Man on the Moon (film)

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Man on the Moon
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Miloš Forman
Produced by Danny DeVito
Written by Scott Alexander
Larry Karaszewski
Starring Jim Carrey
Danny DeVito
Courtney Love
Paul Giamatti
Music by R.E.M.
Cinematography Anastas N. Michos
Editing by Adam Boome
Lynzee Klingman
Christopher Tellefsen
Studio Mutual Film Company
Jersey Films
Shapiro/West Productions
Tele München Fernseh Produktionsgesellschaft
BBC Films
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates December 22, 1999 (1999-12-22)
Running time 119 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $82 million[1]
Box office $47,434,430[1]

Man on the Moon is a 1999 American biographical comedy-drama film about the late American entertainer Andy Kaufman, starring Jim Carrey. The film was directed by Miloš Forman and also features Danny DeVito, Courtney Love and Paul Giamatti. DeVito worked with Kaufman on the Taxi television series, and other members of that show's cast, including Marilu Henner, Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd and Jeff Conaway, make cameo appearances in the film, playing themselves. The film also features Patton Oswalt before he became famous.

The story traces Kaufman's steps from childhood through the comedy clubs, and television appearances that made him famous, including his memorable appearances on Saturday Night Live, Late Night with David Letterman, Fridays, and his role as Latka Gravas on the Taxi sitcom, which was popular for viewers but disruptive for Kaufman's co-stars. The film pays particular attention to the various inside jokes, scams, put-ons, and happenings for which Kaufman was famous, most significantly his long-running feud with wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler and his portrayal of the bawdy lounge singer Tony Clifton.

Although the film received mixed reviews, Carrey received critical acclaim for his chameleonic performance and won a Golden Globe, his second win in a row after receiving an award for The Truman Show. He was nominated in the Musical/Comedy category for Man on the Moon, and remarked in his acceptance speech that he thought the film was a drama at heart,[2] an opinion shared by others, but also a reference to how Kaufman saw himself as a "song and dance man".


Andy Kaufman's (Jim Carrey) "foreign man" character appears in black-and-white, declaring that (due to massive editing), this is actually the end of the film, not the beginning. He plays a phonograph record alongside the credits before walking off. Kaufman then comes back, and, in his normal voice, claiming he "had to get rid of the people who don't understand me, and don't want to try", he proceeds to show the story of his life on a film projector, starting with his childhood home in Great Neck, New York, circa 1957.

Kaufman is a struggling performer whose act fails in nightclubs because, while the audience wants comedy, he sings children's songs and refuses to tell conventional jokes. As the audience begins to believe that Kaufman may have no real talent, his peculiar "foreign man" puts on a rhinestone jacket and does a dead-on Elvis impersonation and song. The audience bursts into applause, realizing Kaufman had tricked them.

He catches the eye of talent agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito), who signs Kaufman as a client and immediately lands him a network TV series, Taxi, much to the dismay of sitcom-hating Kaufman. Because of the money, visibility, and promise that he can do his own television special, Kaufman accepts the role on Taxi, turning his foreign man into a mechanic named Latka Gravas. He secretly hates doing the show, however, and exasperates costars with his behavior.

Invited to catch a different act at a nightclub, Shapiro witnesses a performance from a rude, loud-mouthed lounge singer, Tony Clifton, whom Andy wants to guest-star on Taxi. Clifton's bad attitude is matched by his horrible appearance and demeanor. But backstage, when he meets Shapiro in person, Clifton takes off his sunglasses and we see that he is actually Kaufman. Clifton is a “villain character” created by Kaufman and his creative partner, Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti). Once again, the gag is on the audience.

Kaufman's fame increases with his Saturday Night Live appearances, but has problems with his newfound fame. When he travels to college campuses, audiences dislike his strange sense of humor and simply want to see his more famous TV characters, so he deliberately antagonizes them by reading The Great Gatsby aloud from start to finish. Kaufman shows up on the Taxi set as Clifton and proceeds to cause chaos until he is removed from the studio lot. He relates to Shapiro that he never knows exactly how to entertain an audience “short of faking my own death or setting the theater on fire”.

Kaufman decides to become a professional wrestler—but to emphasize the “villain” angle, he would wrestle only women (hired actresses) and then berate them after winning, declaring himself "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion". He becomes smitten with one woman he wrestles, Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), and they begin a romantic relationship.

