“I never told a joke in my life.” — Andy Kaufman

How could you describe Andy Kaufman (who was born on this day) to a generation who did not grow up seeing him on late-night talk shows, cameos on Saturday Night Live, his own TV specials?

How on earth could you pass on an idea of what it was that he did?

I mean, nobody understood it THEN either.

He was a comedian. Sure. Yeah. But that doesn’t quite cover it, now does it.

What other comedian would (before or since) pull some of the shit he pulled on Saturday Night Live? Like coming out wearing a lounging jacket, and standing next to a little record player, where he would drop the needle. He listened for a moment, then lifted the needle. After this opener, he then goes into a long and snootily awkward monologue about what he was going to do next, which was read The Great Gatsby out loud. Then, without winking at the audience like “I know, this is so annoying, but just wait, the punch-line’s coming”, without any of that re-assurance, he read the first four or five pages of the book. Read it out loud and see how long that takes. It’s interminable. The audience eventually becomes so annoyed they start booing him. On Saturday Night Live!! And yet he persisted. He heard the boos, and kept reading Fitzgerald’s elegiac stately prose. Finally Lorne Michaels himself came out onstage – !!! – and said to Andy, “There’s no more time, we have to move on”, and so Kaufman walks offstage to catcalls.

The whole thing is still extremely unnerving to watch. I love being unnerved.

Kaufman pushes the audience up against its voracious need to be entertained in conventional ways, where expectations are gratified along familiar lines. Kaufman’s act creates a confrontation in the audience. 90% of humanity refuses to acknowledge their own contradictions. Sorry, but it’s true. If you think the number is lower, then good for you, but you may have a more optimistic outlook than I do. As someone who “came up” in acting training, I’ve always felt that self-knowledge or at LEAST self-reflection like this is more common among theatre folks, or at least it has a higher percentage in that particular population than other populations – and this is something civilians – with their barely veiled hostility towards show folk – will never understand. You spend your time in acting classes facing your defense mechanisms that inhibit you from doing good work, acknowledging your limitations, struggling to be open to the coaching you get – even if it’s harsh … So no wonder. Every time I hope that there will be some kind of mass reckoning, some kind of shift in human consciousness where self-reflection and taking-a-minute-before-reacting will become the norm, everyone starts flipping out and defending their position again. The internet is a culprit, but not the cause. The internet has not brought this out of humanity. The internet just allowed us to perceive how widespread the inability to self-reflect was.

So Kaufman walks offstage – on live television – to boos and catcalls. Think of SNL now. Think of how much a well-oiled risk-free format it is now. Incomprehensible to imagine someone coming on and fucking with it so openly.

What was Kaufman thinking? Was it real? What the hell was real? Of course it was real. And it wasn’t designed to be “funny ha-ha”. It was more of a surrealist performance-art piece. Samuel Beckett would have understood it. The patience of a bit like that, the disinterest in being ingratiating or even liked, the willingness to annoy people, and not only the willingness: annoying people seemed to be the whole point.

.

Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler. Famous. Background here.

Because of its otherworldly weirdness, and non-topical focus, Kaufman’s stuff does not “date” at all (except for the fact that people’s tolerance for risky stuff like this is even lower now, especially since such a fanatical premium is placed on being “likeable” and “relateable”, the result of which is pandering to the lowest common denominator). All that aside, his bits remain what they were then: strange, confounding, outrageous, uncomfortable, riveting. The Great Gatsby bit feels like a giant experiment: How much will they take? It’s aggressive: I have them trapped. I will make them submit to the most ridiculous annoying shit I can think of.

Negotiating the relationship between audience and performer is one of the most interesting – and often unacknowledged – parts about the comedian racket, and Andy Kaufman’s whole career was about acknowledging it, acknowledging all the different layers of ambivalence.

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

Andy Kaufman never let the audience off the hook. If that generated resistance, so much the better. Make them uncomfortable. Make them feel something. Jostle them out of complacency. And there was an open question in Kaufman’s style too, the “experiment” quality of it: Let’s see how far into “Gatsby” they’ll let me get. Let’s see what they’ll do.

There’s a reason why people still think (and hope) that his death may have been just another stunt, and that he is still out there somewhere. Because you were never sure he was on the level. Ever.

Please go read my friend Trav SD’s post about Kaufman. He looks at Kaufman through the lens of the tradition 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.

And now, of course, I must mention his whole Elvis obsession.

Kaufman’s love of Elvis is the stuff of legends. He was deep deep into it – doing impressions of Elvis – before Elvis died. He clearly bought the risible album of “outtakes” (Elvis’ onstage patter, released during the dreary mid-late 70s, when Elvis’ output had dried up). But Kaufman bought that album, and memorized the patter (“Gatorade”, “My records are all about the same size” etc.) Now, with YouTube, and compilation albums, etc., you can hear all of Elvis’ onstage patter, if you want to. It’s easily available. But back then? You really had to be devoted to even unearth this stuff.

When Kaufman was just twenty years old, he wrote a now-famous later to Elvis.

