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.
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.