The Unfunny, Influential Comedy of Andy Kaufman

There was a moment, in the timeline of the history of comedy, when the subversive nature of comedy became so comprehensive that it became uniform, conventional, and in need of total destruction. Although the late, great Andy Kaufman may never have intended to undermine, and thus destroy, the top talent of his generation, his act revealed his contemporaries for what they were: conventional comedians operating under a like-minded banner. In doing so, Andy Kaufman created an art form.

Those of us that had an unnatural attraction to Andy Kaufman’s game-changing brand of unfunny comedy now know that he was oblivious to greater concerns, but we used whatever it was he created to subvert the conventional subversions, until they lost their subversive quality.

Those “in the know” had a very distinct, sociopolitical definition of subversion before Andy Kaufman. They may deem the art form of subversion that Andy Kaufman developed as that of a certified comedic genius now, but they had no idea while he was doing it. They may have even cautioned him against doing it.

I see what you’re trying to do, but I don’t think it will play well in Omaha. They’ll just think you’re weird, and weird doesn’t play well on the national stage … unless you’re funny-weird.”

Many regarded being weird, in the manner Andy Kaufman was weird, as just plain weird … even idiotic. Those in the know didn’t know what he was going for. Before Andy Kaufman became Andy Kaufman, and his definition of weird became defined as a transcendent art form, being weird meant going so far over-the-top that the audience felt comfortable with the notion that you were being weird. It required the comedic player to find a way to communicate to the audience that they were being weird. They used visual cues, in the form of a weird facial expression, or weird tones, so that “less sophisticated audiences in Omaha” could understand that the comedic actor was being weird.

One can be sure that before Andy Kaufman took to the national stage, on Saturday Night Live, those “in the know” warned him of the potholes that lay ahead of him if he didn’t find some conventional method of subversion, or weirdness, to let the audience in on the joke. Kaufman didn’t listen. For whatever reason, be it confidence, intuitive knowledge, or the lack of talent required to be funny in a more conventional sense, Kaufman maintained his unconventional, unfunny, and idiotic characters and bits, until those “in the know” declared him one of the funniest men that ever lived.

The cutting edge, comedic intelligentsia now speak of the deceased, comedic actor as if they were onto it the whole time. They weren’t. They didn’t get it. I didn’t get it, but I was young, and I needed the assistance of repetition to understand the genius of being idiotic, until I busied myself trying to carve out my own path to true idiocy, in my little world.

Andy Kaufman may not have been the first true idiot in the pantheon of comedy, but for those of us that witnessed a display of his idiotic behavior, it opened up a whole new world. We didn’t know that one could be so idiotic, until someone came along, broke that door down, and showed us all his furniture.

For those that never saw Andy Kaufman at work, his claim to fame was not jokes, so much as it was the situational humor. The situations he created weren’t funny, in the conventional sense. Some of the situations were so unfunny, and so unnerving, that some deemed them idiotic. He was so idiotic that many believed his shows were nothing more than a series of improvised situations where he reacted “on the fly” to a bunch of idiotic stuff, but what most of those “in the know” did not know was that everything he did was methodical, meticulous, and choreographed.

Being Unfunny in Situations

Like the knuckleball, situational humor can get better or worse as the game goes on, but if you’re going to have any success with it you’re going to have to devote yourself to the pitch. People will hit the occasional home run off you, and you will knock out the occasional mascot with a wild pitch, but for situational jokes to become effective, they can’t just be another pitch in your arsenal. They require a commitment that will become a concentration, until it eventuates into a lifestyle that even those closest to you will have a difficult time understanding.

“Why would you try to confuse people?” they will ask you. “And say things that aren’t funny?” 

“I would like for someone, somewhere to consider me idiotic,” will be the response of the devoted. “Any idiot can fall down a flight of stairs, trip over a heat register, and engage in slapstick comedy, but I want to achieve a form of idiocy that leads others to believe I am a total idiot, and that I don’t know any better.”

