Monday, March 25, 2013

Garden of Earthly Delights: Andy Kaufman, the Abrasive Genius (part one of two)


Andy Kaufman was a “child of television,” and — although those who saw him live rave about the experience — it was on television that he made his greatest impact. He enjoyed provoking and irritating his audience, but also betrayed a serious love for the inanities of television, from its variety-show excesses to its emphasis on childlike, simple emotions. Perhaps the most striking thing about his work is how it was insanely childish and incredibly sophisticated at the same time.
I write this a few weeks after a major celebration of Kaufman's comedy took place here in NYC. A gallery show of his costumes, notebooks, correspondence, and many personal possessions was supplemented by more than a week's worth of video presentations, hosted by fans and Andy's co-conspirators, at another gallery. The cumulative effect was fascinating, since the work of a resolutely and often intentionally abrasive comedian was discussed in earnest detail and put in a much larger context.
It would be hard to think of another comedian who could be celebrated in such a way – many movie and TV comics are honored with film festivals at rep houses or month-long showings of their old programs at the Paley Center, but to have a display of costumes and notebooks, as well as moderated discussions among “downtown artist” folk, points up how really unusual and genre-bending Kaufman's work was.
Those of us who were watching it at the time knew something really weird was going on. I remember first seeing Andy on Van Dyke and Company doing his “foreign man” bits (with jokes that just laid there, a character who seemed brain-damaged and juvenile, and this unknown comedian coming in at various points to “interrupt” the proceedings). As even a cursory look at the Kaufman “archives” on YouTube shows, he did a *lot* of talk show appearances, and although he did repeat certain bits, he concocted special bits that were done only once for certain appearances, like this "homeless" bit on the Letterman morning show.
As a young fan of his work, I often wondered what the fuck he was doing, but the laughs far outweighed the head scratching. Sometimes it was definitely something recognizable as “comedy,” but when he embarked on the “Intergender Wrestling Champion” and Tony Clifton bits, they seemed interminable and had no payoff.
One of the joys of watching his work on video and online these days is discovering the “punchlines” for some of his long-stemmed pieces of shtick. The intergender business had its payoffs revealed in the Carnegie Hall tape (in which he finally did something with the bit that was conventionally funny – downing spinach to get Popeye-like strength) and the I'm From Hollywood documentary (in which you see the well-executed finale of his wrestling career). The Tony Clifton provocation had its own payoff, in that Andy wasn't always in the makeup, a fact that was finally sprung on the public in a memorial special hosted by his siblings and Taxi costars.
The Kaufman gallery tributes showed that he really did a create a world of his own, through his standup, his talk-show appearances, and especially his concept specials. The threads that run through all the material are a spoofing of conventional show-business and a confounding of audience expectation. His unexpected death at 35 seemed to make no sense at all, but fit into a larger scheme of insanely talented performers who kick off before their time — most because of self-destructive tendencies and addiction, and others because they’re just too special to stick around for long.
In this part of my tribute to the “abrasive genius,” I want to pay tribute to his “bigger” creations (that are not Tony Clifton or intergender wrestling). I can best do this by describing the joys to be found at the show that recently closed at the Maccarone gallery. The show was held in a large room with the pieces exhibited in vitrines. The first things one saw were his personal papers – letters, passport, diaries, etc – then went on to his costumes, his record collection (more on that in the second part), and other objects (tape boxes, notes with phone nos. for contacts at Saturday Night Live, items reflecting his interest in transcendental meditation).
The highlight of the papers was surely his fan letter to Elvis, handwritten when he was college age. Steve Allen once wrote that when he first met Andy he wasn't sure if he was a big fan of his work or mocking him – the letter to Elvis runs along similar lines, since it is an *overwhelming* fan note in which Andy used quotation marks for emphasis. When he mentions being a “big Elvis fan,” the quotes do lend a weird note of irony. I'm sure he meant it, but setting something in quotes means you're being ironic or sarcastic.
The other weird aspect of the letter (one true to Andy's style as an anti-comedian) is his telling Elvis that he would love to replace him someday. One can only imagine the King's response, had he read this feverish fan letter from a young man who swears he writes papers in school on Elvis's movies. Andy cites two or three of Presley's worst films as some of his faves, so one gets the impression that Andy's taste in pop culture found him deeply loving some really cornball stuff (thus the delicate “balance” in a lot of his standup between mocking something and paying tribute to it).
Andy clearly didn't like to type, as only his stories are typed (there was even a handwritten resume on display). I haven't read his fiction and poetry – which was indeed published long after his death and now is out of print and fetching inflated prices on eBay – but he clearly was inspired by the Beat writers, as the items that were featured in the Maccarone show were redolent of Kerouac at his wordiest.
Andy's note to the Maharishi also is a curious item. He wrote to say that he loved TM, but it wasn't changing his life entirely, he was still descending into sadness. (It must've worked better for him in subsequent years, as he continued to practice it until his death.) The strangest notes in the collection weren't from Andy, however. They were housed alongside a group of jokey/angry/self-promoting notes from women who wanted to wrestle him (which were published in a book edited by his girlfriend, Lynne Marguiles).
The women challenged him to matches, writing in the same style he used when he put down women in his “intergender wrestling” bits. The weirder letters were from men who picked up on Andy tapping into a familiar wrestling trope, a “hair match” in which the loser has to have his/her head shaved bald. This excited some of the viewing audience who wanted Andy to beat a woman in the ring and then have her shaved bald (a pic of the fetchingly chrome-domed Persis Khambatta in the first Star Trek film were included with one note). One can only imagine the laughs that Kaufman got from the fact that he had fired up the libidos of some gents who were even kinkier than he (for an exploration of his sex life, see his friend Bob Zmuda's bio, Andy Kaufman Revealed!).
The gallery show also included a homespun feature in which visitors could sit down at a round table in the center of the room and talk to people who knew Andy at some point in his life. I would've loved to have chatted with Carol Kane or the most surprising name on the list, Prudence Farrow – whom I have to assume had some connection to Kaufman through his TM fascination. The day I went the guests were Andy's brother Michael and the “Bunny Ranch” owner Dennis Hof (a gallery employee informed us Andy was a regular customer at the Bunny Ranch....).
The piece de resistance of the show a notebook of performance ideas that Andy jotted down in '73-'74. Among them were these (all paraphrased here):
Bring out bald men who look like “Great Neck executives” (then a list of names of famous bald men who looked the way he wanted – “Mel Cooley,” Milt Kamen). Have them play congas in a men's room in separate stalls.
Go on Carson and get married, sincerely, but do an “Alice Toklas” (Andy referring here to the Peter Sellers movie, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas) and make sure the commercial breaks interfere with the ceremony. Wind up never getting married.
 Come onstage with Bobby Fischer and play chess with him for the whole show.
(the single best item and one I'm sure he could've carried off with much deadpan certainty) Come out on stage, say "Let Us Pray," and then just lead the audience in prayer the whole time.

