Kaufman first caught people's attention with a character named "Foreign Man" in the early 1970s. "Foreign Man", who claimed to be from an island in the Caspian Sea, would appear on the stage of comedy clubs and perform a number of bad impersonations (Archie Bunker, Nixon, etc). The audience would be torn between being outraged that they had to sit through a really bad act, and feeling sorry for "Foreign Man". At that point, "Foreign Man" would launch into his Elvis Presley impersonation which was surprisingly good (Presley himself had said that Kaufman's impersonation was his favorite). The audience would then realize that they had been tricked, which became a trademark of Kaufman's comedy.
Kaufman later reprised his "Foreign Man" character, renamed "Latka Gravis", for the Taxi sitcom in 1978. Kaufman hated sitcoms and was not thrilled with the idea of being on one. In order to allow Kaufman to demonstrate some comedic range, his character was given multiple personality disorder which allowed Kaufman to display other characters. In one episode, Kaufman's character came down with a condition which made him act like the character played by Judd Hirsch.
On a few occasions, audiences would show up to one of Kaufman's performances requesting to see "Latka". Kaufman would announce that he was going to read The Great Gatsby By F. Scott Fitzgerald to them. The audience would laugh thinking that Kaufman was joking. They were soon horrified to find out that he was completely serious and would read the entire book to them.
Kaufman's second most well known character would be "Tony Clifton", the abusive lounge singer. Clifton began opening for Kaufman at comedy clubs and eventually even performed concerts on his own around the country. Sometimes it was Kaufman performing as Clifton, sometimes it was his brother Michael or his friend Bob Zmuda. For a brief time, it was unclear to some that Clifton was not a real person. News programs actually interviewed Clifton as Kaufman's opening act. The interviews would usually turn ugly whenever Kaufman's name came up, because Clifton would claim that Kaufman was using him to get rich.
Clifton was, at Kaufman's insistence, hired for a guest role on Taxi, but after throwing a tantrum on stage, had to be escorted off of the ABC studio's lot by security guards. Much to Kaufman's delight, this incident was reported in the local newspapers.
In 1979, Kaufman performed in front of a Carnegie Hall audience, which he later took out for milk and cookies, via 35 buses that were waiting outside. At the beginning of his Carnegie Hall performance, Kaufman invited his grandmother to watch the show from a chair he had placed at the side of the stage. At the end of the show, his grandmother stood up, took her mask off and revealed to the audience that she was actually comedian Robin Williams in disguise.
Kaufman grew up admiring professional wrestlers and the fantasy world that they perform in. For a brief time, Kaufman began wrestling women during his act and was the self proclaimed "Inter-gender Wrestling Champion of the World". He offered $1000 reward to any woman that could pin him. Later, after a challenge from Professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, Kaufman would step into the ring with a man - Lawler himself. Lawler's ongoing feud included an apparent broken neck for Kaufman, and a famous on-air fight on the Late Night with David Letterman television Show. Kaufman and Lawler's famous feud and wrestling matches were all later confirmed as a gag and not real as many believed at the time. In reality, Kaufman was not injured while wrestling Lawler, and in fact, the two were friends.
Kaufman made ten appearances on the David Letterman show, including one where he claimed to be homeless and begged the audience for money, and one where he talked about his adopted children, who turned out to be three full grown African American men. Kaufman also made a number of legendary appearances on NBC's Saturday Night Live, until he angered the audience with his female wrestling routine. In a gag gone wrong, the SNL audience voted to ban Kaufman from the show for good. Kaufman was devastated.
In 1981, Kaufman made a couple of memorable appearances on Fridays, a variety show on ABC that was similar to SNL. However, Kaufman's first time on the show didn't go very well. During one sketch, Kaufman broke character and refused to say his lines. The other comedians, embarrassed by the position that Kaufman was putting them in on a live television show, became very angry with him and a brawl broke out on stage. Kaufman appeared the following week in a video taped apology to the home viewers. Later that year, Kaufman returned to host Fridays. At one point in the show, he invited gospel singer Kathie Sullivan on stage to sing a few gospel songs with him and announced that the two were engaged to be married and talked to the audience about his newfound faith in Jesus Christ. It was of course entirely a hoax.
Throughout his entire professional career, Kaufman kept his day job, bussing tables at Jerry's Famous Deli.
Kaufman died on May 16, 1984 of lung cancer and was interred in the Beth David Cemetery, Elmont, New York (Long Island). Many people doubted Kaufman's death, thinking it was just another gag. To this day, there are people that seriously doubt that Kaufman is actually dead.
The rock band REM wrote and recorded a song about Kaufman for their 1992 album Automatic for the People called Man On The Moon. The song was also used as the title track to the 1999 film about Kaufman's life, which starred Jim Carrey and was directed by Milos Forman. Carrey is a long time fan of Kaufman's and fought hard for the role. Carrey even owns Kaufman's bongo drums.