If you’re less confident with your modus operandi, and you’re still searching for answers, high-minded responses may obfuscate the truth regarding why we enjoy doing this. The truth may be that we don’t know why we enjoy doing this. We just do. The truth may be that we know the path to achieving laughter, through the various pitches and rhythms made available to us in movies and primetime sitcoms, but some of us reach a point where we’ve so thoroughly mastered that template so well that it now bores us. Others may recognize, at some point in their lives, that they don’t have the wherewithal to match the delivery that our friends –with gameshow host personalities– employ. For these people, the raison d’être of Kaufman’s idiot may offer an end run around the traditional modes of comedy. Some may employ these tactics, to stand out, and above the fray, and others may enjoy the superiority-through-inferiority psychological base this mindset produces, but most people find themselves unable to identify the reason behind doing what they do. They just know they like it, and they will continue to like it, no matter how many poison-tipped arrows come their way.

I had an acquaintance that learned of my devotion to this lifestyle, when she overheard me contrast it in a conversation with a third party. What she heard in that conversation was a brief display of intellectual prowess that crushed the characterization she had of me prior to that moment. When I turned back to her, to continue the conversation that she and I were having before the interruption, her mouth was hanging open, and her eyes were wide. What she said in that moment, and in any moment I acted idiotic thereafter, was:

“Whatever, I am onto you now. You are not as dumb … as you pretend to be.”

She had me all figured out. She was proud of herself. She beamed. The delicious moment occurred seconds later, when it dawned on her that what she figured out made no sense in conventional constructs. People pretend to be smart. They don’t pretend to be dumb, or inferior. She was looking at me when she stated that she was onto me, of course, and her expression appeared to mirror mine, as it dawned on her that this epiphany was not as comprehensive as she had first believed.

The pause before her second sentence included an expression that every idiot strives to achieve. The pride of figuring me out, faded, as it dawned on her that everything she thought she figured out opened up more questions. I could only imagine flowchart she developed in her mind. A flowchart that ended in a rabbit hole that once entered into would place her in a variety of vulnerable positions, including the beginning. She pursued me after that, to inform me that she was onto this whole thing I was doing, until it became obvious that I was no longer the primary audience of her conviction.

I’ve never thrown an actual knuckleball with any success, but watching her flail away at the gradual progression of my situational joke –trying to convince herself that this had no effect on her– cemented my lifelong theory that jokes can be funny, but reactions are hilarious.

The point is that if you devote yourself to this mindset, and you try your hardest not to let your opponents see the stitches, you can convince some of the people, some of the times, that you are an idiot.

The List

The following is a short list of idiotic gems. This list is by no means comprehensive, for aspiring idiots looking to spread the seed of idiocy among their peers. As stated earlier, most idiotic behavior is situational, and thus impossible to catalog in a simple piece such as this one. Some might view this list as a primer for those looking to buy into the mindset. One can also use it as an explanation for the curious:

1) So’s your mother. Most idiots prefer the non sequitur made famous by The Office, “That’s what she said.” We define a non sequitur as a conclusion, or statement that does not follow the previous argument or statement in a logical manner. There’s nothing wrong with “That’s what she said,” of course, and “So’s your mother” is not a better non sequitur, as much as it is different. “That’s what she said,” thanks to The Office, has now become so ubiquitous that it’s an expected non sequitur, even if it does not follow the logic of the argument, or conversation in play. Our goal, if we choose to accept the non sequitur, situational lifestyle of the idiot, is to seek that response that exists outside the patterns and rhythms of the norm. Another key, as expressed in the knuckleball analogy, is repetition. It takes patience and perseverance, to become locked in, but if we do it right often enough, we can become a “So’s your mother” guy, until those around us begin to believe that we have such unique rhythms and patterns that they’re irritated by us, and they dismiss us as a person that “Says weird things”. If we are able to maintain this façade through all of the ways that people attempt to dismiss us –and they will vary, and some of them may hurt a little– we may reach a point where someone, somewhere will deem us a total idiot.

