I just read a fine book, published six years ago, Andy Kaufman Revealed!
by Bob Zmuda. Zmuda's the man for the job, since he was Andy's writer, friend, factotum, stooge and partner-in-crime. The trouble with Milos Forman's Man On The Moon
(1999) is, though it features a fine Kaufman impersonation by Jim Carrey, it only shows the surface, never explaining what made him tick. Zmuda's book is not only a great history of Kaufman's career, it also shows a human behind the humor.
Kaufman was more a conceptual artist than a comedian. He got laughs, especially early in his career, but he was more interested in provoking a reaction, laughter being just one. Many wondered if he could tell the difference between real life and his routines. Zmuda makes it clear that, as committed as Kaufman was to his bits, he knew a hawk from a handsaw. For instance, when Kaufman "sabotaged
" his guest spot on Fridays
, the proper people had been notified in advance. Zmuda notes if Andy didn't prepare properly, he would have been kicked out a show biz and forced to do real street theatre before too long.
Kaufman work as he was first tasting success was probably his best. Maybe it's because, as out there as he was, he still had to appeal to an audience, keep stuff relatively short, and get laughs. Signature bits like the foreign man (who would become Latka Gravas
--Zmuda says Andy was conflicted about appearing on a sitcom, but I guess the money overcame the doubt) and Elvis (an impression the real thing apparently loved) are conceptual gems, compact and well-thought out. Maybe his signature bit, which he performed on the first Saturday Night Live
, was lip-synching to a "Mighty Mouse" record. Sure, it's funny to see him mouth "Here I come to save the day!" but the real brilliance is all the his waiting in-between.
However, as he got more famous, and richer, he got more self-indulgent (in my book, not Zmuda's). He could use a bigger canvas, with bigger put-ons. They could still be amusing, even brillant, but they took a lot more time and in their length lacked the polish of his best bits. There was Tony Clifton, the talentless lounge performer, who practically became Andy's alter-ego. (He demanded Clifton be signed to perform on Taxi
, but during rehearsal Clifton became so abusive he had to be fired.) I always felt a little bit of Clifton goes a long way. Later, Zmuda himself would put on the Clifton outfit and appear on TV while everyone thought it was Andy. (I don't want to brag, but I've always been good with voices and could tell it wasn't Kaufman).
Kaufman could be naive--he actually believed people could levitate--but he also enjoyed the perks of being a star. For instance, another famous routine (that got a bit tiresome after a while) involved wrestling women--volunteers from the audience. It turns out he'd proposition a good number of these women, and they often said yes.
Once Kaufman became famous, there was the trouble of the boy who cried wolf. He was so well known for put-ons, who could believe him? One of his last big moments was an orchestrated bit where he was seriously injured by professional wrestler Jerry Lawler. Zmuda narrates as if it's a stunt that went awry, but I wasn't buying. When Zmuda fesses up later in the chapter, I don't think too many readers will be surprised.
Kaufman died shockingly young. He got lung cancer (though he didn't smoke) and left us at 35. It's an open question what he would have done if he'd lived, since, with Taxi
canceled and a movie career in flames, he was on his way down. Zmuda thinks he knows--Kaufman would have faked his own death.