Happy Birthday, Andy Kaufman

How could you describe Andy Kaufman to a generation that did not grow up seeing him on talk shows, late-night shows, and his own TV specials? How on earth could you say what it was that he did? He was a comedian. Sure … yeah … but that doesn’t quite …. cover it. What other comedian would come out during one of his appearances on Saturday Night Live, in a lounging jacket, with a little record player nearby, put the needle on the record, listen for a moment, then lift the needle stopping the music, and then go into a long snooty un-funny monologue about what he wanted to do next, and that was read The Great Gatsby to the audience and then … without ever breaking, without ever winking at the audience like “I know, this is so annoying, but isn’t it funny? We’re all just kidding here” … read the first four or five pages of the book (FOUR OR FIVE PAGES!!), as the audience got increasingly annoyed to the point that they actually started BOOING him? Finally, Lorne Michaels snuck on, whispered to Andy, “Yeah, there’s no more time, we really have to move on”, and Andy Kaufman leaves the stage, to boos and catcalls. Was it real? What the hell was real? Of course it was real. We all could SEE it happening. The patience of a bit like that, the disinterest in terms of being ingratiating or even liked, the willingness to ANNOY people – or, not only the willingness: annoying people seemed to be the whole POINT … is still startling today. His stuff does not “date”, at all. It still feels a little bit scary. Kaufman’s bits can be taxing. Even I get annoyed watching The Great Gatsby sketch. It feels like a giant experiment: How much will they take? There’s some contempt for the audience, yes, but there always is in comedians, as much as they want to make us laugh. Comedians can be very angry people (I’ve known a bunch of them, and dated a few). Perhaps the naturally submissive quality their chosen career puts them in (“I have to come out here and do my damnedest to make people happy … I must SERVE THEM”) makes them angry. Negotiating that relationship between audience and performer is one of the most interesting parts about the comedian racket, and Andy Kaufman pushed it. He pushed it as HARD as he could. There was literally nobody else like him, before or since.

It was his birthday yesterday. Coincidentally, I have been watching the 1977-78 SNL season this past week, and Kaufman appears a couple of times (the Gatsby sketch is one of his bits).

Every human being is unique, of course, we’re all beautiful creatures of God or whatever, but when I watch Andy Kaufman, I think, “Well. Some of us are just MORE unique than everybody else.”

When Andy Kaufman was in a bit, he did not come out. He never lets the audience off the hook. He thinks we should be ON the hook. Always. If that generated hostility or resistance in the audience, then that was an even better reaction than laughter. It meant people out there were listening and alive. Let’s see if they’ll take me reading five pages of The Great Gatsby, straight-faced, no joke to it, and see what they’ll do.

There are so many more examples of Kaufman’s bits, and how far he took them, most of them notorious. There’s a reason why people still think and hope that his death may have been just another bit, and that he is still out there somewhere. Because you were never sure he was on the level. He never broke. Ever.

Please go read my friend Trav SD’s post about Kaufman. Trav is a vaudeville and variety expert (he’s written a book on the topic), and he looks at Kaufman through the lens of variety.

Jim Carrey’s performance is accurate in many respects, but I think he made a glaring mistake in privileging Kaufman’s famous spaciness over a much more important quality that I take to be the elephant in the room. That is Kaufman’s anger and hostility. I know it’s there because I detect it behind his performances, but even if you can’t see it there, just apply logic. The man is fucking with people. He is fucking with producers, hosts, co-stars, sponsors, and the audience! He wants to provoke something and it’s something more than laughter. You people are dead out there and you need a slap in the face.

There is, of course, an Elvis connection. Andy Kaufman was “doing” Elvis before Elvis even passed away. His appearance on The Tonight Show (below) was on March 3, 1977. Elvis was still alive. Even down to the “Gatorade” comments, and the “my records were all about the same size” … anyone familiar with Elvis’ live-show banter will recognize every single line Kaufman says here. This in an age before easily-searchable Youtube clips, and the entirety of Elvis’ career at our fingertips via iTunes. Kaufman had been studying Elvis for years.