2) “What did he say?” is a much more difficult non sequitur to land, even for the seasoned idiot, schooled in the art of being idiotic. This response may never receive the laughter that a timed, “So’s your mother” or a “That’s what she said” response may. The sequential reactions this line receives may be better than those other two if we are strategic in the manner in which we place it in our conversations over time. All non-sequiturs, we should note, require deliveries that are measured and methodical. Our goal is to lead the listener to believe that we believe in what we’re saying, and that we may not know that they don’t follow the logical order, because we may be a little damaged, but none of them require the diligence and patience that “What did he say?” requires.

This response is not a joke to us. We believe when someone introduces a story that involves an agreed upon female name –like Martha, Barbara, or Beatrice– that they are speaking of a male.

“What did he say about that?” we will ask in a manner dictated by the situation.

If our audience has no reason to believe that we’re total idiots, they may attempt to determine if our confusion is genuine at this point. If we are successful in completing this portion of the conversation, they will say, “I said it was Martha that did this …” This is the crucial point in the conversation, that which is referred to in idiotic parlance as crunch time. We cannot smile, act comedic, or let them in on the joke in anyway. We are not attempting to pull someone’s leg here. This is a serious attempt to pull off a difficult joke.

It requires attention to detail. It may even require us to go into our grab bag of emotions to find the display of confusion that convinces our audience that we’re confused. If our audience knows our reactions, they will know how we display genuine confusion. They will know if we look them in the eye when we’re playing with them, and if our insecurities are such that we look away when we’re searching for answers. They will also know if we’re the type that pries into a subject to get to the heart of a matter we don’t understand, or if we’re the type that pretends that we know what they’re talking about when we don’t. This is no time to project an ideal image onto the listener. This is a time to be honest and pure, and objective in our understanding of our reactions. This is also a moment to realize that we’re not brilliant and perfect, and that the best standup comedians don’t get it right the first out. Watch their reactions to our reactions and take note of any failings we might have for the next time out.

One other thing, before we continue, this space in time will also provide a chicken exit. If we’re more interested in having friends, and having people enjoy our company, or we’re the type that grows insecure or uncomfortable when people begin to view us as an idiot, we’ll want to pull the ripcord on the joke right here. We can say something like, “Ok, I heard you,” or “I’m just kidding you.” Some people also feel a little uneasy playing with another person’s head in this manner, as they fear it may lead the other to find them deceptive in some manner that may place a wedge between them and the other person, and this is the perfect moment to end it all before feelings are hurt.

For those that are willing and able to proceed, once they have their confused reactions correct, they’ll want to say something along the lines of this:

“I heard you. What did he say to that?”

Seasoned idiots, that have experienced some failure at this point in the situation, will tell us that the key to making it through crunch time unscathed can only be accomplished by emphasizing the word ‘you’ in this reply, as opposed to the word ‘he’. Emphasizing the word ‘he’ lets the audience in on the joke in a premature manner, and while they may consider us something of an idiot for attempting to play such a game on them this is not the elevated form of the joke that we seek, and we’ll find it far less rewarding. Emphasizing ‘he’, to go back to our analogy, will reveal the stitch in our knuckleball, and it will result in an eye roll, or some other form of dismissal that allows our audience to avoid stepping further into the rabbit hole we’re placing before them.

If our reactions are pitch-perfect, “It’s a girl,” is something they might say. “Martha is a girl.”

To lay the depth charge of this joke, you will then want that particular conversation to conclude as all of your other conversations conclude. A deadpan “Oh, ok!” should accomplish this. You may even want to increase your confused reaction, sprinkled with a dash of embarrassment to complete the affectation of you digesting what went wrong in the exchange.

This line of responses will not bear fruit at the outset, and you may want to skip the next story involving an agreed upon female name, like Barbara, to avoid them seeing the stitches of your situational humor, but when they approach you with a third story, about a person name Beatrice, you will say, “What’s he doing now?”  The emphasis on the word ‘he’, at this point in the joke, is acceptable, if you’ve set your listener up well enough.

