Saturday, June 1, 2013

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

The time has definitely arrived for me to offer up the second part of this blog post, given that Kaufman was “in the news” again last week, thanks to another bizarre and pointless “Andy is still among us!” scenario taking place on the Internet.

In the first half of this post I discussed the recent gallery show that contained Andy's personal papers and professional paraphernalia. Among the events that were held to coincide with that show were a number of Kaufman-related video screenings and panels in a series called “Andy Kaufman’s 99 cent tour,” held at the Participant Inc gallery. I was only able to attend two of these events, but I feel that one of them was so special that it needs to be recounted in detail – and then on to more rare clips that are “hiding in plain sight” online....

The difference between this event, which took place on February 19, and the others was that it was hosted and arranged by Hal Willner. I've discussed the incredibly memorable summer shows that Willner has staged here in NYC before (and rhapsodized about his benefit for Tuli Kupferberg here) and his involvement in this particular panel made for quite a memorable evening.

The panel was initially announced to be MTV VP and journalist Bill Flanagan, the talented musician (and vinyl-holic) Lenny Kaye, and Richard Belzer – the last-mentioned dropped out and was replaced by Kembra Pfahlera (and who would *you* rather see?). Also added to the panel were another music critic and Janine Nichols, a former colleague of Willner's from Saturday Night Live.

Willner moderated the panel in a friendly, informal style, playing LPs on a small record player he brought with him – an obvious nod to Andy's original standup act. At the outset Willner showed us albums he assumed Andy would've loved, a hodgepodge of vinyl oddities that he exhibited and then sort of tossed aside. (The one and only jarring thing about Willner as host was that he literally did leave those albums sitting on the floor throughout the show – I had to step over them to use the restroom at the end.)

The first half of the discussion was all about Andy’s personal record collection, samples of which were in the Kaufman show at the Maccarone gallery. It's an odd assortment of singles and LPs, favoring middle-of-the-road singers, of the Fabian-Connie Francis variety – nothing to indicate that Andy lived through the later Sixties (no Beatles, Beach Boys, folkies, acid rock, any of that). One of the two music critics on the panel noted that it “seemed like a record collection with all the good records taken out”; the fact that some family member or friend might’ve lightened the load was put forth at one point. [NOTE: I’ve done several searches but couldn’t turn up the name of the other music journalist; if anyone has it, please put it in the comments field, and I’ll update this entry.]

Lenny Kaye, who wielded a printout of the titles in the collection as he spoke, disagreed, and noted there were a lot of interesting, progressive things in the collection. For instance, a large amount of albums by the African drummer Babatunde Olatunji, who was one of Andy's (non-Elvis) heroes.

Also, a number of Brenda Lee singles, a Soupy Sales (a later one, “Still Soupy After All These Years," signed by Soup to Andy), and this wonderful item, “Peppermint Stick” by Little Isidore and the Inquisitors, which was a famous “dirty record” of its time.

The two critics and Kaye emphasized how Andy's records were like the pop culture references in his act — firmly rooted in the Fifties and seemingly filled with longing for his childhood (they guessed that a number of the LPs were acquired years after they had initially been released).

The discussion then turned to Andy’s act, his links to the Fifties/early Sixties and his constant absorption of TV when young. Pfahler was asked to speak about Andy as a “performance artist,” and she answered quite eloquently that his sincerity was the key. She pointed to the times he sang during his standup act, and noted that he was truly feeling the songs, even though he was “supposed” to be performing them to make people laugh. Willner followed this by playing a snippet of the Slim Whitman tune “Rose Marie,” which Andy famously performed with utter sincerity on the NBC Letterman show — while wearing a turban and a loincloth.

Kaye and the two critics discussed Andy’s integration of music into his act — from the Mighty Mouse theme to his conga numbers to the full-on bizarre moments, like the performance of “Rose Marie.” At this point the two panelists who contributed the most interesting insights were Willner and his predecessor as music coordinator at Saturday Night Live, Janine Nichols (aka Janine Dreyer). 

Nichols offered her recollections of Andy, among them his entrusting her with his beloved portable record player and the records he played on it onstage. She noted that back in the pre-Internet/YouTube days, she would often receive viewer requests for tapes of the Mighty Mouse theme; she would supply tapes if the correspondent was polite enough in their request.

She noted that Andy gave her his records as if they were his children and felt comfortable enough with her to ask if he could do his required pre-show mediation in her office. She agreed, and said that each time that he did SNL, he did indeed disappear inside her office for close to two hours (she also noted that she never barged in on him, so she never saw what he was actually doing). Her (pretty valid) take on Andy’s record collection was that he seemed to have chosen his favorite singers based on how big a pompadour the singer had.

Willner told of working with Andy on musical numbers that never wound up appearing on SNL: an “opera/sword swallowing act” he later did on Letterman (which became the “Rose Marie” bit above) and three obscure Elvis tunes he was supposed to do to go along with the Albert Goldman-bio-inspired sketch in which he played Presley. Returning to the topic of record collections, Willner also spoke at length about the occasions in which Andy “hid out” in his office (he was not the most popular guest by a certain point) and was mesmerized by certain items in Hal's record collection.