Well, we know that, because when he was 20 years old, he wrote what is now a famous letter to Elvis.

I mean, I’ve gone through a heckova lot these past few years, turning people on to you, dragging friends and parties to your movies. I don’t even drink, smoke, or curse anymore.

Not too many comedians force you to think things like, “What am I feeling right now?” “Is this real, and if so, how do I feel about it?” “I need patience to get through this.” “Let me just breathe through my annoyance and stick with him.” “Is this real? Is this real?”

I cherish the guy for that, among other things.

I cherish that which is not explainable or easily digestible. We need more of that, not less.

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22 Responses to Happy Birthday, Andy Kaufman

  1. Jake Cole says:

    There’s a variation to that Gatsby bit where he would play the record, begin reading the book over the protests of the crowd, and when he finally got fed up and asked “Do you want me to put the record back on?” and they cheered, he did so, only for it to play…the next passage of Gatsby. There’s a scratchy old video of it here: http://teachertube.com/viewVideo.php?title=Andy_Kaufman_reads_Gatsby&video_id=167287

  2. sheila says:

    Jake – hahahaha yes! I forgot: That happens in the SNL sketch, too. He keeps engaging with the audience’s annoyance. It’s unbelievable!!

  3. sheila says:

    I just love how he pushes, and purposefully tries the patience of the audience. It’s consistently unbalancing. A commenter over on Trav’s site made the observation that I love – with the Carson bit: he starts off with two really bad impersonations (which still get laughs – and we get to feel like we are laughing AT him, as well as WITH him) – and then he does an expert Elvis impersonation that is so believable that women seem to actually be responding as though he is the real thing (listen to the women in that clip). Again: the whole thing is unbalancing. There is a payoff, but like Trav’s commenter observes: it makes me think about and contemplate my own expectations as I watch the thing.

    • Jake Cole says:

      I’m still so fascinated by him. There’s a temptation to sit back and just accept his left-field genius, but so much of the payoff of his stuff must be brought by the audience. You HAVE to burst a blood vessel trying to figure out where something is going for finale (or lack thereof) to have its full impact. I think Kaufman’s own aversion to calling himself a comedian speaks to his desire to make the audience engage. Nothing is worse for a comic than for an audience to have any kind of say in things, but he needed that hostility, needed to make people squirm with boredom and confusion until it turned to anger. There’s clips of his I’ve seen that have me crying with laughter (or, in the case of his Elvis bits, bowled over with admiration), and still others that make me furious, but both reactions are necessary when dealing with him.

      • sheila says:

        Yes!!

        There’s one bit that’s on SNL and elsewhere where he comes on – and he speaks entirely in gibberish, but it is so comprehensible (his behavior makes it so) that you almost … almost … understand what he is saying. It is so brilliant. But then he takes it further: in gibberish, you begin to understand that he needs an audience volunteer. Some poor woman gets up on the stage, but she has zero idea what she is being asked to do – because it’s in GIBBERISH. It’s then clear that he is a hypnotist and she lies down on the stage and he tries to draw her up, like a snake out of a basket. Have you seen this clip? Again: not one word of recognizable comprehensible English, and this poor woman is left wondering: “what … the hell … does he want from me …” but somehow, thru the power of how much he believes in what he is doing and saying (in gibberish) – she actually does obey him, and sits up “on command”.

        Hard to explain – I was ROARING watching it.

  4. Kent says:

    Indeed. Nobody like him before or since. It should be repeated a zillion times to indicate the rarity of Andy Kaufman’s gift. It was largely in his timing. To some people at the time he appeared to have NO timing at all. That was part of the joke, of course. But, clearly, he was an exquisite master of timing on a level of Buster Keaton. Only Richard Pryor had a similar grasp of the vast and intimate and could work both perfectly at the same time. Pryor could turn his own headline into a matchstick onstage. Kaufman knew the power mass media and could stack up decades of weight behind a Mighty Mouse one liner. He is still so missed. There will never be another.