This is the portion of the joke where you are to receive dividends for all of your hard work. Some may enjoy pursuing this façade ad infinitum, adding intricacy here and there to it as it expands, but most of us want payoffs. The payoff may not be immediate. You may not see that perfect expression on their face, as they become aware of all that you’ve done to them. They may not say anything, for it may be embarrassing to them that they fell for it so hard. If you’re knuckleball was successful, you’ll know when you try to pull the joke on someone else, and your initial victim turns to them, with empathy, and says:

“Don’t fall for it Judy. He’s not as dumb as he wants you to believe. He’s just an idiot.”  

3) “What’s that?” The best way to explain this joke is to provide an example of it.

Example: “I don’t like the way the road construction crew fixed Main Street. What’s that? I said that I don’t like the way the road construction crew fixed Main Street.” 

We say all three sentences. To accentuate the joke, we will want to punctuate the third sentence with fatigue. This suggests that we’re tired of repeating ourselves. Ninety-nine percent of the time, this joke will produce nothing more than confusion, but if practiced enough, it can produce an hilarious reaction.

“I did not say what. YOU DID!” 

The person that said this colored her response with an ‘I’m not the stupid one here, YOU ARE!’ intonation that suggested that my impatience with her was “uncalled for”. She afforded me one more opportunity to pull this joke on her, and she was more adamant the second time through. Unfortunately, I was never afforded the opportunity to do this as often as it may have been necessary to see this joke to fruition, and no other person has fallen for this as hard as she did. This one is the most difficult to pull off, for most people see the stitches of this knuckleball and avoid swinging at it.

Another important note to make, before we continue, is that most idiotic humor is not funny as a standalone. If the reader has no desire to become an idiot, and they are reading through all this as a curious visitor, the corner of their lips may not have even curled enough to form a polite smile. The words “None of this is funny” may have already crossed the lips of those reading this, a number of times, and if the reader confronted me with this assessment, I would agree. I would then ask them what they consider funny? At that point, they may list off some lines that Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, or George Carlin have said. “Fair enough,” I would say. “I am not as funny as they are. How many people are? How many people have reached great highs in their life, believing that the sky was the limit on their potential? How many have done the same after recognizing their limitations? We untalented folks have learned that there are individualistic ways of achieving humor, and it can be found in the unfunny, common situations one finds oneself in.”

My modus operandi, brought to you, in part, by the late, great Andy Kaufman, is that while jokes are funny, reactions are hilarious. If we practice the art of deception, in one form or another, and we can deceive another into believing that we are an idiot, we can produce some jewels that will leave us with the feeling that we’ve created some rewarding moments in our life.

4) Recite an Inappropriate Song Lyric in an Appropriate Moment

Song lyrics capture a moment. This is such a staple in movies, and TV, that it has crossed over into our daily lives. It’s become a cultural trope. They use the device in marketing, business presentations, and in romantic gestures. It’s become such a staple of our culture that some idiots have developed the perfect non sequitur songs that appear to have significant and poignant song lyrics to match a number of different situations.

An example of using song lyrics to capture a moment, with some attachments to context, occurred in an episode of The Simpsons when Millhouse Mussolini Van Houten said, “So this is what it feels like … when doves cry.” It was humorous, because use of the device did have some application to the feelings of utter hopelessness and despair that Millhouse was experiencing after Lisa Simpson informed him that they would not be a romantic couple. It was also hilarious, because it was typical of a young person’s dramatic attachment to utter despair that the rest of us know is momentary.

Everyone reaches a point of despair, or hopelessness, that they want to define for others through artistic means. In previous generations, people sought Shakespeare and The Bible for a point of reference. Our generation seeks song lyrics and chunks of TV dialogue. My personal favorite song lyrics are those of the Alan Parsons Project’s (APP) song: “Where do we go from here now that all of the children are growing up?” Another set of lyrics I use are Ween’s: “What can you do when your world is invaded by a reggae junkie Jew?” I also captured idiotic moments when the lyrics of a Motorhead song: “All right, all right, I hope you son of bitches see the light.”