Problems arise when an appearance on a live TV comedy show, ABC's Fridays, turns into a fiasco when Kaufman refuses to speak his lines. Also, the wrestling Kaufman enjoys getting a rise out of the crowds and feuds publicly with Jerry Lawler, a professional male wrestler, who challenges Kaufman to a "real" wrestling match, which Kaufman accepts. Lawler easily overpowers and seriously injures Kaufman, resulting in the comedian wearing a neck brace. Lawler and an injured Kaufman appear on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman, theoretically to call a truce, but Lawler insults Kaufman, who throws a drink at the wrestler and spews a vicious tirade of epithets. It is revealed that Kaufman and Lawler were in fact good friends. Andy pays a price when he is banned from Saturday Night Live by a vote of audience members, weary of his wrestling antics. Shapiro calls to inform him that Taxi had been canceled.

After a show at a comedy club, Kaufman calls together Lynne, Zmuda and Shapiro to disclose that he has been diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer and may die soon. They aren't sure whether to believe this, thinking it could be yet another Kaufman stunt, with Zmuda actually believing a fake death would be a fantastic prank. With a short time to live, Kaufman gets a booking at Carnegie Hall, his dream venue. The performance is a memorable success, culminating with Kaufman inviting the entire audience out for milk and cookies. His health deteriorates. Desperate, he heads to the Philippines to seek a medical “miracle” (actually psychic surgery), where doctors supposedly pull out infected organs from the body; he discovers the scam and laughs at the irony. He dies soon after. Friends and loved ones do a sing-along with a video of Andy at his funeral.

One year later, in 1985, Tony Clifton appears at Andy Kaufman's tribute at The Comedy Store's main stage performing, "I Will Survive". The camera pans over the crowd and reveals Zmuda in the audience, hinting that Kaufman faked his own death as the ultimate "Kaufman stunt" and is indeed onstage as Clifton; a neon portrait of Kaufman is shown among other comedy legends. During the final credits, Kaufman briefly peeks in black-and-white again.


The film stars Danny DeVito as Kaufman's manager George Shapiro, Courtney Love as girlfriend Lynne Marguiles, and Paul Giamatti as Bob Zmuda. Carrey and Giamatti both played Tony Clifton. Many of Kaufman's real life friends and co-stars also appear in this film (although not all as themselves), including Zmuda, Shapiro, Chad Whitson, Margulies, David Letterman, Paul Shaffer, professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, Memphis wrestling TV personality Lance Russell, Budd Friedman, Jeff Conaway, Marilu Henner, Carol Kane, Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd, and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels.[3] Michael Richards is played by Norm Macdonald in a recreation of the Fridays show skit. According to Jerry Lawler's autobiography It's Good to be the King... Sometimes, WCW wrestler Glenn Gilbertti, better known to wrestling fans as Disco Inferno, was considered for the role of Lawler.

Members of the current bands for the Late Show with David Letterman (including Paul Shaffer) and Saturday Night Live were used in their respective scenes, as were members of the current Rockettes. While other cast members portraying themselves are made to resemble their then-look, Shaffer and David Letterman are completely unaltered, though both had longer hair and Letterman had contacts when the original incident occurred in 1982. Kaufman's real-life granddaughter, meanwhile, portrays the younger version of his sister, Carol, in the scenes showing his early life.

"Little" Andy Kaufman is portrayed by child actor Bobby Boriello, who had previously portrayed the 8-year-old Howard Stern, an admirer of Kaufman, in Private Parts. Boriello would also play young Tony Soprano, on The Sopranos 1999 episode, "Down Neck".

Fact vs. fiction[edit]

The film makes a few changes to Kaufman's life story. As Kaufman explains in the prologue, "all the most important things in my life are changed around and mixed up for dramatic purposes".

The famous Carnegie Hall "milk and cookies" performance, portrayed in the film as one of his last performances after being diagnosed with cancer, had in fact occurred in 1979, five years before Kaufman's death. Also, the film is deliberately ambiguous over whether it portrays his "death" as genuine, or the hoax that some fans[4] believe it to be. Actually, Zmuda enlisted his old Chicago friends and confidants, Joe Troiani and Bill Karmia to stage Kaufman's return from the dead.[citation needed] Dressed as Kaufman's alter ego Tony Clifton, Zmuda returned to the Comedy Store in 1985. Through the use of clever staging, the trio made it appear that Andy Kaufman might have returned to visit adoring fans.[citation needed]

The film implies that the fight with Michael Richards on Fridays was more serious and violent. In fact when it was broken up, Richards (who never retaliated to water being poured on him) was upset, claiming "what? It's funny" and told the stagehands to "butt out" when they tried to intervene, saying "it's all in fun". Also there was no attempt by the producers to tell the audience it was all a prank they were involved in.[5]

Many events in the feud between Kaufman and Jerry Lawler, which continued well after the David Letterman incident, were left out of the film. Also left out in the film was Jimmy Hart, who at the time acted as Kaufman's manager. Kaufman and his girlfriend, Lynne Margulies were never wrestling opponents. Nor did they know each other in the 70's. They met for the first time when working on My Breakfast with Blassie, a 1983 movie they appeared in together.[6]

The film implies that Carol Kane was a member of the Taxi cast during the show's first season, which in real life was 1978–79. In actuality, Kane did not make her first appearance on the series until the episode "Guess Who's Coming for Brefnish", which first aired on ABC in January 1980 during the show's second season.[7] The film implies that Taxi was canceled only once. However, the show went on for one more season on NBC.