    • sheila says:

      // To some people at the time he appeared to have NO timing at all. That was part of the joke, of course. //

      Yes!

      What is so interesting and challenging is that disinterest in being loved. People who really have a grasp of that, and who choose to go into the entertainment business, are rare indeed.

      // could stack up decades of weight behind a Mighty Mouse one liner //

      Love that.

      Yes, I miss him a lot. The world is a much more SAFE place since he left it.

  5. sheila says:

    Yes – deadpan. Never breaking. Extraordinary and unbalancing.

    • Kent says:

      Even Reagan did not keep a straight face all of the time. He often popped off with humor that seemed like something out of Dr. Strangelove. Terry Southern level stuff, but not Andy Kaufman. Only the last two heads of the Federal Reserve, W and Madoff (what a name, must be fiction!) have scaled the peaks Andy mastered way back in the ’70s.

  6. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Miss him. After your great clip I watched one of the Letterman morning show clips. Realized why the Joaquim Phoenix/Letterman interview annoyed me so much. It’s a direct take on one of Andy’s. Have you seen it? He comes out and poor Dave can’t get a handle on what’s going on, then Andy is supposed to do a bit, but instead talks about his wife leaving him, etc. He asks the audience for money, and is led off by a page. Very very weird, and break your heart funny. What I noticed watching it now though, is how really handsome he was. He had a beautiful face. I don’t think I ever really looked at him before. No one like him. Ever.

  7. Dg says:

    Sheila, great post and great clip. When I think back about those early SNL days, my first thought is thank god Lorne Michaels had enough balls to put this shit on the air. I haven’t watched the show much at all these past many years but somehow I doubt some one as strange and vexing as Kaufman would get any air time these days. I’m not sure if it’s in the season you are watching now but I remember an SNL skit he did with the record player- back turned to the audience- would around and just about start to sing- then the record would skip. He would then start it over, turn his back again, turn around to sing and the record would skip at the same place… And he just kept doing it over and over. Genius.

    • sheila says:

      Dg – I know. I can’t believe that something this potentially annoying would be allowed to have play at all. Or he would have to go apologize on Oprah for “hoaxing” people. “No. I’m not a real wrestler. Sorry.”

      I remember that SNL sketch!! I think it was in an earlier season, maybe the first season.

      And then of course: the SNL audience voted him off, eventually.

  8. april says:

    I loved him so much. I was down with the Gatsby bit, but he nearly lost me with the whole wrestling thing. By sticking with him, though, I finally reached the stuff he was showing me inside myself with that particular bit of craziness — and I doubt there is another person on the planet who could have taken me there. Such a brilliant guy…

  9. Clementine Moriarty says:

    Sheila……..I actually remember seeing Andys’ ……..’Elvis’…….that very night in ’77. Watching it today, Jan. 23…….made my day!……..along with the great repartee’ between you and my old friend Kent……….from this past July 5th! TY!….both…..VM!

    • sheila says:

      Our mutual friend Troy passed on another Kaufman/Elvis bit from 1982 where Kaufman swipes at the horrible Albert Goldman. I’ll post that one eventually – good for Andy for sticking up for Elvis.

  10. Fiddlin Bill says:

    I saw Kaufman do the “wife leaving” bit at the Improv in NYC in 1975. I’m not sure he had even “made” national tv at that time. He did the bit as simply the next commedian in line to do an open mike night–his predecessors did more or less straight-ahead, “funny” bits–jokes. He came on and told a sad story about his wife, then begged for money–until the audience booed. It was really amazing and I certainly “got it,” and remembered it. I was delighted when I started seeing him on various national shows, on Taxi, etc.

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