In the 1970s, Kaufman often performed in comedy clubs in character as a nameless amateur comedian who claimed to be from "Caspiar," a fictional island in the Caspian Sea. He spoke little English with an indeterminable accent. This character later came to be referred to as "Foreign Man."
Foreign Man would play an LP album of the theme song to Mighty Mouse. As the song plays, he nervously stares at the audience. When the line "Here I come to save the day!" is sung, Foreign Man exuberantly lip-synchs it with a wave of his arm. He then continues to stare at the audience until the line is sung again when he again lip-synchs the line. Foreign Man apparently only understood or enjoyed the one line in the entire song. As the song ends, he quietly bows.
Another well-known bit contained the surprise factor. Foreign Man would nervously tell nonsensical jokes and perform poor impressions of famous people without changing his voice. For example, he would say "I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States." He would then say in the same voice, "Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States. Tenk you veddy much." The audience would begin to heckle him. But Foreign Man would continue: "And now I would like to imitate de Elvis Presley". As "Also sprach Zarathustra" played, Foreign Man turned around, quickly changed his clothes into a rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, slicked his hair back, and launched into an Elvis Presley impersonation so accurate that Elvis Presley himself described it as his favorite. In addition to imitating Presley's voice, he accurately imitated Presley's mannerisms and stage banter. After he finished, Foreign Man meekly says "Tenk you veddy much." The audience realized they had been tricked.
Kaufman's Foreign Man character became very popular when he appeared on the first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975. It was so popular he performed Foreign Man four additional times on the show from 1975-1977. Kaufman also appeared as Foreign Man on Dinah! and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Kaufman also used a version of the Foreign Man character, as Andy the Robot in the never aired pilot for the sitcom Stick Around in 1976.
In 1977, the producers of Taxi saw Kaufman's Foreign Man act at The Comedy Store. They had already created the main characters for the pilot. But they enjoyed Kaufman so much they immediately offered him a role based on the character.
Kaufman hated sitcoms and did not want to take the role. But his manager George Shapiro convinced Kaufman by saying the exposure and the salary would be good for his nightclub act. Kaufman and the producers developed the Foreign Man character into "Latka Gravas". But Kaufman felt he would tire of playing the same character repeatedly so the producers agreed to give Latka multiple personality disorder, which allowed Kaufman to sometimes portray different characters.
Latka Gravas is an immigrant from an island in the Caspian Sea. (The name of the island was never mentioned.) He often speaks in his native language which consists of phrases such as "ibi da" and "nik nik". (Kaufman invented his own nonsensical language for Latka.) He works as a mechanic for the Sunshine Cab Company. He is very friendly with a shy, child-like demeanor. He often says "Tenk you veddy much". His sweet personality makes him a favorite target of his loud, abrasive boss, Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito). The cabdrivers like Latka but are confused by his customs.
Latka also has multiple personality disorder. Being very love-shy, Latka wanted to fulfill his fantasy of being “an American fun guy taking each day in high gear". He studied Playboy and the voices of FM DJs. Latka developed an alter ego named "Vic Ferrari", a smooth-talking womanizer.
In another episode, he develops numerous personalities in addition to Vic including a cowboy named Arlo and an Englishman named Jeffrey. He ends up taking on his co-worker Alex Reiger's (Judd Hirsch) personality, with profound insights into "his" life. Just when he is about to reveal to the real Alex the perfect solution for all his problems, he reverts back to Latka with the help of a psychiatrist.
In the second season, Latka meets Simka (Carol Kane), a woman from his homeland. Despite coming from different classes - she is a "mountain person" and he is a "flatlander" - they fall in love. At the end of the episode, Simka has to return to the homeland. But Simka returns in the fourth season and they rekindle their romance finally ridding Latka of his Vic Ferrari alter ego. They get married at the end of the season.