The film portrays the first meeting between Shapiro and Kaufman at a nightclub, following Kaufman's set where he performed an imitation of President Jimmy Carter. The film then led to Shapiro booking Kaufman on the first episode of Saturday Night Live, which occurred in 1975, during Gerald Ford's presidency; Carter would not get elected to the position until 1976, nor would he take office until January 1977.

Other inaccuracies include scenes based around "SNL", specifically the first episode's host. Also Lorne Michaels asking the home viewing audience to vote Kaufman off the show, which happened in 1982, two years after Michaels left the show as executive producer and Dick Ebersol took over.[8]

After its release, the film attracted some criticism over various events in Kaufman's life that were left out. Max Allan Collins maintained that the filmmakers didn't understand Kaufman, and that the film "does not give Kaufman the credit for his genius, that he had a complete intellectual grasp of what he was up to and a showman's instincts for how to play an audience".[9] Significantly, these critics included Kaufman's own father Stanley, who was displeased that little of Andy's early life (before show business) and early career was portrayed.[10]

Additionally, since Bob Zmuda was involved in the production of the film, around the same time having written a "tell all" book ("Andy Kaufman Revealed!"), many of its criticisms carry over to the film. Notably, Zmuda is accused of overemphasizing his role in the creation of many of Andy's routines (such as Tony Clifton). Andy's father contends that Andy formulated these bits while in college doing a local TV show: "Uncle Andy's Funhouse" (which is briefly referenced in the film: Andy is wearing an "Uncle Andy's Funhouse" t-shirt in one scene). Zmuda is also portrayed in the film to be present at many events which he was not in real life.

Sam Simon, executive producer on Taxi, stated in a 2013 interview with Marc Maron for the WTF Podcast that the portrayal of Andy on the show was "a complete fiction", that Kaufman was "completely professional" and that he "told you Tony Clifton was him". Simon also stated that sources for these stories were mostly from Bob Zmuda and a "little bit of press and hype", but conceded that Kaufman would have "loved" Zmuda's version of events.[11]


The film received mixed to positive reviews from critics, aggregating a 63% rating from Rotten Tomatoes based on 118 reviews,[12] although Entertainment Weekly rated it as "the best movie of the year". It was a financial loss for Universal, earning about $47.4 million worldwide with a cost of $82 million.[1] Man on the Moon ended a string of Jim Carrey films that had very successful opening nights.[13] Although the film received mixed reviews from critics, they were near-unanimous in their praise for Jim Carrey's portrayal of Andy Kaufman. Carrey won a Golden Globe for his performance, and the film was nominated for Best Musical or Comedy as well.[14] Carrey also received several other acting nominations for the role.


The soundtrack for the film was written by rock band R.E.M., whose 1992 song "Man on the Moon" (originally written in honor of Kaufman) gave the film its title. The soundtrack also included the Grammy-nominated song "The Great Beyond", which remains the band's highest-charting single in the United Kingdom.


  1. ^ a b c d Box Office Mojo - Man on the Moon Retrieved 31 March 2007.
  2. ^ Jim Carrey's Acceptance Speech. 57th Annual Golden Globe Awards. 23 January 2000.
  3. ^ - Man on the Moon by Mark Deming. Retrieved 31 March 2007.
  4. ^ Andy Kaufman Still Alive?
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Shales, Tom, and James Andrew Miller. (2002). Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. Boston, MA: Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-78146-0.
  9. ^ COMMENTARY: 'Man on the Moon' Misses Kaufman by Max Allan Collins. 6 January 2000. Accessed 31 March 2007.
  10. ^ The Real Man on the Moon Talks
  11. ^ WTF Podcast: Sam Simon interview
  12. ^ Rotten Tomatoes - Man on the Moon Retrieved 31 March 2007
  13. ^ Box Office Guru - Weekend Box Office (December 24 - 26, 1999) Retrieved 31 March 2007,
  14. ^ The 57th Annual Golden Globe Awards Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Retrieved 31 March 2007.

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