There’s no way to describe what I do. It’s just me. —Andy Kaufman
When I perform, it’s very personal. I’m sharing things I like,
inviting the audience into my room.
“Andy’s gift was not his talent or his skills-it was his genius,
the genius of what he dared.” –Judd Hirsch
“He made it virtually impossible to distinguish between
his performing and his life” — Steve Bodow
The above, with some slightly differently translated words,
might well be attributed to Jean Shepherd.
I first posted on Shep and Andy on April 12, 2014. (You can find it by clicking on KAUFMAN, ANDY in the list near the left edge of this blog.) There may be a bit of repetition between that earlier one and these current three–I think that reading them all together might be the best way to gather what I hope to express about Andy Kaufman–and the artistic comparison with Shep. I’ve recently become (additionally) obsessed with Andy and I want to write about him to confirm, as far as possible, my own understanding of what Andy is and in what ways I vibrate to his essence. (Actually, I hope to understand better what his essence is.) I do believe there is something of value to fix in my mind in a communicable form regarding connections and differences between Shep and Andy. I hope I can find and articulate them. I discuss here only the radio-Shep because I believe that it is there that the two are most closely aligned.
Jean Shepherd often captured our interest by telling us truths that he encountered and that we probably never realized were true, and he told them in unexpected ways—we are unexpectedly confronted by them and this little shock of recognition is often where the humor and our smile come in.
A major aspect of one’s attachment to Shepherd is the sense that he is “telling it like it is,” truthfully in a way that few others can or do. There is also very much the feeling that Shepherd is speaking directly to the listener as a friend, and not doing a performance (even though in later years, commenting on his radio work, he said that he was indeed, a performer and a fictional-story-teller). Shep’s stories (and even his comments?) had us bamboozled into thinking that they were all true.
Andy in public (dare I accurately say “in performance”?) often presents himself, giving a real sense that he is being the way he really is—truthfully, in a way that no one else does—that he is what one sees and that he is not giving a “performance.” The more I see and understand Andy, the more I’ve become aware of this aspect of his public persona.
Andy Kaufman often disturbed us by poking us in the ribs in a way that we might find at first unpleasant, but which, upon reflection, we realize has fooled us by exposing our own mistaken or limited sense of reality. What an extraordinary experience it must have been for those who, not knowing Kaufman’s “act,” first saw him do his imitations as the “Foreign Man.” At the beginning the audience laughs at him–all the more powerful then, when he transforms himself into Elvis.
“Now, but not to be the least,
I would like to imitate
the Elvis Presley.”
“Dank you veddy much!”
With his innocent-sounding foreign accent, he says he will do imitations. He does a very unfunny one of Ed McMann, and we laugh not at it, but at Andy (“Foreign Man”) for being so awful at it. We feel superior to him. He does one of Archy Bunker, equally bad and we again, with our feelings of superiority, laugh at Foreign Man’s innocence/ignorance. He says he will imitate Elvis and we again expect the worst possible imitation–an oafish result. We are shocked when we find that his Elvis is extraordinary. He has become Elvis. Andy has played with our minds and expectations. He ends by accepting our applause, but not as performer Andy Kaufman—he confounds us again—he switches our expectations by changing his perceived persona, again being Foreign Man with his “Dank you veddy much!” He is not Kaufman, the performer, who thanks us for applauding–it is Foreign Man who has done the great Elvis imitation thanking us! Andy imitating Foreign Man imitating Elvis.
Time Mag: He is continually questioning then undermining the idea of what is funny. “Andy takes a lot of risks,” Zmuda [AK’s associate] says. “What performer in his right mind would go onstage and deliberately bomb?”
Shepherd often commented that his presentation was as a humorist, who builds up a story or commentary slowly, expressing some aspect of the human condition, and that the humor grows out of the situation, maybe producing laughter, rather than telling a joke as do comics. “Well, comedy is a process whereby you’re aiming at making a person laugh, and the end product is the laugh. With humor however, the laugh happens to be the byproduct of what you’re doing.”
Shep said: “There are guys who tell jokes, and those who don’t. I am not a teller. I can see the humor in the world. I deal in humor but I can’t tell jokes. I have never told a joke successfully, ever.”
Kaufman insisted that he was not a comedian—he did not tell jokes. Andy said: “I never told a joke in my life.”
Aspects of this similarity between Shep and Andy may well be why, in Was this Man a Genius? a book of interviews of Andy by Julie Hecht, he said: “I don’t think any sense of humor is funny. Rarely. Jean Shepherd is funny.”
In another one of Andy’s successful strategies to confound his audiences, he created the obnoxious lounge singer, Tony Clifton. Once a good percentage of his enthusiasts were aware that Tony was actually Andy, while his audience, watching “Tony Clifton” on stage and thinking they knew the truth–that it was really Andy–he double-crossed them by appearing as himself while someone else was doing the Tony imitation.
Doing his best to make audiences dislike him, he began wrestling women. He crowned himself Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion.
Why was Andy a Shep enthusiast? How was Andy inspired by Shep? Because Shep projected a sense of his real self. Jean Shepherd endears himself to us by being honest, perceptive, telling it like it is, a mentor—real. Andy Kaufman forces unexpected reality upon us by messing with our minds—by making us feel uncomfortable. They both tickle our minds, but in different ways.
One of the ironies in Andy’s professional life is that the Taxi people wanted his “Foreign Man” persona in the sitcom. Accepting the gig, Andy was forced to accept his character being hijacked into a rigid script, saying lines that he had not himself created. That is probably one of the reasons that Andy was so annoying to the others involved in producing that show. It’s said that the feature players complained strongly about Andy’s behavior at the time–but after he died, they seemed to be reconciled to his behavior because they recognized the quirky genius behind what he had put them through. It’s said that Andy, to get out of the straight-jacket of Latka, got Taxi producers to have Latka sometimes afflicted with “multiple personality disorder” so that Andy could enact other characters on the show.
Andy as Latka Gravis in Taxi
Unless otherwise noted, the quotes from Shepherd are from his radio shows;
the quotes from Kaufman are from http://www.andykaufman.com and other sources.
Stay Tuned for Dead Andy & Dead Shep
( aka “Live Andy & Live Shep.” )