“I don’t think any sense of humor is funny.
Jean Shepherd is funny.”
–Andy Kaufman from
Was This Man a Genius? by Julie Hecht
…[she] shared [Andy’s] passion for Kerouac and
radio humorist Jean Shepherd.
–from Lost in the Funhouse:
The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman by Bill Zehme
What is it about Andy Kaufman? I think Kaufman did some of the most entertainingly startling and outrageously hilarious bits I’ve ever seen. But why did he especially respond to Jean Shepherd? And why does my own sensibility respond to Kaufman’s best and most of Shep?
Jean Shepherd, in 1959, after his Look, Charlie performance, invited the entire audience to go across the street to a deli for coffee. Twenty years later, after Andy’s Carnegie Hall performance he invitedthe entire audience to get on buses and go with him for milk and cookies–a wonderful and well-known piece of Kaufman’s performance art. Andy would have been about ten years old at the time of Shep’s invitation. Maybe a tribute, with several embelishments on Andy’s part? Certainly an indication of Andy and Jean’s similar turn of mind to insinuate a bit of performer/audience, human-to-human closeness with an after-the-performance commonplace: a cup of coffee/milk and cookies before bedtime.
Andy is best known for his very funny and quirky performances as the “foreign man” Latka Gravas, on the sitcom Taxi. It’s said that he disliked doing this as it meant repeating a character over and over (I imagine it was the making of his quirkily unexpected into a repeat occurrence). Apparently on the set, as well as elsewhere during his brief career, he would disrupt the expected commonplace and aggravate all and sundry–from audience to actors to producers.
He was a strange person. He seemed incapable of continuously normal, “civilized” behavior–he loved to stir the pot with the unexpected and exasperating. Was he disturbed? Was he simply an oddball genius? Asocial? Merely quirky?
What an extraordinary experience it must have been for anyone who, not familiar with Kaufman (or maybe being only aware of his Latka Gravas persona), to encounter him in performance as he set himself up as the odd and innocent foreign man with the funny accent; to see him do the ridiculously bad “impersonations” of several well-known people and then to have him say he will then do an impersonation of Elvis. The audience sets itself up for laughing not with him–but at him. He turns his back and readies himself and finally faces those rather hostile expectations, to see that he has the Elvis-look down perfectly. And then he begins to gyrate and sing–he is a perfect “Elvis”!!!! Said to be Elvis’s favorite impersonation of himself.
Andy has defied everyone’s expectations. At the end, as he has transformed their image of him into the perfect Elvis persona, he acknowledges the audience’s appreciation by again defying their expectations–with his foreign-man’s “Dank you veddy much!” (Reminding them and bringing them back to the “reality” of his supposed persona, the simple-minded-foreign-man-imitating-Elvis–while, of course, the real person is an additional step back–he’s Andy Kaufman, performance artist.)
One might go on to other brain-twisting feats of Andy Kaufman (such as inter-gender wrestling).
Besides the women he usually wrestled, for the February 1982 Playboy, a pictorial feature shows him wrestling Miss September 1981, Playmate Susan Smith (above right). Which wrestler won depends on whom one asks. Actually, Andy “won” because it became a feature article in Playboy (and got it mentioned on the cover!) as thus was a promotional furtherance of his act–and besides, he enjoyed grappling women. Wrestling a Playmate must have been a special thrill!
One might then describe how some of his actions fell totally flat (his internal editor sometimes could not keep some necessary reality in mind). But the suppleness of the performances elude simple words. Watch him on YouTube, and get some fictionalized idea in the film Man on the Moon.
So where’s the relationship to Shep? Shepherd perceived connections between everyday things that most of us don’t notice or notice-and-dismiss, and need prodding to recognize–he called some of these “cracks in the sidewalk” and “straws in the wind.” Unexpected relationships in odd commonplaces one might say. But always based on a one-plus-one-equals-two reality if we only could recognize it with Shep’s acuity. He expressed these perceptions in comments and stories. Andy grasped onto the commonplace of most of us and concocted a bizarro experience we both recognize, and at the same time, experience as a dreamlike, yet for the moment, accepted, unreality. He has us mentally leaping through puzzlements and slipping head first on dadaist banana peels. What differences and yet some intangible similarity!
