The Unfunny, Influential Comedy of Andy Kaufman

There was a time, in the history of comedy, when the subversive strain became so ubiquitous that it became conventional and in need of destruction. Although the late, great Andy Kaufman never 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 the process, Andy Kaufman developed 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 were no longer considered subversive.

Michael Richards, Andy Kaufman, Melanie Chartoff, Brandis Kemp, Larry David

Michael Richards, Andy Kaufman, Melanie Chartoff, Brandis Kemp, Larry David

Those “in the know” had a very distinct, sociopolitical, and outright political definition of subversion before Andy Kaufman. They may deem the art form 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,” I imagine one of them saying. “They’ll just think you’re weird, and weird doesn’t play well on the national stage … Unless you’re funny-weird.”

Being weird, in the manner Andy Kaufman was weird, was probably regarded as just plain weird … even idiotic. Those in the know didn’t know what he was after. Before Andy Kaufman became Andy Kaufman, and his definition of weird was defined as an art form, being weird meant going so far over-the-top that the audience felt comfortable with the notion that the comedian was being weird. It required the comedic player to provide the audience with visual cues that could be communicated in the form of a weird facial expression, so that “less sophisticated audiences in Omaha” could understand that a comedian was being weird.

One can be sure that before Andy Kaufman took to the national stage, on Saturday Night Live, all of those “in the know” warned him of the potholes that lay ahead of him if he didn’t find a more conventional method of subversion, or weirdness, to let the audience in on the joke. Kaufman didn’t listen. For whatever reason, be it confidence, perseverance, 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 to be 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 can of weird. We didn’t know that one could be so idiotic, until someone came along, broke that door down, and showed us all this 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, so much as they were so unfunny that they were deemed idiotic. He was so idiotic that many believed that 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 Kaufman did was methodical, and meticulous, and choreographed.

Being Unfunny in Funny Situations

Like the knuckleball, situational humor can get better or worse as the game goes on, but if a pitcher is  going to have any success with it they’re going to have to devote themselves to the pitch. An individual that enjoys pulling situational jokes and pranks on people should be prepared to have the subjects of their joke hit the occasional home run off of them, and they should be prepared to knock out the occasional mascot with a wild pitch, but for situational jokes to ever become effective, they can’t be just another pitch in an arsenal. They require a commitment that will become a concentration, until it eventuates into a lifestyle that even those closest to the situational comic will have a difficult time understanding.

“Why would you try to confuse people?” they will ask those attempting this pitch.  “By saying 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 that that I am a total idiot.”

The truth, for many idiots, is that we don’t know why we enjoy such bizarre, situational humor. 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 prime time sitcoms, and it bores us. We never thought we were funny, or funnier than those that have mastered the template of joke telling, but the idea that everyone knows these jokes so well that they know our punchlines before we say them, leads us to try something different.

Others may recognize, at some point in their lives, that they don’t have the wherewithal to match the delivery of their friends –those with game show host type personalities. 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 simply stand out, and above the fray, and others may enjoy the superiority-through-inferiority psychological base that can be a byproduct of this mindset, but most people find that they are 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 mindset, when she overheard me contrast it in a conventional conversation with a third-party. What she heard in that conversation was a brief display of intellectual prowess that contradicted whatever characterization she had of me prior to that moment. When I turned back to her, to continue the conversation that she and I had been having prior to being interrupted, her mouth was hanging open, and her eyes were popped 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 thought she had me all figured out, and she was proud of herself. She beamed. A 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 uninformed, dumb, or in all other ways 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 believed.

The pause before her second sentence included an expression that every idiot lives for, one that caused the pride to fade, and the beam to subside, as it dawned on her that everything she thought she figured out opened up more questions, and an eventual flowchart that ended in rabbit hole that once entered into would place her in a variety of vulnerable positions, including the beginning. She pursued me after that, to convince me that she was onto my whole act, and she did it so often that it became obvious that she was the audience to her own argument.

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 a situational comic devotes themselves to this mindset, and they are able to avoid having anyone see the stitches of their pitch, they might be able to convince some of the people, some of the times, that they are an idiot.

The List

The following is a list of idiotic gems. This list is by no means comprehensive, for aspiring idiots seeking to spread the seeds of their idiocy among their peers. As stated earlier, most idiotic behavior involves situational reactions, and that makes it near-impossible to catalog in a short piece such as this one. This list can be used as a primer for those looking to buy into the mindset, and it can be used as an explanation for the curious:

1) So’s your mother. Most idiots prefer the non sequitur, made famous by the television show The Office, “That’s what she said.” A non sequitur is defined 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, so 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. Your goal, if you choose to pursue 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 you do it right often enough, you can become a “So’s your mother” guy, until those around you begin to believe that you have such unique rhythms and patterns that they’re irritated by you, and they dismiss you as a person that “Says weird things”. If the situational idiot is able to maintain this façade through all of the ways that people attempt to dismiss them –and they will vary, and some of them may hurt a little— the idiot may reach a point of progression where someone, somewhere will deem them to be a total idiot.

