Monday, May 18, 2009

Oh the Hilarity

In 1975, when I was in 5th grade, my super hip friend, Dickie changed the course of my life by introducing me to Saturday Night Live. When it first started, not only was it funny, but it was really cool. If you knew about it, particularly in 5th grade, well you were cool. You were connected to something. It was like some heightened awareness. It mocked and satirized the world around you, and you felt like you were becoming like Gatsby--connected to that seismograph. My eyes were open. Like shaking off the sleepy spell of the marketing and schmaltz that surrounded me.

I was in on the joke.

Dickie's gift of course takes on a life of its own. Once the eyes are open you begin to see more and more. And one fascinating bit of comedy that really played on the dynamic of hipness and being in on the joke was Andy Kaufman. I loved Andy early. Maybe it just hit me at just the right time in my life--just entering adolescence--insecure, alienated--wanting to be cool, to connect in some way. I loved satire. When many kids were collecting Baseball cards, I became fascinated with Wacky Packs. They were like Baseball cards, only they were mini parodies of household products. Like this:

Ok I know, but like I say, I was a kid. Then it was Mad Magazine. Yummy irreverence!!

And then along came Andy.

Every comedian I had ever seen did everything he could to get you on his side. Even the hip ones, Carlin and Pryor, and Mooney wanted you on their side, to relate, to understand. They wanted to be hip and show their understanding. Kaufman wanted to promote misunderstanding. He did not want me on his side. He wanted to create tension, chaos. He wanted you to think something was wrong. Like this:

This was my hero! He rarely if ever cracked out of turn. He would have hecklers planted to create tension in the room. He would bomb on purpose. Once he showed up at the show and proceeded to read The Great Gatsby to the audience under the guise of classing up his act. If you weren't in on the joke, it was just weird and uncomfortable. But if you were in, well few things were funnier. Here is a classic example:It's pretty clear that Andy doesn't care if the audience is on his side. When I saw this I was crying with laughter. This was my hero. He was changing the rules. I am not going to catalog a zillion Kaufman bits--suffice to say that they all played on this idea of creating illusion--from pretending to be a wrestler, to setting up two call in numbers on SNL where viewers could call in and support Andy's appearances on the show or vote to have him kicked off the show forever.

And then came the joke. I remember hearing that Kaufman the health nut had gotten lung cancer despite never having smoked and was headed south of the border for a miracle cure. Now by this time I was conditioned to associate Andy with illusion and trickery--often outside the normal performance arena. I was not buying it. I was convinced he was pushing some envelope.

Then came the news that he had died. Once again I was not buying it. I was convinced it was a joke. It was my first thought. It was an Elvis goof. It was right in line with his act--playing on the edge, illusion vs reality, messin with the rubes. That was May 16, 1984.

And we waited.

Before long the rumors start floating around. His long time cohort, Bob Zmuda, claims he talked about faking his death. Then lots of people in his life started saying similar things. When Man in the Moon came out, all that was multiplied. Andy had apparently said that if he were to do it, it would have to be a long time to be something special.

On the 20th anniversary of his "death", Zmuda held a party for his reappearance. Oh how I wanted him to come back. This would not have been Elvis or Tupac or Howard Hughes or any of those sad personalities who popular legend speculated had done this. This would have been a joke. A twenty year joke. Many of the audience quite alive at the outset of the joke would be dead before the punchline. Talk about killing. OH! But seriously. . .

Well there was no big reveal, but someone at the party left behind this mysterious card:

After that there began this online presence at the site mentioned on the card. It was this mysterious blog all dedicated to the idea that Andy Kaufman faked his death. Various forums popped up that tried to decipher the mysterious clues. For years this went on. Fake names, clues all over the country, people pretending to be unraveling the mystery suddenly seeming to be part of the conspiracy. There were scans of irregularities in the death certificate. A myriad of quotes from people claiming variously that they saw Kaufman alive in the 90's or in the carribean or that he told any number of people how he was really going to do it and that he would not even tell his parents, etc. Increasingly the narrative voice at that site took on the voice of Kaufman himself. He claimed to be Kaufman; he made videos; he even gave voice scrambled interviews on the radio. Frankly it got lame. I started thinking of it as "The Big Wank".

