Again, that baffling book, Andy Kaufman Wrestling With the American Dream by Florian Keller (U. of Minnesota Press). The first 67 pages were mostly beyond my understanding. I understood maybe 20% of it–yet, the idea kept me going and I believe that, through my arguing with the book’s text and ideas, I’ve come to understand more about Andy Kaufman and maybe more, fundamentally, about Jean Shepherd. And, through the catalyst of what this book seems to be saying, I seem to better understand in what ways Shep and Andy were similar and in what ways different.
For me the beginning of the book is mostly unintelligible, and the next part, on “The American Dream,” seems to be somewhat akin to the enigma that is Jean Shepherd. (By the way, I disagree with the author’s belief that Kaufman, in any conscious or unconscious way, is commenting on “The American Dream.” I’m not aware of Kaufman on any level dealing with American cultural or social issues. He deals with humans’ specific preconceptions and attitudes.) I’d like to explain how the first and then the following parts of the book appear to me, not only because it’s interesting unto itself, but for a better understanding of how someone–such as myself–should go about discovering and articulating aspects of Jean Shepherd’s life and career–why did he do what he did?
We’re familiar with the feeling that Shep on the air is giving us the true gen–about life and about himself, that what he is on the air is his real self. An interesting comment quoted in the book about Andy is that he blurred the “distinction between his performance persona and himself.” Don’t we all believe that Shep-on-the-air and Shep, the 24/7 person, are the same? Shep in later years insisted that on the radio, he had been a “performer.”
American Heritage Dictionary: Perform, definition #3. To portray a role or demonstrate a skill before an audience.
One might think that to perform could mean to enact the reality of oneself, or, more likely, it suggests that one is enacting some sort of artifice (a “role”). I’m sure that I, as do most all Shep enthusiasts, firmly believe that on the air, he was being his true self (though not all of himself). I think that what Shep meant by describing himself as a performer and entertainer on the air, is that he presented his true self in a way that used the techniques of theatricality (such as sound volume, emphasis, pausing, exaggerating, some self-editing, etc.) in order to best entertain while self-presenting his real self. Might one say that the radio Shepherd is performing himself? Yet–despite Shepherd apparently telling his life and persona as it was, he simultaneously–without our knowing it at the time–contained many unknowns and contradictions–enigmas.
They both basically, truthfully performed as themselves. But though Shep only performed as his one true self, Andy performed the roles of his many true selves–except that he didn’t perform a role as the exceedingly intelligent, clever part of himself that he was. He seemed to always bring his performing persona back to the essential childlike Andy that he seemed to mostly be.
J E A N S H E P H E R D
(The image above is not the real Jean Shepherd.
It is a tracing
of an Internet reproduction
of a paper photo print
from a negative
taken through a camera lens
of a performer
A Richard Corless article’s title quoted from the 1981 Time magazine essay
about then-current/unusual comics is
“Comedy’s Post-Funny School.”
(More thoughts on Andy Kaufman Wrestling With the American Dream)
AWKWARD first 50 pages
What would an absurdly scholarly, overly pedantic article or book in an obscure university journal be like?
Use frequent quotes from obscure sources and frequently use quote marks for simple, descriptive words and phrases, while leaving the unexplained jargon quote-mark-free, as though we all know what it means.
Don’t write any sentence with straightforward words that can be clearly understood when one can slightly misuse more complex and scientific-sounding words that a highly, yet imperfectly educated “Foreign Man” would concoct. Also use slightly altered real words that might–but really aren’t real. Such writing and usage would confuse and bamboozle the earnest and intelligent Kaufman enthusiast.
I find it more likely that Andy Kaufman is alive and wrote this book than that it’s the work of a coherent intellect with a cogent theory. I picture Andy doubled over on the floor laughing at us for imagining that this faux-analysis of him is for real rather than its being another chapter in his mind-bending, created world. My question: Was this book a self-description written by a postmortem Kaufman (ghostwritten?) in the style of an imperfectly over-educated “Foreign Man?” (I should say that there are some parts of this book that do make sense and that add to our understanding of Andy.)
Is this man a genius? YES.
Is Shep a genius? YES.
Are they both expressing truths? YES.
AK confounds preconceptions and expectations,
disturbing us and making us rethink things.
JPS expands our knowledge and sensibilities,
widening our world.
After reading this exasperating–yet interesting–book, what are my thoughts about Andy Kaufman’s agenda (“American Dream” etc.)? I think he was simultaneously an innocent (playing like a child) and a very clever genius who sometimes acted the innocent-role, and who sometimes needed a stern editor. He discovered and expressed various seldom-surfaced aspects of how we think and feel and how we approach the world around us.
Has the book affected how I think about Jean Shepherd? Not in any fundamental way: Radio=genius; writing=good fiction-writer but nowhere up to his radio work; “American Dream”=not specifically, but he worked hard and successfully at describing and expressing himself regarding humanity and its character as revealed in Americans.
(Promotional card for never-realized
lecture tour “On Creating Reality,
by Andy Kaufman,” 1984.)
“Andy was ‘able to mine the fine line between stability
to comprehend the unpredictable,…’”
—Michael Smith Dept. of Art & Art History, U. Texas.
Was it worth reading and posting all that stuff about AK
(Especially as it expands knowledge about Shep)?
Geez, I hope so!