2) “What did he say?” is a much more difficult non sequitur to land, even for the seasoned idiot, well-schooled in the art of being idiotic. This response may never receive the laughter that a well-timed, “So’s your mother” or a “That’s what she said” response might. It’s the sequential reactions this line receives, over time, that may be better than those other two, if the idiot is strategic in the manner in which they employ it in their conversations over time. All non sequiturs, it should be noted, are required to be delivered in a careful, measured tone that leads the listener to believe that the idiot, in question, believes what they’re saying to the point that the speaker believes they have lost the idiot. They may repeat the story, and the logical order for the idiot in question, for the idiot’s benefit, but the idiot must persevere through this repetition to the point that the speaker may believe the idiot is a little damaged. This requires diligence and patience on the part of the idiot, but I dare say that no non sequitur humor requires more diligence than that which is required in the “What did he say?” algorithm.

This response is not a joke to you. You believe that 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?” you ask in a manner dictated by the situation.

If your audience has no reason to believe that they are speaking with a total idiot, they may backtrack in an attempt to determine the point of confusion. If the idiot is successful in completing this portion of the conversation, the speaker will take a step back and 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. The idiot cannot smile, act humorous, or let the speaker in on the joke in anyway. You, the idiot, 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 the idiot to go into their grab bag of emotions to find the display of confusion that convinces the speaker. If the speaker knows the idiot’s reactions well, they will know how the idiot’s genuine confusion is displayed. They will know if the idiot looks them in the eye when they’re playing with them, and if the idiot’s insecurities are such that they look away when they’re confused. They will also know if the idiot is one that pries into a subject to get to the heart of a matter they don’t understand, or if they’re the type that pretends to know more of what they’re talking about when they don’t. This is no time to project an ideal image onto the speaker. This is a time to be honest and pure, and objective in your understanding of your reactions. This is also a moment to realize that you’re not brilliant and perfect, and that the best standup comedians don’t get it right the first out. Watch their reactions to your reactions and take note of your failings for the next time out.

One other thing, before we continue, this space in time will also provide a chicken exit. If an individual decides, at this point, that they’re more interested in having friends, or that they are uncomfortable with people regarding them as an idiot, they’ll want to consider pulling the ripcord on the joke right here. This can be accomplished with a simple line like, “Oh, ok, I must have misheard you,” or “I was just kidding.” Some people may 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 a 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 mastered their confused reactions, they’ll want to say something along the lines of:

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

Seasoned idiots, that have experienced failure at this point in the situation, will tell anyone willing to listen 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 you something of an idiot for attempting to play such a game on them this is not the elevated form of the joke that that seasoned idiots seek, and they find pulling the ripcord here far less rewarding. Emphasizing the word ‘he’, to go back to our analogy, will reveal the stitch in the knuckleball, and it will result in an eye roll, or some other form of dismissal that allows the intended audience to avoid stepping further into the rabbit hole the idiot has placed before them.

“It’s a girl,” the speaker will say, if the emphasized reaction has achieved a sweet spot. “Martha is a girl.”

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

This line of responses will not bear fruit at the outset, and an idiot may want to skip the next story involving an agreed upon female name, like Barbara, to prevent their audience seeing the stitches of the situational humor, but when the speaker approaches the idiot with a third story, about a person name Beatrice, the idiot might want to say, “What’s he doing now?” The emphasis on the word ‘he’, at this point in the joke, is acceptable, if the idiot has managed to place the speaker in the vulnerable position.

This is the portion of the situational joke where the idiot may receive dividends for all of their hard work. Some may enjoy pursuing this façade ad infinitum, adding intricacies here and there to it as it expands, but most of us want payoffs. The payoff may not be immediate. That perfect expression on their face, as they become aware of all that you’ve done to them, may never arrive. They may not say anything, for it may be embarrassing to them to admit that they fell for it so hard, but if this knuckleball was successful, the idiot may learn of their success when they try to pull the situational joke on someone else, and their 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?” This should be a conjunctive sentence that follows the first sentence, and is followed by a repetition of the first sentence.

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

Needless to say, the idiot is the one that says all three sentences. Their third sentence should be followed by some fatigue, or some tone of urgency that suggests that they’re tired of repeating themselves.