The purpose of this cryptic use of these lyrics occurs soon after your listener first hears them. If they are aware of the cultural trope of using song lyrics to capture a moment, and most of us are on some level, they may believe that you have a firmer grasp on the situation than they do. The joke reveals itself when they hear us use the same lyrics in an altogether different situation. When they hear us do it again, they may feel foolish for having believed in it the first time, and in every instance they hear us do it afterward they may begin to believe we are an idiot. The point, in evidence with the use of the APP lyrics in particular, is that most lyrics are so over-the-top, self-indulgent serious, that they are ripe for ridicule. The point is that this ridicule is so poignant that it doesn’t just mock the idea of a hopeless and dire situation, but the general practice of using serious lyrics to capture such a moment.

The most hilarious reaction to the APP lyrics in particular was, “I guess we grow with them?”

The Idiostory

Most true idiots acted idiotic before they ever heard of Andy Kaufman, but whatever it was he did opened up this whole can of unfunny hilarity to us. After seeing what he did, it became obvious to some of us that the constraints we placed upon ourselves to get along in the normal world, no longer require maintenance.

Some of us bought every VHS tape, book, and album attached to his name. We read everything we could about him online to try and figure out how he became such an idiot. We also learned why he chose to go against the advice of those “in the know”, and if it was possible for us to follow this indefinable passion to its bitter end. We followed his examples and teachings in the manner of a disciple, until it became a lifestyle that we thought we could use to confuse the serious world just enough to lead to some seminal moments in our pursuit of the idiotic life, based on the reactions our audience gave us.

If our goal was to be funny, we would’ve attempted to pursue the trail Jerry Seinfeld laid, and if we wanted to be weird-funny, we would’ve adopted the weird-funny voice that Steve Martin used in the movie The Jerk. If we wanted to be sardonic or satirical, we would have looked to George Carlin for guidance. We knew we weren’t as funny as those three, however, and we reached a point where it didn’t matter to us that we weren’t. When we discovered the unfunny, subversive idiocy of Andy Kaufman, however, it filled us like water in a dehydrated man.

Most of our friends considered it being weird for the sake of being weird, but they didn’t recognize the depth charges until they detonated. Even when they detonated, most of them didn’t find the humor, and they didn’t think it was funny, and they may have never wanted to be our friends, or have anything to do with us, if that’s how we were going to act. Most of them were so confused, and irritated by us that they found themselves confronted, once again, by the question of why we do it. It’s possible that most of us will never be able to answer that question to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all our own, but we know we like it, and we know that we will continue to do it.

The Disclaimer

If the goal of the reader is that others consider them funny, they should never use this mindset. If this is your goal, you may want to learn how to incorporate your responses into conversations by putting acute focus on the beats and rhythms of your delivery. Quality humor, like quality music, should have pleasing beats and rhythms that find a comfortable place in the listener’s mind. After achieving that, the person might want to repeat the pleasing pattern that their listeners will recognize before hitting the punchline. This will allow the listeners’ brains to reward them for figuring out how you arrived at that point, before you did. That reward will be a shot of dopamine, and the joke teller’s reward will be their laughter. They may even say the punchline before you do.

If, however, the goal is to be an unfunny idiot that gets no laughter for the effort, the joke teller will want to know those same rules of comedy, regarding the beats and rhythms of humor, but they will need to know them even better than funny people do. As any gifted practitioner of the art of idiocy will tell those willing to listen, it is far more difficult to find a way to distort and destroy people’s perception of conventional humor than it is to abide by them. It takes practice, practice in the art of practice. It takes an ear tuned to the rhythms and beats of a conversation, or situation, and it takes a lot of trial and error.

As expressed throughout this article, the rewards for being a total idiot are far and few between. If the joke teller manages to achieve total destruction, or distortion, of what others know to be the beats and rhythms of humor, the joke teller may encounter a sympathetic soul that considers us such an idiot that they consult us about the beats and rhythm of our delivery. For the most part, however, the rewards we will receive are damage to our reputation as a potential funny person. Some might dismissing us as strange. Others may regard us as weird, and most will want to have little to nothing to do with us. Women will also say that they don’t want to date us, because they prefer nice guys that are funny, “and you, you’re just kind of weird, or some kind of idiot.”