Feb. 27, 1969
Kaufman
Leavitt Hall
645 Beacon St.
Boston, Msses, Room 629

Dear Mr. Presley,
Hi.
Here I am at the old college desk writing you a letter for the first time in my life.
Here I am twenty years old. I have been an “Elvis Presley fan” since my grandfather bought me a copy of Elvis’ Golden Records when I was seven. (Since then I have acquired every record you ever recorded except three.)
You are Elvis Presley. I am Andy Kaufman. One day I shall meet you. I shall shake your hand. I shall say “Hello.”
I know you, ya know? I really do know you. [Bottom of letter missing.]
It’s just an idea, but if it can’t happen, can you arrange for me to just shake your hand and say hello?
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.
Thanks for everything.
(No kiddin’, I feel like I’m writin’ to Santa Claus or somethin’!)
Sincerely,
Andy G. Kaufman

It sounds a little “Dear Slim”, if you ask me.

What’s amazing though is just three years later, Andy Kaufman “debuted” his Elvis bit – the one he would eventually do on The Tonight Show. And … it’s not what you think. Bookending it the way he does … this is why he was a genius, in the true sense of the word. Here’s the “bit”.

I’ll never get sick of thinking about this bit. And what he’s doing. Because it’s deep. I know there are some Elvis fans who worry-wart that Kaufman is “making fun” of Elvis. I mean, maybe a little bit? So? But there’s way more going on, and lowest-common-denominator is not going to pick up on it, or even stick with it enough to last the whole way through. His observations of Elvis came out of what I believe to be not just devotion but fascination, an obsessive fascination, about this man who could command an audience’s attention to the degree that he did … to a degree that Kaufman himself desired. To cast such a spell? What is identity? What is persona? Who is to say who Elvis really was when he wasn’t “being” Elvis? It’s just as plausible that he would be like Andy Kaufman on the inside as any other speculation. The bit also shows not just an interest in transformation, and not just a desire TO transform, but the ABILITY. Kaufman’s “imitation” of Elvis is … uncanny. There may be more accurate (?) imitations – but he’s not really interested in that. What IS he interested in? Honestly, what I see is someone who lets us see how much he wants to BE Elvis. It’s not just that Elvis is easily-imitatable, which is true to some degree. It’s that Andy Kaufman acknowledges front and center his DESIRE to BE Elvis. What he is doing is WAY MORE intimate than a run-of-the-mill impression.

It’s vulnerable. It doesn’t bring up just a laugh of recognition at how accurate the imitation is. There’s something uncomfortable about it too.

I think he’s laying bare how we – the audience – feel about the performers we love/envy. He’s showing us US. He allows us to see just how deep his obsession goes. I mean, he’s memorized onstage patter – which no one in the audience could have recognized, unless they bought those embarrassing “Elvis Talks Onstage” albums. They couldn’t even fact-check him. Unless they saw Elvis live, they may have thought Andy Kaufman was just riffing on what Elvis MIGHT say, when no, every single thing Kaufman says in the bit is a DIRECT QUOTE.

There are many many clips out there showing Kaufman’s various Elvis bits. There’s one long clip which for years I couldn’t find. It appeared to have vanished from the internet, and it was a loss because it took the Elvis thing to another level. I’d only seen this bit once – and not on YouTube – maybe it was linked to on an Elvis message board, or uploaded through some alternative means. I posted about this and Jim Reding (in the comments section below) came through BIG-time. It can be seen here. The sketch has so many different chapters, it’s amazing it was allowed to unfold live. Or even exist at all. There’s Kaufman, performing as Elvis, and it feels like it goes on forever. Then the mood switches: Elvis leaves the stage after having picked two girls out of the audience. They retire to his hotel room and suddenly everything gets aggressively un-funny. Kaufman sits in a palatial hotel suite, asking the women to strip for him, which they do. He sits in the chair, watching, bored. It goes on for what feels like forever. You can feel the audience’s nervousness. There’s laughter but it’s uncertain-sounding. Finally, FINALLY, Kaufman breaks character and speaks to the audience, informing them that what they just saw was Elvis, as depicted in Albert Goldman’s poison-pen biography. He says he felt ashamed of what he just did. And that’s the end of the …. sketch? What WAS that? What we thought all along was a lampoon of Elvis is actually an indictment of Goldman’s widely-hated biography (where, among other things, he sneers at Elvis’ uncircumcised penis. Disgusting. Some of it is written in a viciously condescending Southern drawl. He hates Southerners. He’s also very homophobic, going after Elvis’ “feminine” bumping and grinding. The book is vile and has done so much damage. Nobody likes it.) This extraordinary bit is another example of Kaufman’s way of working. He takes the time to set up the scene, allows the scene to grind on, testing the audience’s endurance, making the audience desperately wait for something even MILDLY funny, JESUS LORD, and then he pulls back the curtain. And what he reveals isn’t particularly hilarious after all. He’s furious about Goldman’s book, and this was his way of attempting to destroy it.

I think it’s absolutely brilliant.

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 Andy Kaufman for that.

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

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

.