The video and panel discussion presentations at Participant Inc will be discussed in my next blog entry, but here is a list of the “essential” Kaufman complete shows, as preserved on tape and now available (for the moment) on YT for free.

First is the show called “Uncle Andy's Funhouse” that aired as “The Andy Kaufman Special” late night on ABC in a 90-minute timeslot (the YT poster has put up the full version with the original commercials and sporadically sizzling audio). The show was shot in '77 but didn't air until '79; it includes some of his most famous bits, including the Foreign Man/Elvis transformation and his wonderful, truly manic conga drum version of “It's a Small World After All.”

The items specific to this show are his oddly touching chat with Howdy Doody, the introduction of the “angry Andy” (which basically became the Clifton character), “Has-been Corner,” and an odd framing device which finds the Foreign Man watching the show as it is being aired (he thinks it's pretty awful).

One of the oddest artifacts to show up in the era of VHS was a documentary called The Real Andy Kaufman, which chronicles Andy doing his full act at Kutchers Hotel in the Catskills and not going down all that well with the audience. This is an interesting opportunity to see his live act and also to see him literally knowing that the audience ONLY wants to see him doing “Latka” and Elvis. And so he brings up his entire family (with both grandmothers!) onstage to provoke them ever further:


The documentarian Seth Schultz conducts an interview with him after the show, in which Andy seems truly offended that the audience didn't enjoy the show (they were “downright rude!”). One assumes that he was used by this time (1979) to appearing before nightclub and college audiences who got what he was doing. How he thought the intergender-wrestling bit would go over with a resort-hotel audience is anyone's guess, but this one of possibly only a handful of times that he was seen with his guard down, for at least a minute or two:


His Carnegie Hall show is uniformly agreed to be possibly THE high water mark of his career. It's a full-fledged stage show that he financed himself and, as noted above, he provided contexts for all of the bits, including the intergender thing and Tony Clifton:
In 1981, he hosted an episode of the Midnight Special that included all of his “greatest hits,” but also included video of his very odd stint working as a busboy at a deli-restaurant while he was starring on Taxi, as well as two special guests he clearly chose for the occasion: Freddie Cannon and Slim Whitman:
Possibly my single favorite thing that Andy participated is the video My Breakfast with Blassie, in which he has breakfast at a Sambo's restaurant with the one and only “fashion plate of wrestling,” the classy one, Fred Blassie. The film contains my fave moment featuring his partner in crime Bob Zmuda (it is gross and stupid, but never fails to make me laugh) and many, many bits of wisdom from Fred to Andy:
While Breakfast is definitely in my Pantheon of favorite Kaufman creations, his last TV special, which aired on Soundstage in 1983, is perhaps his most extreme subversion of the TV medium (making him only one of a handful of comedians who picked up where Ernie Kovacs left off). The show begins suddenly, showing the end of the program and then restarting – instead of Latka watching the program, this time it's an old couple in a tacky living room (“he's playing with the medium... leave it on”).
His nod to Winky Dink and You (playing with a “magic screen” three years before Pee-Wee did it) and onscreen argument with his real-life ex Elayne Boosler are both mind-bogglingly weird sequences, but nothing is as good as the end, where he tells us all off and then “angry Andy” gets counseling from Latka (who is also a sarcastic son of a bitch).
I'll outline a number of extremely wonderful rarities in the second part of his blog entry, but this special is perhaps the best example of Andy toying with his audience's minds while he screwed with the cliches of television talk-shows.

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