Andy Kaufman lives! Long live Andy Kaufman!

Andy Kaufman is alive!  “Who?”  Andy Kaufman.  His daughter just said it, and his brother was by her side when she said it.  Andy Kaufman is alive.  I just knew it.  I knew it all along.  “Who’s Andy Kaufman?”  Andy Kaufman? Everyone knows Andy Kaufman.  The guy that sang the Mighty Mouse theme on SNL… The guy that used to purposely anger audiences with his da da antics… Tony Clifton (allegedly)… The guy that wrestled women?  The guy that wrestled Jerry Lawler?  The guy that played that foreign guy in the show Taxi?  “Oh!  Latka Gravas!  The guy that Jim Carrey played in Man in the Moon!  He died?”

AndyThose of us that have, at one point in our lives, entered the inner sanctum of Kaufman fanatics find it hard to believe that most people have either forgotten who Andy Kaufman was (other than the guy that played Latka, the guy that R.E.M. sang about, or the guy that Jim Carrey played), or have never heard of him.

This may be due to the fact that Andy Kaufman died (allegedly) in 1984, nearly thirty years ago, and that an entire generation has been born in a Kaufman-less world.  This may also have something to do with the fact that he was more of an irritant than a comedian, or entertainer, and irritants usually don’t achieve the kind of popularity, or longevity that comedians and entertainers have.  But, you argue, Kaufman may have been the most popular, most successful irritant of all time.  True, I would say, but even the most successful irritant’s act is going to get old soon after everyone gets on board.

A career comedian, like a Steve Martin, or a Richard Pryor, learn to adapt and evolve throughout their careers.  Even an entertaining funnyman, like a Tom Hanks, learns that one-act careers in Hollywood do not last long.  The cynical can say that these three, and others like them, adapted their act for financial reasons, but Steve Martin would tell you that the whole white-suit, arrow-through-the-head thing simply got old on him after a while, and he wanted to branch out artistically.  Kaufman, it should be said, by any die-hard fanatic that watched In God We Tru$t, or Heartbeeps, simply didn’t have the chops to make such a transition.  It’s a tough admission for any Kaufman fanatic to make, but repeated viewings of these movies, and some of the other less-than-successful things Kaufman did, will cause even the most die-hard fan to admit that even if he had lives, his career was not long for this world.

The current, most popular irritant, Sasha Baron Cohen, made one successful movie, but that appears to have only let the world onto his act, and he has yet to make the impact he made in that first movie.  Kaufman enjoyed his time in the spotlight, and he made the most of it.  He did things, bizarre things, famously irritating things, throughout the course of his career, that are transcendental.  Some could say that the makers of Jackass, the aforementioned Cohen, Pee Wee Herman and Chris Elliott have Kaufman to thank for their careers.  Some have said that Kaufman opened the doors to the bizarre, in an individualistic fashion, that can never occur in the same way again.

The only reason a one-time Kaufman fanatic is detailing the man’s limits, and relative anonymity, is the line that his daughter (allegedly) delivered, at the annual Andy Kaufman Awards, that Kaufman faked his own death to “enjoy a life outside the limelight.” 

My reply to this line, if I were there, would be that he seemed to be doing fine, in that regard, that as it was.  Other than some Letterman, and Dangerfield, appearances, it doesn’t appear that Hollywood was knocking down Kaufman’s door.  He act appeared to be waning soon after he accomplished his personal dream of headlining Carnegie Hall, after he appeared in some B movies, and after he jumped into the ring with Jerry Lawler, and after achieving the goal of accomplishing an inter-gender belt in wrestling.

Was he a genius?  I think so, but I also know that his “irritant” act was limited.  Could he have adapted, and progressed, and evolved his act?  Possibly, but the groundwork he laid didn’t appear to be adaptable to evolution.  The point is that Kaufman appeared to be sliding towards total anonymity as it was, and if that’s what he actually wanted, he would not have had to step too far to the left to achieve it. 

If this alleged daughter had stepped to the stage of the annual Andy Kaufman Awards show and said, “Andy faked his own death in a desperate attempt to forestall the demise of his career, and when that didn’t work, he decided to call it a day and move on in life” I might have believed the charade.  No one would say such a thing at an Andy Kaufman Awards show, however, for that would’ve cast Kaufman’s entire career in a poor light, and it would’ve made the act of faking his own death appear desperate and sad.  The whole Kaufman schtick, that he didn’t care about his career, would’ve been dispelled, and his fans would’ve walked away disillusioned. 

If his alleged daughter had been instructed, regardless of the light it cast on his celebrity status—something Andy was known to ridicule and personally damage for fun—to say something along the lines of: “Funerals have such a bizarre, romantic attachment to them that we all dream of dying for one day just to see how much people care about us.  When Andy successfully faked his own death—through losing a massive amount of weight to appear cancer-ridden, and eventually achieving a depth of meditation only he could achieve where he slowed his breathing to a point that even fooled medical examiners—he realized the depths of cruelty that such a joke could have on his family and friends. After doing it, he saw the depths of sorrow he caused, and he knew he couldn’t reverse the joke for fear of spurning those loved ones that were in such despair over his death.  The only reason he decided to come forth now, is that his father died this Summer.  Ladies and gentleman, I give you Andy Kaufman…”  He then walks across the stage. 

If this alleged daughter had said such things that cast “his joke” in a desperate light, and then a remorseful light, and if Andy had actually walked across the stage, I might’ve believed it.          

As Bob Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, is quoted as saying in a CNN piece:

Andy Kaufman was often about doing an awful lot of stuff and enduring an awful lot of hatred and scorn before the punch line ever arrived, if it ever did.”

“Think about it: The setup comes in 1984 and the punch line gets delivered nearly 30 years later.

“You so want it to be true because it would be one of the greatest things to ever happen in the history of comedy,” he says. “It would be the longest joke ever told.”{1}

It would be longest joke ever told, but would it achieve the longest laugh?  Kaufman would surely land a spot of Piers Morgan for his accomplishment, but how many people would watch?  Not even a Kaufman interview could get too many people to watch that show.  He would surely write a book.  He could call it the longest (or greatest) joke ever told, but how many people would buy it?  The audience of the longest joke ever told would probably be limited to forty-somethings and fifty-somethings that grew up in an era where the name Kaufman got headlines, but even their participation in the story would probably be limited to clicking on the story.  Most of them probably wouldn’t even finish that internet article.  They might lift an eyebrow, some of them might smile when remembering his antics, and some of them might even guffaw for as long as it took them to finish the article, but their reaction would be limited to that which occurs with any passing fancy.  It would probably be limited to a single exchange in the office: “Did you see that Kaufman faked his death?”  “Yeah, I read that article.”  How many people are just dying to find out that Andy Kaufman is still alive?  It’s probably a lot fewer than one would think.      



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