There were two items that Willner says Andy made him play over and over again. The first was one of Jerry Lewis' prank phone calls – the one where a man calls the theater asking for Jerry to mention his friend from the stage and gets Jerry, who proceeds to fuck with him for a few minutes. The item below isn't that phone call, but a similar one from the Jer-sanctioned CD “Phoney Phone Calls”:

What was interesting about hearing this in a gallery on Houston St. was that barely anyone in the audience even tittered – Jerry is a hard sell in the art community downtown. The second thing Andy doted on was the famous live recording of Elvis losing his shit while singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

Willner closed the evening by performing himself, doing a bit he saw Andy rehearse in his office, but which Andy never performed on a TV show. Andy loved Wilner’s “CO-STAR” album of Cesar Romero so much that he worked out a ventriloquist act to go with one of the tracks, in which Cesar plays a lothario hitting on a manicurist in a hotel.

Andy acted out the manicurist part (which is unheard on the record – thus the “costar” aspect; the listener was supposed to “act” with the record), while he had a dummy “lip-synch” to the Romero dialogue. Willner used a Knucklehead Smiff dummy (!) with an NYU hoodie on as Romero, while he took Andy's part and played the manicurist.

As with all public events Willner takes part in (usually as a producer-organizer, never to my knowledge as a performer), the panel was indeed a one-of-a-kind event. Ensconced in the front row of the audience were Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. Laurie watched with rapt attention, smiling broadly – I had forgotten that she has her own trove of Kaufman stories (which were recounted in this interview). Lou was asleep throughout most of the evening, but I guess his recent health troubles explain his condition.

Following the show, one video clip was shown: Andy's audition tape for SNL, in which he recited the lyrics of “MacArthur Park” very quickly, two times. Then he did the intro to the Superman TV show in a country bumpkin voice. That latter part is up on YouTube:

As for the newest “Andy isn't dead” hoax, here is the most in-depth article about it. All I can note is that it was verified that Andy did father a child as a teen, and the child in question was female (check it in his Wikipedia entry). And now onto a few of the many rarities that have turned up online....

Among the many super-rare items (read: so rare they must've come from family or close friends) are his first TV appearance and an 8mm horror film made with no budget that includes Andy in a “cameo.” Also there is a pilot called “Stick Around” that he appeared in in 1977, in which he plays a robot version of his Latka character (a few years before he played another robot in the film Heartbeeps).

Perhaps the most interesting clip of a Kaufman bit in “gestation” is this early version of the Tony Clifton character, when Andy simply wore a mustache and wig to play the character.

And yet another 8mm film, this time with Andy in his dressing room acting as his obnoxious alter-ego (in this case without any makeup or wig):

Andy did a LOT of cheesy Seventies TV. Here he is with Cher doing a really awful Garden of Eden sketch where he's Adam and she's the serpent. He was also on the Johnny Cash Xmas special doing his impression of Elvis and singing a nonsense song.  

Here he is doing a weird supermarket prank on a Lisa Hartman special (check out the Borat outtakes, and see if you don't think Sasha Baron is doing a major Andy bit when he asks one clerk “what is this? What is this? What is this?” at the cheese display).

He also appeared as “Dr. Vinnie Boombatz” on a Rodney Dangerfield cable special. Of particular interest, though, is his appearance with the one and only Marty Feldman on The Merv Griffin Show to promote Marty's film “In God We Trust” (which is a major disappointment, considering it stars Marty, Richard Pryor, and Andy!).

On more familiar turf, here he is with co-conspirator Bob Zmuda, fooling around on a kids show called Bananaz in 1979. Zmuda comes on a professor discussing the theory of “psycho- genesis” (in which you're encouraged to stay in the place that you were conceived by your parents). It's a very interesting example of a case where the folks on the show expected Andy to do something weird, as did the studio audience, so it seems like no one was truly deceived here, but it is fun:

Some of the clips that appeared in their entirety at the Participant Inc shows are up online in fragmented form, including this bit of The Slycraft Hour, a 1981 Manhattan access show, in which Andy does a weird Slavic accent, but keeps up his “I’m From Hollywood” bit, and does finally wrestle a woman in the studio:

And onto two clips that show Andy when his health was becoming an issue. First, doing an interview with Tom Cottle (a man with amazing hair). Kaufman stays out of character for the whole time, discussing his childhood, the “TV shows” he did in his bedroom, and the fact that his parents “were worried that I was crazy.”

It's a quite touching piece, where he's really serious; he even offers a fully serious discussion of his love of pro-wrestling, including his attempt to resurrect “the Buddy Rogers atmosphere.”

 It's one of three times I've seen what you might call “the real Andy” on film or tape (the other two being the backstage interview at the end of the “real Andy Kaufman” film by Seth Schultz, and a Tonight Show segment on which he's interviewed by a seemingly snarky Steve Martin, who's guest-hosting for Carson and asks Andy if his main goal is to make the audience feel embarrassed).

Andy coughs a little during that interview, as he does in his last TV appearance, where he's dressed in the Foreign Man outfit, but serves primarily as a host for music-videos and in-studio live appearances. The show was a pilot for a series called “The Top,” and if you need a time-reference, I'll simply note that Andy touts Cyndi Lauper as an up-and-coming talent:

Those last two clips would be very sad notes to go out on, so I will leave you with this delightful song from a Midnight Special appearance. Introduced by K.C. (of the “Sunshine Band”). This kinda sums up Andy's weirdness in one little package (except the audience is digging it).

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