I wonder what Shepherd would have thought of Kaufman’s finer moments. Here are a couple of comments discovered on the Internet–excerpts from GQ magazine’s 12/1999 interview by Don Steinberg:
Penn Jillette: All he was was passionate and honest and pure. Maybe Andy had something that someone wants to label a personality disorder, and if they want to do that they can just go f… themselves and…. Because what Andy did was really beautiful, and I don’t care what was wrong with him…. The fact of the matter was he did great stuff for the world, and it seems like on every level he told the truth as he saw it. And that’s all that we’re all aspiring to.
Penn Jillette: I remember when he did the TV special that had him interviewing Howdy Doody. Teller came to me afterwards saying how he was just sobbing uncontrollably, how it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, the love for Howdy Doody and the way he was willing to completely capture dealing with Howdy Doody as a real person when you’re a child. With no apology and nothing to protect him. It was just so moving to Teller. I don’t think there’s a month that goes by when Teller doesn’t mention the interview with Howdy Doody as the only moment on television that really moved him.
Penn Jillette: Andy made us be able to just do whatever we wanted and know it was going to be okay. I think if he didn’t come along I would have been a little more afraid to do big hunks of our show that weren’t funny and didn’t have magic in them…. We had headroom all of a sudden. He had pushed the ceiling so much higher that we had plenty of room to jump around as much as we wanted to.
Danny Devito:: He would come into a room, no matter where, and the psychological room would become his room. You were participating in his drama. Whether he was going to pick a fight with a waitress or whatever. It was always exciting. If there was anybody who manifested the phrase, “all the world is a stage,” this was the guy. Everything he did was his art.
Andy Kaufman is quoted in http://www.imdb.com as saying:
•Whenever I play a role, whether it’s good or bad, an evil person or nice person, I believe in being a purist and going all the way with the role. If I’m going to be a villainous wrestler, I believe in going all the way with it and not breaking character and not giving away to the audience that I’m playing a role. I believe in playing it straight to the hilt.
•I’m not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads.
•What’s real? What’s not? That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality.
•I just want real reactions. I want people to laugh from the gut, be sad from the gut, or get angry from the gut.
Tell me please, anybody, what and where are the connections
to Shep, and what the hell was Andy Kaufman, anyway.
By “connections” do you mean actual connections between Shepherd and Kaufman where Shep’s work found its way into Kaufman’s head? Or do you mean the qualitative similarities between Kaufman’s and Shepherd’s humor? The difference between them, I think, is that Shepherd, off stage, saw and comported himself as a “professional” artist doing his work, while Kaufman had a harder time containing the inner madman that drove his humor.
Seinfeld is a lot more like Shepherd, in that he stands outside himself, objectively evaluating and honing his “act.” Kaufman, though a performer, gave license to his inner demons. In that, I think he made contact with his audience on a very deep level. Shep’s story about Randy beating the bully Farkas almost to death is a good example of his recognizing that we all have an inner demon who might be unleashed at any moment. This is a very profound revelation in service of true humor. Joel
What was Kaufman? I don’t know enough about him or his work to say, but I would venture that Kaufman connected with the vestigial child in each of us. A child is capable of innocent, yet truly horrific acts. We used to call my grand daughter the “tiny tyrant.” Kaufman, by acting out this aspect of our nature, which adults learned to keep in a cage, made us recognize that it lurked inside us. In that sense he was scary, aggravating and hard to take, yet incredibly funny. Joel
Remember the Twilight Zone episode of the child who possessed powers to transform adults into anything he wanted, and he kept all about him living in terror if they did not satisfy his every whim? That was the unfunny side of this aspect of human nature. Joel
“That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality.” What is more Shep-like than that? Joel
[Encountered from a Rolling Stone article by Judd Hirsch, who was the main star of Taxi.]: “And he was a humorist, but his humor was more a lightness of air than any comic design (or delivery). But to be absolutely accurate, Andy Kaufman was amused. He was so amused by his own characters that I believe most people who did not know him or his illusionistic process thought him a little bent. You see, Andy’s gift was not his talent or his skills – it was his genius, the genius of what he dared. His was a rare spirit – an indomitable one. He gave himself the right to fail – and much more courageously than most.”