April 8, 2018

Jim and Andy and Dick


I’m thinking this must have been 1991 or ’92. I was riding in the bed of a covered pickup with a few other people. We were on our way to Queens, where a former industrial bakery turned mental asylum was putting on an exhibit of artwork created by the patients there. I went to a lot of things like that in those days, thanks mostly to my friends Ken and Laura, who somehow always knew where the weirdness was to be found.

            While crouching in the back of the truck, I fell into conversation with Mike McGonigal, who at the time put out Chemical Imbalance magazine, a sort of respectable punk fanzine with literary pretensions.

            “Do you remember Andy Kaufman?” He asked at one point.

            “Jesus Christ, are you kidding?” is at least a decent approximation of my response.

            In the 1970s, Andy Kaufman began performing a routine both on and off stage that baffled and enraged audiences. Was it even comedy? What the fuck was this wrestling women nonsense and reading The Great Gatsby aloud? It took some fifteen years following his death for Kaufman to at last be widely recognized as an innovative comic genius.

            Now, the thing to keep in mind here is that Kaufman had died of lung cancer in 1984, and for all the outrage he’d stirred up in his lifetime, seven years after his death those few people who remembered him at all remembered him not for the Fridays incident, not for the assorted Letterman incidents, and not for wrestling women, but for playing that cute and lovable Latka Gravas on Taxi. Running into anyone back then who remembered Kaufman, let alone his alter ego, abrasive and boorish nightclub entertainer Tony Clifton, was a rare pleasure. So sitting in the back of that truck on our way to an asylum, Mike and I traded our favorite Kaufman anecdotes, in the end deciding to collaborate on a big Kaufman article for the magazine. It struck us he was about due for a serious reappraisal, considering how forgotten and neglected he was. Nobody else was talking about Kaufman anymore, so we’d be the first.

            After that night at the asylum, Mike and I promptly fell out of touch. I wouldn’t see or talk with him again for ten years, so it goes without saying the article never materialized. Maybe just knowing we were serious about it there for half an hour in 1991 still falls under the “Ten Minutes Ahead of Our Time” umbrella, considering by the end of the decade Kaufman was everywhere again. There were several major biographies out, star-studded TV specials about his life and career, and of course there was Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic starring Jim Carrey. Even fucking R.E.M. recorded not just one, but two fucking pop songs about Kaufman.

             Suddenly he was inescapable, and all these losers who had never heard of him ten years earlier loved that Andy Kaufman. What an innovative comic genius he was! Although I wanted to punch each and every one of those goddamn poseurs, I was at least happy to see so much of his material available again, and began gathering it up to bolster my then-meager library of Kaufman videos.

            I don’t recall where I first saw Andy Kaufman, but it was a few years before Taxi premiered in 1978. It was likely one of his appearances on Saturday Night Live or the late-night talk shows. Wherever it was, very early on I became fixated on this strange little comedian whose act wasn’t exactly funny in the traditional sense. He didn’t tell jokes or make pithy observations about our social foibles. And really, when you get right down to it, apart from a few one-off bits here and there, he only had a small handful of standard comedy routines he performed over and over again throughout his career: Mighty Mouse, Foreign Man and the Caspian Harvest Song. The rest was performance art, and that’s what started pissing people off no end. He’d go on Letterman not to tell jokes or do his Foreign Man thing, but to beg for money, explaining he was destitute. Or he’d bring his parents on the show with him for no other reason than to publicly apologize for being such trouble when he was a kid, and to tell them how much he loved them. The majority of his act was consciously designed to make audiences (and talk show hosts) as uncomfortable as possible. And then there was the wrestling. Why, this wasn’t funny at all! Goddamn him anyhow! Why doesn’t somebody do something about this guy?

            As beloved as he’d suddenly become in the late Nineties, people forget that back in the late Seventies and early Eighties it’s safe to say he was likely the single most despised entertainer in America. And the more he pushed it (inviting audience members to come up on stage and pay a dollar to touch the boil on his neck), the more he pissed people off and the more obsessed I became.

            Now there’s no damn point in my delving into the weird details of Kaufman’s life and career. That’s all out there. And there’s little point in describing his act, the emergence of Tony Clifton (whom I adored), or the role of Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s writing partner, standard audience plant, part-time Tony Clifton, and official heckler. Instead, love and admire his work as I do, I just want to bring up a couple of things these new devotees never talk about.