This entry was posted in Actors, On This Day, Television. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to “I never told a joke in my life.” — Andy Kaufman

  1. Ian W. Hill says:

    Sheila — the Kaufman/Elvis/Albert Goldman sketch you’re looking for is on the January 30, 1982 SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (John Madden/Jennifer Holliday). I remember it well from when it first aired.

    Unfortunately, any place it’s ever been online looks to have been taken down, and it’s not included in the half-hour official edit of the show that’s up on Peacock, but there’s a description of it and some pictures in this show recap:

    https://www.onesnladay.com/2018/12/29/january-30-1982-john-madden-jennifer-holliday-s7-e10/

    • sheila says:

      // it’s not included in the half-hour official edit of the show that’s up on Peacock //

      what on EARTH.

      I actually have that gigantic box set of SNL – but it only goes up to Season 5.

      thank you so much, Ian – the skit has haunted me ever since, I so remember him addressing the audience with visible anger. amazing.

      • sheila says:

        so I didn’t see it via the box set – I think it showed up on the message boards of the massive comprehensive and indispensable Elvis Fan Club page, run out of Australia. Literally everything is there – so probably someone uploaded it there and that’s how I saw it. I never was able to track it down after that, I just wasn’t sure where I had seen it.

        • sheila says:

          it truly does seem to be totally un-seeable right now. I’m dismayed. I’ll have to dig through that Elvis fan club page. I’m convinced it was there.

          • Ian W. Hill says:

            When I was looking for it, I DID find a place where it had been on an Elvis forum, but the YouTube link was now dead (I had googled “Andy Kaufman Elvis Albert Goldman”).

            Most of the people on that forum didn’t get the sketch as you did — many of them didn’t watch beyond a minute, if that — and took it (incorrectly, of course) as a big insult on E.

            In the search I also found the text of a Bob Zmuda book where he quoted Kaufman’s line at the end of the scene that had so disturbed me when I first saw it, which was something like: “That was a scene from Albert Goldman’s new book about Elvis. I am disgusted with him and with his book. And I’m disgusted with myself for what I just did.” And he was so clearly SINCERE about ALL of that. He looked so miserable that he had portrayed Presley that way. It was just heartbreaking.

          • sheila says:

            // Most of the people on that forum didn’t get the sketch as you did — many of them didn’t watch beyond a minute, if that — and took it (incorrectly, of course) as a big insult on E. //

            Yes, I remember this – i wonder if it’s the same forum. It’s so frustrating and what I was trying to get at in the piece. In a way, it’s one of the most ringing defenses of Elvis – against that slanderous piece of shit – that I can think of. Sorry, those people just aren’t smart enough to get it. Or … dammit you have to watch the whole THING, at LEAST.

            “And I’m disgusted with myself for what I just did.”

            God, i remember this.

            I’m upset that this is not see-able. At all. Would the Paley Center have something like this on file, do you think? May be worth some investigation.

          • sheila says:

            and thank you so much, Ian, for doing some digging around – I really appreciate it.

    • Jim Reding says:

      Sheila and Ian,

      It’s not the best quality (an upload of a years old Comedy Central rerun), and it’s likely only a matter of time till NBC catches up to Internet Archive and pulls it, but

      https://archive.org/details/saturday-night-live-s-07-e-10-john-madden-jennifer-holliday

      The Kaufman sketch starts at around 49:30 in.

      The

      • sheila says:

        Oh my God, Jim. Thank you! I just watched – and recorded it on my phone so now at least I have it. I can’t thank you enough. He is so visibly upset at the end.

        • Jim Reding says:

          You’re very welcome! I have to second your thanks to Ian, as the info he provided greatly narrowed my search.
          And what a seemingly incongruous mix of host and featured special guest sketch. I know it was the Super Bowl Sunday weekend episode, it’s still pretty mind-blowing.

          • sheila says:

            I haven’t watched the rest of the show but that sketch alone …

            It’s so edgy. It’s not funny at all. And to break the fourth wall like that ….

            I’ve been meaning to write something about this – it’s the most pointed critique of Goldman’s book I’ve ever seen. I almost can’t believe this happened.

      • Jacob Lee says:

        You are a saint Jim. Exactly what I was looking for!

        I even went to Peacock and found that it was missing. I was bewildered! I thought the source I was reading that this was the episode must have been incorrect. But you saved me!

        • Jim Reding says:

          You’re welcome, Jacob! I’m surprised NBC has yet to catch up to Internet Archive and pull it (and still think it’s only a matter of time).

          I know numerous writers feel that site has stolen their work. It’s a fair point, and I generally try to avoid using it for copywritten material that can be accessed elsewhere, but it’s a great resource for work that’s out of print or circulation.

          • Jim Reding says:

            As I rewatched it, it also occurred to me how rarely Kaufman explained himself. The fact that he felt compelled to do so here makes it more of a testament to his love of Elvis (and his hatred of Goldman’s book).

          • sheila says:

            // The fact that he felt compelled to do so here //

            This is such a good observation. He had to let people in on the joke so they could know what he was doing and he could make himself clear.

            I literally recorded the clip on my phone – off of my laptop – lol – so I can have it always, whatever NBC decides to do! so I thank you again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.