40 Years Ago: Jerry Lawler Slaps Andy Kaufman on ‘Letterman’
The moment was months in the making.
Kaufman had earned fame via his distinctive standup material and portrayal of Latka on the hit sitcom Taxi 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 prize to any woman who could pin him down.
He wanted to bring the act to a mainstream wrestling circuit. Kaufman approached Vince McMahon of the former World Wrestling Federation but was turned down. Kaufman then sought the advice of Bill Apter, a wrestling journalist whom he’d befriended while performing the inter-gender wrestling routine. Apter suggested Kaufman get in contact with Lawler, explaining that he and the Mid-Southern Wrestling promotion team would "do anything for shock value."
Apter later argued that this was the "start of what we know as sports entertainment today."
Sure enough, Lawler was up for the challenge. Behind the scenes, the two were friends and collaborators but to the public, they were rivals, with Kaufman regularly taunting the brawny wrestler and his Memphis hometown. Their famous April 5, 1982 match remains legendary – a wildly entertaining bout that saw Lawler pile-drive Kaufman to the mat twice. The comedian was taken out in an ambulance, but it was all for show. He was still wearing a neck brace when the two appeared on Letterman.
“I think when Andy was born, his father wanted a boy and his mother wanted a girl, and they were both satisfied,” Lawler quipped, one of several barbs thrown Kaufman’s way.
For his part, Kaufman 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, with Kaufman even suggesting 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 everything you’re worth – and I didn’t because I’m not that kind of a guy.” Lawler responded: “What kind of a guy are you?” As Letterman attempted to calm the two and go to a commercial, Lawler casually got up from his chair, turned and delivered a thunderous slap across Kaufman’s face.
After a break, the show returned. Lawler was once again seated, but Kaufman was pacing around the studio enraged. “I will sue you for everything you have!” Kaufman yelled as part of a profanity-laced tirade. He then threw a cup of coffee on 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 told Jere Mason during a podcast interview decades later. “It was the talk of the – not just the wrestling world, but it was the talk of [the whole world].”
In truth, the antics on Letterman – much like their match in Memphis – had been planned, although the most memorable moment happened on the fly.
“We had an outline of what Dave and his crew wanted us to do, but it went completely off the tracks,” Lawler told Mason, revealing the original idea was to have the two men apologize to one another.
“You gotta know that once you and I kiss and make up on network TV, that’s gonna be the end of you and I wrestling down in Memphis,” Lawler remembered telling Kaufman during a phone conversation before the Letterman appearance. Kaufman agreed and, after a long pause, pondered: “I wonder what would happen if you just hauled off and slugged me?”
Lawler dismissed the idea, suggesting the network wouldn’t air such violence. Yet the concept sat 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 that was it, we’re gonna be gone [to commercial] after this. And somehow what Andy had said came into my mind and I just stood up, looked him in the eyes and hauled off and popped him, knocked him clear off the chair.”
Lawler insists that “Andy never knew he was gonna get slapped. Dave certainly never knew Andy was gonna get slapped – and I didn’t know Andy was gonna get slapped until I slapped him.”