On the timeline of comedy, the subversive nature of it 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 a new art form.
Those of us with a seemingly unnatural attraction to Kaufman’s game-changing brand of unfunny comedy now know the man was oblivious to greater concerns, but we used whatever it was he created to subvert conventional subversions, until they lost their subversive quality for us.
Those “in the know” drew up a very distinct, sociopolitical definition of subversion long before Andy Kaufman. They may consider Kaufman comedic genius now, but they had no idea what he was doing while he was doing it. I can only guess that most of those who saw Kaufman’s act in its gestational period cautioned him against going overdoing it.
“I see what you’re trying to do. I do,” I imagine them saying, “but I don’t think this 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 of them regarded being weird, in the manner embodied by his definition of that beautiful adjective as just plain weird, even idiotic. They didn’t understand what he was doing.
Before Andy Kaufman became Andy Kaufman, and his definition of weird defined it as a transcendent art form, being weird meant going so far over-the-top that the audience felt comfortable with the notion of a comedian being weird. It required the comedic player to find a way to communicate a simple message to the audience: “I’m not really weird. I’m just acting weird.” Before Kaufman, and those influenced by his brilliance, broke the mold on weird, comedians relied on visual cues, in the form of weird facial expressions, vocal inflections, and tones so weird that the so-called less sophisticated audiences in Omaha could understand the notion of a comedic actor just being weird. Before Kaufman, comedic actors had no interest in unnerving audiences. They just wanted the laugh.
One can be sure that before Andy Kaufman took to the national stage on Saturday Night Live, he heard the warnings from many corners, but for whatever reason he didn’t heed them. It’s possible that Kaufman was just that weird, and that he thought his only path to success was to let his freak flag fly. It’s also possible that he had enough confidence in his act that he was able to ignore the advice from those in the know. We admirers must also concede that it’s possible Kaufman might not have been talented enough to be funny in a more conventional sense. Whatever the case, Kaufman maintained his unconventional, unfunny, idiotic characters and bits until those “in the know” declared him one of the funniest men who ever lived.
The cutting-edge, comedic intelligentsia now discuss the deceased Kaufman, in a frame that suggests they were onto his act 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 lead me to the genius of being an authentic idiot, until I busied myself trying to carve out my own path to true idiocy, in my own little world.
Andy Kaufman may not have been the first true idiot in the pantheon of comedy, but for those of us who witnessed his hilariously unfunny, idiotic behavior, it opened to us a completely new world. We knew how to be idiots, but we didn’t understand the finer points of the elusive art of persuading another of our inferiority until Kaufman came along, broke that door down, and showed us all his furniture.
For those who’ve never watched Andy Kaufman at work, his claim to fame did not involve jokes. His modus operandi involved situational humor. The situations he manufactured weren’t funny either, not in the traditionally subversive, conventional sense. Some of the situations he created were so unfunny and so unnerving that viewers deemed them idiotic. Kaufman was so idiotic that many believed his shows were nothing more than a series of improvised situations in which he reacted on the fly to a bunch of idiotic stuff, but what most of those in the know could not comprehend at the time was that everything he did was methodical, meticulous, and choreographed.
Being Unfunny and Idiotic in Real-life Situations
Like the knuckleball, the manner in which situational humor evolves can grow better or worse as the game goes on, but eventual success requires our unshakeable devotion to the pitch. Some will hit home runs off our knuckleball, and we will knock the occasional mascot down with a wild pitch, but for situational jokes to be effective, they can’t just be another pitch in our arsenal. This pitch requires a commitment that will become a concentration, until it eventuates into a lifestyle that even those closest to us will have a difficult time understanding.
“Why would you try to confuse people?” they will ask. “Why do you continue to say jokes that aren’t funny?”
“I would like someone, somewhere to one day consider me an idiot,” the devoted will respond. “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 who doesn’t know any better.”
For those less confident in their modus operandi, high-minded responses might answer the question in a way that the recipient considers us more intelligent, but they obfuscate the truth as to why we enjoy doing it. 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 when that master template bores us. Others may recognize, at some point in their lives, that they don’t have the wherewithal to match the delivery that friends employ, particularly those friends with gameshow host personalities. For these people, the raison d’être of Kaufman’s idiotology may offer an end run around traditional modes of comedy. Some employ these tactics as a means of standing out and above the fray, while others enjoy the superiority-through-inferiority psychological base this mindset procures. The one certain truth is that most find themselves unable to identify the exact reason why they do what they do. They just know they enjoy it, and they will continue to pursue it no matter how many poison-tipped arrows come their way.