Most recipients of this joke will not say a word. There may be some reactions, and I’ve found that the reactions vary, but if an idiot pulls the joke off often enough, they may land a reaction like this one:

“I did not say what. YOU DID!” 

I received this reaction over the course of years. I did it so many times that I was no longer trying. I was no longer trying to be funny, and I wasn’t trying to perfect my rhythms and expressions. I just did it, and that may be the key to pulling this one off.

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. I was only afforded one more opportunity to pull this joke on her, due to time constraints, and she was more adamant the second time through, but I was not afforded the opportunity to do this as often as it may have been necessary to have subject want to strike me, but I still dream about that day.

This one is the most difficult to pull off, for most people see the stitches of this knuckleball very early on, and most of them avoid swinging at it. Or, at the very least, I haven’t been able to deliver it in such a fashion that the recipient didn’t see the stitches, except for that one effortless attempt.

One important note to make, before we continue, is that most idiotic humor is not funny in the truest sense of the word. 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 reader’s lips a number of times while reading, and if I were confronted with this assessment, I would probably agree. I would then ask that reader what is 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, but 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 most 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 a person becomes practiced in the art of deception, and they learn how to deceive another into believing that they are a total idiot, they, too, can produce some jewels that will leave them with the feeling that they’ve created some temporary moments in their life that turned out to be rewarding.

4) Recite an Inappropriate Song Lyric in an Appropriate Moment

It’s a cultural trope that many have picked up from the movies, that when situations dictate, song lyrics can capture a moment. This can be done in business, politics, and most often in romance. 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, was performed to perfection by the show The Simpsons when the character Millhouse Mussolini Van Houten said, “So this is what it feels like … when doves cry.” It was humorous, because it 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, individuals sought Shakespeare, quotes from other esteemed authors, and quotes from The Bible to pontificate their emotions. 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?” And Ween’s lyrics: “What can you do when your world is invaded by a reggae junkie Jew?” And the lyrics of a Motorhead song: “All right, all right, I hope you son of bitches see the light.”

The purpose of the cryptic use of these lyrics is that when the listener first hears the idiot use them –and they are well-versed in the cultural trope of using song lyrics to capture a moment– they may believe that the idiot has a firmer grasp on the situation than they do, until they hear the idiot use the same lyrics in an altogether different situation. When they hear the idiot do it again, they may feel foolish for having believed in it the first time, and in every instance thereafter, until they begin to believe that the idiot is a total idiot. The point, as evidenced by the use of the APP lyrics in particular, is that most song lyrics are so over-the-top, self-indulgent serious, that they’re 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 achieve humor in the normal world, by acceptable means, no longer needed to be maintained.

Some of us bought every VHS tape, book, and album attached to Kaufman’s name, and we read everything we could about him online to try and figure out how he became such an idiot, 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, until it became a lifestyle that 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 we received from our audience.

If our goal was to be simply be funny, we would’ve followed 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. 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 were detonated. Even when they were 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. And we may 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

This particular mindset should not be used by those that want others to consider them funny. If this is the goal, the reader will want to learn how to respond to various conversations with a focus on beats and rhythms of delivery. This is something most of us do without careful consideration. It is something we learned as kids, watching the adults around us say funny things. We learned that quality humor, like quality music, should have pleasing beats and rhythms that find a comfortable place in the listener’s mind. If a joke teller has learned how to manipulate a listener with beats and rhythms, they will achieve a pleasing pattern that permits a listener to know the punchline before it is said. Once the punchline is hit, and the listeners knew it before it was delivered, their brains will reward them for figuring out the pattern before the punchline was said, they’ll be rewarded with a shot of dopamine, and the joke teller will be rewarded with their laughter. If the joke teller learns all this well, and incorporates all that they have learned into their joke, the listener may even say the punchline before  the joke teller does.

If the goal is to be an unfunny idiot, immediate laughter will not be the goal. The joke teller will need to know the rules of comedic presentation, even better than funny people. 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 being practiced in the art of practice in other words. It takes an ear tuned to the rhythms and beats of a conversation, or situation, to be able to distort them with efficiency, and achieving this level of efficiency involves a lot of trial and error.

As expressed throughout this article, the rewards for being a total idiot are far and few between, but anyone that has managed to achieve total destruction, or distortion, of what is believed to be the beats and rhythms of humor, may encounter a sympathetic soul that considers the joke teller such an idiot that they may consult the joke teller about the beats and rhythm of their delivery. For the most part, however, the rewards received will include damage to the joke teller’s reputation as a potential funny person, total dismissal of the joke teller as strange and weird, and others wanting little-to-nothing to do with such a person. The total idiot may even find that no normal woman wants to date them, as they prefer nice guys that are funny, “and you, you’re just kind of weird.”


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