            First, apart from Kaufman’s own straight-to-video short film, My breakfast With Blassie (in which he meets wrestling legend Freddie Blassie for breakfast at a Sambo’s in L.A.), no one talks about his brief but shining movie career.

            In 1976, less than a year after being introduced to a national audience on Saturday Night Live, he was hired by indie writer-director Larry Cohen to play a small role in the sci-fi conspiracy weirdie God Told Me To. Kaufman plays an NYPD officer in full dress blues marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. At one point he stops marching, steps out of formation, pulls his service revolver, and begins shooting wildly into the crowd and the parade itself before being gunned down. The scene lasts about a minute, and he has one line of dialogue (which Cohen himself looped in later), but it’s still fun to see him gunning down colleagues and an audience. In a way it’s almost prescient.

            In 1980, two years after Taxi premiered, he had a slightly larger role in the Marty Feldman vehicle In God We Trust. As the country entered the era of both Reagan and the Moral Majority, Kaufman, in a bright white suit and giant white pompadour wig, plays Armageddon T. Thunderbird, a corrupt, sinister, money-grubbing and hugely popular televangelist. I must have seen that one ten times on cable. If I was flipping through the channels and caught a scene, I always stopped to watch. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a great film, no, but I just wanted to see Kaufman doing his evangelist bit again. Despite the Southern accent, you can see a lot of his stage act sneaking into Armageddon, particularly in the way he moves when playing to an audience. Haven’t seen it in, oh, almost thirty years now, but I can still recite a few of his sermons word-for-word.

            The same year Taxi was cancelled, Kaufman finally got his first starring role in a Hollywood feature, 1981’s Heartbeeps, in which he starred opposite Bernadette Peters.

            They play robots who fall in love, which is pretty much all that needs to be said about it.

            Back in the late Nineties I was talking to Bob Zmuda, who’d just released a book about his years with Kaufman. He told me that after Taxi, Andy really wanted to get into movies more seriously, which of course brought the conversation around to Heartbeeps. I suggested—and I honestly believed this then and now—that given Kaufman’s standard m.o., particularly at that point in his career, he went through a stack of scripts deliberately looking for the WORST FILM IMAGINABLE in which to make his starring debut. Zmuda, who knew Andy better than anyone, could offer no better explanation.

            And that was that. After Heartbeeps he made My Breakfast With Blassie, then he died.

            Along with ignoring his film career, there’s one other, very important thing his new fans tend to ignore. Guess I’m not that shocked, given so few people have any grasp of their own cultural history.

            Basically, Kaufman lifted his entire act from Dick Shawn.

            Long before he became known to moviegoers as L.S.D. in Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Ethel Merman’s dippy, mama’s boy son in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Shawn was a stand-up comedian.

            After getting his start in the little clubs of the mid-Fifties, Shawn and his contemporary Lenny Bruce both began breaking the rules. While Bruce pushed the limits of language and subject matter, Shawn blurred the line between comedy and performance art long before anyone knew what “performance art” was. While Kaufman was still in grade school, Shawn was doing a routine designed to not only confuse his audience, but make them very, very uncomfortable.

            Long before Kaufman did the same thing, Shawn came out on stage and did his laundry. Also long before Kaufman did the same thing, he came out on stage, crawled into bed and went to sleep. Also long before Kaufman he made impersonations a central part of his act, and they were all identical, and identically awful. In the Sixties and Seventies, Shawn became a talk show regular who (like Kaufman a decade later) made a point of offhandedly insulting the audience, his fellow guests, and the host.

            Shawn’s stage routine evolved into something he called The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World, and he continued performing it until he died. In retrospect, the parallels between Shawn’s Second Greatest Entertainer show and Kaufman’s own live show are pretty hard to ignore, but at the time Shawn, who didn’t have a hit TV show to build on, remained under the radar.

            Granted, there were plenty of things Kaufman did that were strictly his own, like the wrestling and the bit with the boil, but still.

            Shawn outlived Kaufman by three years, literally dying of a massive heart attack in the middle of a performance in 1987. Had Kaufman still been alive, I’ve no doubt he would have stolen that, too.


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