An acquaintance of mine learned of my devotion to this pitch when she overheard me contrast it in a conversation with a third party. What she heard was a brief display of intellectual prowess that crushed her previous characterizations of me. When I turned back to her to continue the discussion she and I were having prior to the interruption, her mouth was hanging open, and her eyes were wide. The remark she made in that moment was one she repeated throughout our friendship.
“I am onto you now,” she said. “You are not as dumb as you pretend to be.”
The delicious moment occurred seconds later, when it dawned on her that what she thought she figured out made no sense in conventional constructs. An overwhelming number of conversationalists pretend to be smart, and the traditional gauge of the listener involves them defining the speaker’s perceived intelligence downward, as they continue to speak and leak their weaknesses in this regard. What I did was not reveal some jaw-dropping level intellect but a degree of knowledge that serve to upend her traditional study of those around her to define their level of intelligence.
She looked at me with pride after she figured me out, but that look faded when she digested what she thought she figured out. Who pretends to be dumb and inferior? was a thought I could see in the fade.
What are you up to? was the look she gave me every time I attempted to perpetuate ignorance thereafter. The looks she gave me led me to believe that everything she thought she figured out only brought more questions to the fore. I imagined that something of a flowchart developed in her mind to explain everything I did and said to that point, and that each flowchart 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, just to inform me that she was onto what I was doing, until it became obvious that she was the primary audience of her pleas.
I’ve never thrown an actual knuckleball with any success, but watching her flail at the gradual progression of my situational joke, trying to convince me that she was now above the fray, cemented my lifelong theory: 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.
Some idiots purchased every VHS tape and book we could find, and we read every internet article that carried his name to try to unlock the mystery of Andy Kaufman. We wanted those who knew him best to tell us why he chose to go against the advice of those in the know and if it was possible for us to follow his indefinable passion to some end. We followed his examples and teachings in the manner of disciples, until it became a lifestyle. Andy Kaufman led us to believe that if we could confuse the sensibilities of serious world just enough, it could lead to some seminal moments in our pursuit of the idiotic life.
If our goals were to be funny, we would’ve attempted to follow the trail laid by Jerry Seinfeld. If our aim was only to be weird-funny, we would’ve adopted the weird-funny voice Steve Martin used in 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 any of those men were, but we reached a point when that didn’t matter to us. When we discovered the unfunny, subversive idiocy of Andy Kaufman, however, it filled us like water rushing down the gullet of 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. Some didn’t see any humor inherent in our bits even then. Some of them didn’t want to have anything to do with us after repeated displays, and others were so confused and irritated that they found themselves confronted, once again, by the question of why we do it. It’s possible that the majority 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 we will continue to do it.
If the goal of the reader is to have others consider them funny, following this advice will only lead to heartache and headaches. Instead, they should put acute focus on the beats and rhythm of their delivery and learn how to incorporate them into responses. Quality humor, like quality music, must offer pleasing beats and rhythms that find a familiar home in the audience’s mind. To achieve this level of familiarity, there are few resources as great as the sitcoms and standup comedians everyone knows and loves. If the joke teller leads into the punchline with a familiar rhythm and lands on the line in a familiar beat, the audience’s reward for figuring out that beat will be a shot of dopamine, and the joke teller’s reward is the resulting laughter.
If, however, the goal is to be an unfunny idiot who receives no immediate laughter, the joke teller still needs to follow the rules of comedy regarding the beats and rhythm of humor, and they may need to know them even better than truly 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 the perception of conventional humor than it is to abide by it. This takes practice and practice in the art of practice, as Andy Kaufman displayed.
The rewards for being a total idiot are far and few between. If we achieve total destruction or distortion of what others know to be the beats and rhythm of humor, a sympathetic soul might consider us such an idiot that they might take us aside to advise us about our beats and the rhythm of our delivery. For the most part, however, the rewards idiots receive are damage to their reputations as potentially funny people. Most will dismiss us as weird, and others might even categorically dismiss us as strange. Still others will dismiss us as idiots who know nothing about making people laugh. “We don’t,” we will confess. “That’s why we’re here.” Most will want to have little to nothing to do with us. Women, in particular, might claim they don’t want to date us, declaring, “I prefer nice, funny guys. You? I’m sorry to say this, but you’ve said so many weird things over the years that … I kind of consider you an idiot.”