Two days ago was the 25th Anniversary (at this writing) May 16, 2009. There was some anticipation among the OCD crazies in the forum that pays attention to all this nonsense. Finally the day arrives and at the once mysterious adn clever there was this text:
Andy Kaufman will give a message to the world
on the 25th anniversary of his death
Saturday May 16, 2009
That message will appear only on this page.
As many of you have figured out over the years, I am not dead. I did not fake my death, I performed an illusion.
I have spent the last 25 years creating my art, my way, on my terms. In 1984, I was unemployable. I was considered a liability. My agents could not get me work in television, film, theater, or comedy clubs. A tour of colleges was cancelled due to lack of interest. In the summer of 1983, my wrestling matches were cancelled due to lackluster ticket sales. I could not get backers for any of my screenplays. No publisher had the slightest interest in the books I had written. I was the boy who cried wolf too many times. I was considered a has-been. I was accepted in the TM movement but not welcome. The only reason I was accepted was my many monetary contributions over the years. My closest friends had no use for me since they could no longer advance themselves through me. I was no longer profitable to my friends or management. My family was done with me as well since I would not reach out to my child that they had given up for adoption. In 1983, I was alone and could not even find menial work since washed up celebrities are considered over qualified. My agents and family put me in therapy.
I did the only thing I could do short of killing myself. I killed the Andy Kaufman character and buried him with a man named Nathan McCoy.
With the deceased Nathan McCoy’s identity, I moved on. I have spent the last 25 years producing television, making films, writing books, and keeping journals of my daily activities. I have hundreds of hours of home video. All this has been done my way, on my terms. All my work is in storage and will be destroyed upon my death.
I have spent the last 15 years haunting the internet. People ask when I am going to “return”. You do not seem to understand. You left me 25 years ago. I have no use for you now. My message to the world is this… fuck every last one of you.

Here's the thing. The Big Wank has been fun. Not so much lately, but big picture wise, what a ride. Early on, before the narrative voice changed, it was just great. But what a lame ending.

Got a big mad on cause you were unemployable? Show up. I bet you get a gig.

And the other thing is that The Big Wank is supposed to be a joke. Wait not a joke, or even THE JOKE. It is supposed to be JOKE.

Now we get this silly reveal that he left because he was sad? Depressed?

The magic of the whole thing is that Andy is telling a joke that takes 25 years to tell. That simple construct has built into it all of the surrealism that was ANDY. It is the Gatsby bit on steroids. If everyone walks out on the joke is it still funny? Yes! It is funnier. Provided that it is still a joke!

There is an old comedy saying that my pop drilled into my head--Brevity is the soul of wit. Sure--if you are Henny. But Andy was different. Can the Joke be longer than the act? That is funny in itself. Can a joke be so long that the comedian moves to a different country? Hysterical. Can a joke be so long that the comedian dies of natural causes in the telling? Macabre but damned funny.

But to tell a joke for 25 years and then try to sell the crowd on the idea that it was never a joke. . . You know what? It's still funny.

I will continue to check in. You see there is this small part of me that sees Andy as being only happy when there is an audience of one. I want the mythos intact that Andy ultimately wants to alienate the audience--and the descent into hack-itude is part of it. We would-be hipster insiders are crowding him.

My point is that the myth of Andy is far more important than any of the rest of it. Ask yourself why you like Andy. Is it your hipness you like? Being in on the joke? Or can you make that transition to willing sucker? I continue to believe and laugh because, well, the world is just more beautiful that way. I delight in my foolishness.

Fool me! You wonderful man!