This was inspired by the late comedian Andy Kaufman
. When he was a teenager, R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe saw Kaufman on Saturday Night Live
, and has cited him as a huge influence ever since.
Things mentioned in this song: Mott the Hoople, Life, Monopoly, Twister, Risk, checkers, chess, twenty-one, wrestler Fred Blassie, Elvis Presley, Moses, Sir Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin.
Kaufman was known for his Elvis-impersonations, which he once performed on Saturday Night Live. Stipe tries one of his own on the line, "Hey, baby are we losing touch?"
This was used as the title for a 1999 movie about Andy Kaufman, starring Jim Carrey. R.E.M. did the soundtrack, which included this.
Andy Kaufman was never married. He met his long time girlfriend Lynn at a restaurant while shooting a short independent film. The movie told a different story of how they met.
The lyric, "Mr. Fred Blassie and the breakfast mess" refers to Kaufman's movie My Breakfast With Blassie
. This was the movie that Kaufman was filming when he met his girlfriend.
On an edition of the British TV show Top Of The Pops 2
, Michael Stipe claimed that when writing this song, it was a tribute to Kurt Cobain's lyrics and writing, and that the repeated "yeah yeah yeah yeah" at the end of most lines is actually his attempt at putting more "yeahs" in a song than Cobain did. Stipe claimed Cobain was the master at making them fit, and he wanted to out-do him.
R.E.M. performed this with Eddie Vedder when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
After R.E.M. called it quits in 2011, Michael Stipe said that this would be the song he would most miss performing, particularly "watching the effect of that opening bass line on a sea of people at the end of a show," he told Rolling Stone. "That is an easy song to sing. It's hard to sing a bad note in it," he added.
In the liner notes for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, Peter Buck recalled how the music for this song came together: "'Man on the Moon' was something that Bill [Berry] had this one chord change that he came in with, which was C to D like the verse of the song, and he said, 'I don't know what to do with that.' I used to finish some of Bill's things ... he would come up with the riffs, but I would be the finish guy for that. I sat down and came up with the chorus, the bridges, and so forth. I remember we showed it to Mike and Michael when they came in later; definitely we had the song finished. I think Bill played bass and I played guitar; we kept going around with it. I think we might have played some mandolin on it in the rehearsal studio."
Peter Care directed the music video on location near the Antelope Valley area of California. Stipe, wearing a cowboy hat, hitches a ride with Bill Berry to a truck stop. Once there, they meet Care tending bar while Mike Mills plays pool, and the cast of customers joins in singing the song's chorus. The late Andy Kaufman even makes an appearance on the truck stop's television set as the video ends.