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 itself was unsuccessful commercially and received mixed reviews, Carrey received critical acclaim for his 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.
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 somberly 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 Kaufman's dismay, since he dislikes sitcoms. 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 expresses a desire to quit.
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 reveals 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 he has problems with his newfound fame. When he travels to college campuses, audiences dislike his strange sense of humor and demand that he perform as Latka, 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 male professional 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 coffee at the wrestler and spews a vicious tirade of epithets. It is later revealed, however, that Kaufman and Lawler were in fact good friends, and staged the entire feud, but despite this, Andy pays a price when he is banned from Saturday Night Live by a vote of audience members, weary of his wrestling antics. Shapiro advises Kaufman and Lawler not to work together again, and later calls Kaufman to inform him that Taxi has 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 through psychic surgery only to find it a scam, laughing 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. During the final credits, Kaufman briefly peeks in black-and-white again.
Several members of the cast of Taxi, including Marilu Henner, Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd, Carol Kane, and Jeff Conaway, make cameo appearances in the film, playing themselves. Notably absent was Tony Danza, who at the time of filming was performing in A View from the Bridge on Broadway. Danny DeVito, who was also in the cast of Taxi, co-starred in the film and did not appear as himself.
Many of Kaufman's other real-life friends and co-stars also appear in the film (although not all as themselves), including Zmuda, Shapiro, Chad Whitson, Margulies, David Letterman, Paul Shaffer, professional wrestler and 2007 WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Lawler, Memphis wrestling TV personality Lance Russell, Budd Friedman, Vincent Schiavelli, and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. 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.
Man on the Moon was shot in Los Angeles in the winter of 1999. According to Courtney Love, Jim Carrey, when playing Kaufman's Tony Clifton character in the film, would stuff his clothing with Limburger cheese on the set, something Kaufman had done in his performances of the character.
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.
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 believe it to be.
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. The film implies that Taxi was canceled only once. However, the show went on for one more season on NBC.
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.
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 did not 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." 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.
Sam Simon, executive producer on Taxi, stated in a 2013 interview with Marc Maron for the WTF with Marc Maron 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.
The film received mixed to positive reviews from critics, aggregating a 63% percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes based on 118 reviews, although Entertainment Weekly rated it as "the best movie of the year." It was a box-office flop for Universal, earning $47.4 million worldwide with a cost of $82 million.
Man on the Moon ended a string of Jim Carrey films that had very successful opening weekends. 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.