Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Andy Kaufman was out there, but he was funny

Muttonchop sideburns never really went out of style
Lately, I have been re-reading Bob Zmuda's book Andy Kaufman Revealed in which he reveals many of the secrets of Kaufman's comedy career. Zmuda was the obvious one to do the revealing because he was Kaufman's little known collaborator and played a big role in some of his most outrageous stunts. If Kaufman gets credit for being a genius then Zmuda deserves a big tip of the hat for being a guiding force behind his humor.

Of course, calling Kaufman a genius is debatable for some. Personally, I believe he was a genius, but if somebody's idea of a comedian/performance artist is somebody who just comes out and does jokes, then I can understand why a person would not like him. The first routine I can remember him doing was his "Great Gatsby" routine. In that, he read F. Scott Fitzgerald's book wearing a tuxedo and speaking in a really exaggerated British accent. There were laughs at first, but as he continued to read there was dead silence followed minutes later by boredom, boos, and catcalls. Eventually, he gave the audience an option. They could either continue listening to him read the book or they could listen to a record he had brought. The audience enthusiastically chose the record, which, of course, was a recording of him reading The Great Gatsby in that exaggerated British accent. Big laughs.

Perhaps the best thing I liked about him was that he could successfully blur the line between reality and entertainment. In other words, he could make the viewer question whether what he was watching was just a comedy routine or was this something that was legitimately happening. The most famous example of this was when he "wrestled" professional wrestler Jerry Lawler in Memphis. Lawler performed two pile driver moves on Kaufman in which he dropped him on his head. Kaufman was removed from the wrestling ring by stretcher, and he and Lawler appeared days later on Late Night with David Letterman. On the show, with Kaufman wearing a neck brace, Lawler slapped him across the face so hard that it knocked him out of his chair. After returning from the commercial break, Kaufman launched a string of profanities with such anger that it was hard to believe it wasn't real. It appeared that comedy had transformed into some kind of weird personal confrontation.

Of course, it wasn't real. Zmuda's book revealed that it had all been staged. The pile drivers in the ring, the slap across the face on Letterman's show, and the profanity-laced tirade were all fake. It was the best form of performance art because it sucked the viewer right in. It made the viewer have to decide whether this was real or not.

Kaufman did not last much longer after that. He developed cancer and died at age 35. However, there is one interesting tidbit in Zmuda's book. He said one idea Kaufman was toying with was faking his own death, and then coming back 10 years later. Kaufman said that if he were to fake his death he would do it by pretending to have cancer.

Interesting. Of course it has been more than 10 years since Kaufman died, and he hasn't come back. Plus, Zmuda was with Kaufman during his illness so he can verify his death.

Still, it would be one of the most memorable comedy bits of all time if he was lurking out there. Who knows?  He may even be reading this right now.

You never know.

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