Natalie Webb
New York City Rockettes
Jacqueline Case
Natalie Mills
Karen Blake Challman
April Nixon
Teresa Chapman
Tiffany Olson
Kelly Cooper
Kathryn Rossberg
Penny Fisher
Karissa Seaman
Eva Jenícková
Lea Sullivan
Lindsay Lopez
Amy Tinkham
Kristin K. Willits
Tony Clifton dancers
Doug Ford
Bill Reid
Chuck Zito
Tony Clifton bikers
Thomas Barney
Cheryl Hardwick
Lewis Del Gatto
Valerie Naranjo
Alex Foster
Shawn Pelton
Earl Gardner
Leon Pendarvis
Lukasz Gottwald
Leonard Pickett
Steve Turre
SNL band
Frank DeVito
Tony Galla
Frank Marocco
Pat Senatore
Mama Rivoli's band
Hal Blaine
Norman Mamey
Charlie Brissette
John Mitchell
Evan Diner
Robert O'Donnell
Tim Divers
Greg Prechel
Phillip Feather
James Sawyer
Alex Iles
David Thomasson
James Lum
Steven Williams
John Yoakum
Harrah's band
Anton Fig
Will Lee
Sid McGinnis
Letterman band
Robert Emmet
Michael Lufkin
James McCarty
David Thomasson
Thomas Verdonck
Comedy Store band
Marilu Henner
Elaine Nardo - Taxi montage
Jeff Conaway
Bobby Wheeler - Taxi montage
Christopher Lloyd
'Reverend Jim' Ignatowski - Taxi montage
Judd Hirsch
Alex Rieger - Taxi montage
Carol Kane
Simka Gravas - Taxi montage
Norm MacDonald
Michael Richards
Paul Shaffer
Lorne Michaels
J. Alan Thomas
David Letterman
Michiko Nishiwaki
female karate fighter
Stacey Carter
lawyer's girlfriend
Nicholas Wilde
United International
Pictures (UK)Ltd
10,690 feet
118 minutes 47 seconds
Dolby digital/Digital DTS
Colour by
Anamorphic [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011