How Andy Kaufman made comedy serious

The Browsers ecstasy

Entertainer Jim Carrey, in a scene from ‘Man on the Moon’Man on the Moon wasn’t very popular even then (Carrey fans missed the elastic face slapstick) but I was fascinated by the character he played. And then it turned out it was a good thing the movie wasn’t available on video anymore because it got me to look at YouTube and I found the footage of the actual Andy Kaufman.

When the movie came out in 1999, we had only Carrey’s performance to judge Kaufman on, and the more I saw of the real Kaufman now, I had to conclude he was stranger and funnier than even Carrey’s performance could suggest. 

Kaufman was a comic genius from the 70s who was so ahead of his time and perhaps even our time, that we still don’t know what to make of him. He’s perhaps the true precursor of comics like Ricky Gevais (The Office, Extras) and Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm).

But he remains a tantalising puzzle. He preferred to call himself a performance artist, and disliked being thought of as a comedian. Kaufman did not want to be funny, he wanted to go on stage and do whatever he felt like doing, including being deliberately not funny. He could be very funny, though — he just became so bored with himself that he lost interest in entertaining his audience.  


Rather, he used his audience to entertain himself and not the other way around! Kaufman would set up a comedy sketch, invent a comic character, set up comic routines and just when they were becoming popular he would become bored and do the opposite of what the audience expected of him. Once, he came on stage with a sleeping bag and slept through the evening while the audience went from disbelief to laughter. Perhaps, the most beautiful, crazy thing Kaufman did was the Gatsby routine which wasn’t a routine at all; he was dead serious. 

At a packed auditorium of university students who had come to see him to his legendary comic routines, he decides to read to them (standing up) from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in a mellifluous, rounded English accent. Before he begins, he plays them a vinyl record which just seems to have scratches on it. He removes the needle from the turntable, thanks the audience for their patience, and begins reading from the book.

After a page the audience realises he is serious — that he is going to actually keep reading. They plead with him to stop and do his popular comic sketches instead, but he reads on. Now they boo. 

He shushes them and carries on reading louder (and he reads it really nicely too) and when they continue heckling him, he pauses and threatens to stop reading if they don’t keep quiet. They get noisier. “Okay, that’s it,” he says, “I’m going to stop and just walk out.” And he walks away from the stage but then comes back and says, I wouldn’t dream of doing that to you all, so here I am reading on. He reads on. More heckling.

He looks cross again and says, “Would you rather like I played the record? Would you like to hear that instead of me reading?” There’s a chorus of yes. He plays the record for a few seconds — loud noise of the needle scratching the record and then he abruptly pulls away the needle saying, “No, no, I won’t do that to you all.” And continues reading.  
After a few paragraphs the audience is shouting him down, and he finally gives in and says, “Okay, I’ll play you the record instead.”

And places the needle a little further down the record and it continues reading from the Gatsby exactly where he stopped. There’s both resigned laughter and booing from the audience. In the movie version, directed by Milos Foreman, we see more happen than in this YouTube footage. You see people leaving. Cut to: Kaufman still reading in a tired voice, he’s reached the last page and the auditorium is now empty except for four students, two of whom are asleep while two are actually listening. He finishes the last line in a triumphant flourish, and the two listening clap desultorily and shuffle out sleepily.  
Kaufman himself yawns, closes the book, and goes backstage wearing a pleased look. His manager who has been fuming throws up his hands in despair and tells the comedian the audience came to hear him, Kaufman. But, replies the comedian in a genuinely sincere voice, “They heard Fitzgerald’s best work, what could be better?” It wasn’t what he said or did (he could have been funnier doing both) but what he did with the time slot given to him. How he made you feel time, made it stretch, made time self-conscious. (For better illustration, view the Kaufman Eating Ice Cream sketch on YouTube). 

He invented an obnoxious stage character called Tony Clifton, a bloated, mustachioed, sky-blue tuxedoed, sunglasses wearing unfunny comedian who would entertain an audience by insulting them. Whether on stage or on TV, Kaufman would say the most outrageous, horrid and personal things about himself. At first the audience would laugh thinking he was making it up. He would remain silent with a pained expression and say: “I’m serious.” They would stop laughing from shock. A few weeks later he would lie and they would think he was telling the truth. 

It came out that he was lying some of the time, if not all the time. And then he would tell the truth, all the truth, and they were convinced he was lying. This would go on until no one — not his manager, or his family, or even his girlfriend — knew what was real and what was invented. Did Andy himself know, wondered critics. Once he announced he was dying of cancer, and of course, they didn’t believe him.

“Ask my doctors,” he said. And the doctors said it was true. His family checked his x-rays and saw the cyst. But they were convinced he had set it up, rigged the x-rays. And then he died and according to his wishes the funeral was telecast live with film footage of Andy doing his routines. Many wept. His fans were hysterical. 

Halfway through the funeral, Kaufman bounced on stage, singing along, as he greeted the camera and the mourners. He had staged his own death. In truth, he did have cancer and did die not long after this stunt. He was just 35. Those who knew Andy knew he had pulled off the ultimate cosmic prank with the help of the Man on the Moon because his fans thought he had staged this too.

And waited for him to make a sudden appearance. Kaufman himself had once said he would disappear and appear 20 years later. Strangely, his Tony Clifton character was seen making stand up appearances a year later! But that was proved to be another comic-associate of Kaufman’s impersonating an impersonation. But, was it Andy impersonating Tony impersonating Andy?

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