The movie, starring Jim Carrey and directed by Miloš Forman, begins at Kaufman's childhood, where he is seen performing imaginary television programs for stuffed animals. The story traces Kaufman's steps through the numerous 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 the lovable "Latka Gravas" on the television sitcom Taxi. 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.
Carrey won a Golden Globe for his performance - his second win in a row after receiving an award for The Truman Show previously. 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, an opinion shared by others, but also a reference to how Kaufman saw himself as a musician.
As is often true with biopics, 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."
At the beginning, Kaufman's foreign man comes on saying it is the end of the movie and plays a record alongside the credits before walking off. Kaufman then comes back on in his normal voice saying he "Had to get rid of the people who don't understand me, and don't want to try". He then proceeds to show the actual movie on a film projector.
Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey) is a struggling performer whose act fails in nightclubs because, while the audience wants comedy, he sings children’s songs and overuses his “foreign man” character. Just as it becomes clear that Kaufman may have no real talent, he puts on a rhinestone jacket and does a dead-on Elvis impersonation and song. The audience bursts into applause, realizing Kaufman had tricked them – making his big Elvis payoff all the more enjoyable. This is the first of many times we see Kaufman trick the audience, as "fooling the audience" is his performance style.
His eccentric style catches the eye of talent agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito), who signs him as a client and immediately makes a deal to get Kaufman on a new sitcom, Taxi, much to the dismay of sitcom-hating Kaufman. Because of the money, visibility and chance to do his own television special, Kaufman acts on Taxi, but secretly hates it and works a second menial job as a restaurant busboy. Around this time, he gains popularity by making successful guest appearances on the new show Saturday Night Live.
At a nightclub, Shapiro witnesses a performance from a rude, loud-mouthed lounge singer named Tony Clifton, whose bad attitude is matched by his horrible appearance and demeanor. When Clifton meets Shapiro privately, 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), both of whom portray the character onstage at different times. Once again, the gag is on the audience.
Kaufman begins to have problems with his newfound fame. When he travels to college campuses, he wants to perform as he did in nightclubs, but the crowds dislike his strange sense of humor and simply want to see his more famous characters, such as “Latka Gravas” from Taxi and the Mighty Mouse singer from SNL. Frustrated by his dislike for Taxi, Kaufman appears on the Taxi set as Clifton and proceeds to cause chaos until he is removed from the studio lot. Kaufman relates to Shapiro that he never knows exactly how to entertain an audience (“short of lighting myself on fire or faking my own death”), so he does as he pleases.
With the help of Zmuda, Kaufman decides he wants to be a professional wrestler – but to increase the “villain” angle, he decides to wrestle only women and berate them after winning, declaring himself "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion." He becomes smitten with one woman he wrestles, Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love). Continuing his villain wrestling character, Kaufman is despised by much of America, as he enjoys getting a rise out of everyone but fails to see that this affects his popularity (as the world fails to see he is simply playing a character, and not just being himself). Turned off by his new wrestling act, television audience members vote in favor of a decision to ban Kaufman for life from Saturday Night Live. Professional male wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler challenges Kaufman to a "real" wrestling match, which Kaufman accepts. Lawler easily overpowers and seriously injures Kaufman, resulting in a major neck injury for Kaufman. When Lawler and an injured Kaufman appear on NBC's Late Night With David Letterman, Lawler attacks Kaufman again, and Kaufman spews out a vicious tirade of epithets. Once again, the joke is on the audience, as Lawler and Kaufman are revealed to be friends, and in on everything together. Unfortunately, Andy pays the price for this when he is voted off Saturday Night Live.
Andy and Lynne move into a new house, and George calls to inform them that Taxi had been cancelled, much to the indifference of Kaufman. A few minutes later, Andy feels a boil on the back of his neck that is later revealed to be a cyst. After gathering a meeting with his friends and family, Kaufman reveals that he has a rare form of lung cancer and may die soon. Many friends and family members refuse to believe this, thinking it another Kaufman stunt (and Zmuda actually believes a fake death would be a fantastic prank).
With not much time left, Kaufman gets a booking at Carnegie Hall, his dream venue. The performance is a memorable success, and culminates with Kaufman inviting the entire audience out for milk and cookies. Kaufman’s health deteriorates, and he heads to the Philippines to seek a medical “miracle” (actually psychic surgery), where doctors supposedly pull out infected organs in the body. Andy Kaufman was a big believer in such medical practices and chose to do so after all other forms of treatment had failed. But ultimately he dies as a result of his illness.
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 maybe Kaufman’s death was actually fake and he is still alive somewhere. The film ends with a neon portrait of Kaufman among such comedy legends as Groucho Marx and Laurel and Hardy.
Significantly, these critics included Kaufman's own father Stanley, who was displeased that little of Andy's early life (before show business) was portrayed. Other inaccuracies include Lorne Michaels asking the SNL home viewing audience to vote Kaufman off the show. This happened in 1982, two years after Michaels left the show as executive producer and Dick Ebersol took over.
Many events in the feud between Kaufman and Jerry Lawler were left out of the film.
The film depicts Kaufman as ecstatic when ABC cancels Taxi. Yet the show went on for one more season on NBC, and Kaufman's character of Latka was a part of that season's cast. The film treats that first cancellation as the one and only.
The fight on Fridays was shortened. The skit started out by everybody talking to each other; then a woman leaves the table and comes back high and Andy Kaufman leaves and comes back. In the film, the Fridays scene started when Andy came back from the bathroom. When Andy threw the glass of the water at Michael Richards, in the film he was upset; in reality Michael and Andy were laughing about it, then Jack Burns came on set saying, "Go to the commercial". The film made the fight between Andy and Michael long and more violent; in reality it ended quickly as it was broken up by other cast members.
The film portrays the first meeting between Shapiro and Kaufman at a nightclub, following Kaufamn's set where he performed an imitation of Jimmy Carter, President of the United States. 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.
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 the film (although not all as themselves), including Zmuda, Shapiro, Chad Whitson, Marguiles, David Letterman, 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. Michael Richards is played by Norm Macdonald in a recreation of the Fridays show skit.
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. 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. He would also play young Tony Soprano on The Sopranos 1999 episode "Down Neck"