Andy Kaufman: Architect of Reality

Daulton Dickey.

During his truncated career, Andy Kaufman inspired a variety of emotions. People loved him, despised him, hated him. Others called him a genius, a surrealist, or a Dadaist. His detractors denounced him as unfunny. ‘He’s not a comedian at all,’ they might say. ‘He’s a whackjob.’ Questions about his mental health surfaced. Amateur psychologists diagnosed him with split personalities or schizophrenia. No one knew what to make of him yet everyone tried. A unique, singular performer, Kaufman destroyed every preconception about comedy and the performing arts. He didn’t blur fantasy and reality—he created reality wherever he went, and few people, it seemed, could grapple with it.

No one attending one of his shows knew what to expect. No one interacting with him—either on or off the stage—knew to whom they were speaking. Is this a character? A put on? Is there a real Andy? His last girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, considered the latter question absurd. There was no real Andy, she’d say. She expressed this sentiment to Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriters of Man on the Moon, the Kaufman biopic starring Jim Carrey.

Until that moment, they couldn’t get a handle on the “real” Andy Kaufman. Without determining who Kaufman was, Alexander and Karazewski couldn’t envision a movie at all. Margulies’s insight changed everything.

Setting the movie aside, the film’s insight, drawn from Margulies, is an assumption worth absorbing when considering Andy Kaufman.

Who was the real Andy Kaufman? No one cares—or at least they shouldn’t. His existence matters, his career matters, the risks he took matter. The “real” Andy Kaufman, if there was one, is irrelevant.

Different people labeled him differently: a comedian, an anti-comedian, a practitioner of anti-shtick, a surrealist, a Dadaist, and so on. These days, several writers have situated him in the discipline of performing arts, a taxonomy unnamed in his lifetime.

Kaufman himself tried to avoid titles. He refused to accept the term “comedian.” He swore he’d never told a joke, didn’t understand them, and didn’t know what other people found funny.

On a few occasions, when hard pressed to use a label, he referred to himself as an entertainer.

“I am not a comic,” he once said. “I have never told a joke […] The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him […] My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can […]They say, ‘Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he’s a really funny guy.’ But I’m not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads.”

Later, again if pressed, he called himself a “song and dance man.” But we could venture to speculate that if he had his way, he probably wouldn’t want to call himself anything at all—other than Andy Kaufman, of course. Or Tony Clifton. But, no, not Clifton. Never Clifton. That cranky old lounge performer was someone else entirely. On that, Andy wouldn’t budge.

Born in the years following the Second World War, Andy was the member of the first generation to grow up with television. The novelty awed a generation and forever changed the media landscape. But for young Andrew Kaufman, TV fueled an obsession. He performed make-believe shows in his bedroom, imagining hidden cameras in the walls. When he reached school age, he’d cram an entire afternoon’s worth of imagined television programs into each recess. He’d create and perform cartoons, westerns, a horror series, variety shows. He’d assume the roles of every character—and even the audience itself.

Sometimes he performed for friends or relatives, sometimes he performed for strangers, but most of the time he performed for one spectator: himself. He loved to perform, to slip into other selves. He’d escape Andy and become someone else entirely.

He obsessed over Howdy Doody, Elvis Presley, and professional wrestling—his grandmother took him to events on outings every now and then. He adored “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, a larger than life “villain” who could rile up and enrage an entire auditorium.

Experiencing the roar as thousands of people booed and jeered and spit invective at one man stuck with Andy. For the rest of his life, Kaufman would view Rogers as a consummate showman, a person who could command the attention of, and manipulate, thousands of people.

To his family, Andy was a man-child, a person who wanted people to coddle him—and who loved chocolate cake and ice cream. In his parents’ eyes, he could do no wrong. To his peers, he was weird, a strange and aloof teen who loved Elvis during the age of the Beatles—long before the 68 comeback special made Elvis cool again. To his friends, he was an introvert obsessed with music, girls, and, for a time, pot.

He was often withdrawn, and it seemed to grow worse as he aged. Discovering transcendental meditation, which he took seriously until his death, allowed him to slip inside himself, to disappear. In the dissociative state meditation can trigger, the sense of self vanishes—so in those moments, there really was no Andy Kaufman, just a desiring machine absorbed in the moment.

In Was This Man a Genius?, writer Julie Hecht chronicles several days she spent with Kaufman and his cohort Bob Zmuda. The book, originally intended as a magazine article, delivers a portrait of Kaufman few people outside his circle saw. It creates the kind of raw and strange intimacy Lillian Ross crafted in her seminal Portrait of Hemingway.

Hecht represents Andy as he was away from cameras. Of course, the preceding sentence requires an important caveat: Andy was still performing for a journalist, a woman he knew would record and publish his actions, thoughts, and behaviors.

Andy seemingly messed with everyone, despite his environment. Hecht relays a great story in which Andy, Zmuda, and she stop at a diner for coffee.

Zmuda and Andy pretend not to know each other. At one point, Zmuda takes a seat at the counter, which turns out to be the seat of a man who just returned from the restroom. Zmuda and the man argue. As the argument heats up, Zmuda cries.

Andy, from his table, cajoles Zmuda—a supposed stranger. “Imagine that,” Andy says, “a grown man crying! I’m disgusted.”

Diners come to Zmuda’s defense, telling this rude stranger to stay out of it. To leave the poor man alone.

“A grown man crying,” Andy says, shouting. “I’m ashamed for the human race, I’m ashamed to be part of mankind!”

Embarrassed and horrified, and never impressed with Kaufman’s antics, Hecht pleads with Andy to stop. But he and Zmuda are locked in a game, altering and orchestrating reality for those in the diner witnessing this bizarre and outrageous scene.

Throughout much of his life, including the time he spent with Hecht, Andy carried a portable tape recorder and microphone wherever he went.

He recorded everything, often hiding the mic while screwing with people who didn’t recognize him. The tapes reveal Andy as a variety of people orchestrating a variety of situations.

He yells at security in a movie theater, sings and acts abrasively in public, he even calls a prostitute over to his car. She leans in and they talk. Andy, affecting a high-pitched New York accent, tries to persuade the woman to go on a date. She talks business through innuendo. He feigns obliviousness and plays it up as if he’s an honest guy asking out an attractive woman. After a while, the conversation tires the prostitute and she skips out. As she’s walking away, Andy yells, “So what do you do for a living?” He asks it in a tone implying cluelessness.

A compilation of these recordings was released as an album, Andy and His Grandmother, by Drag City in 2013. The excerpts, usually of poor quality, provide a fascinating insight into Andy Kaufman.

The recordings offer glimpses of a man constantly screwing with people, constantly manipulating them, their situations, and their perceptions of reality—at least in their moments of interaction with Kaufman. This is an important insight into unraveling Andy Kaufman. He wasn’t a comedian or an entertainer or even a song and dance man. He was something far different, far more unique.

He was an architect of reality.

On stage, he manipulated people in environments designed to manipulate. Comedy works by either confirming or subverting your expectations of how comedy functions. When you go to a comedy club, you expect to see men and women on stage, facing you while telling stories or anecdotes. Few comedians—during Kaufman’s time or ours—tell jokes. You might tell me a joke in a bar, for example, but that’s not how professional comedians tend to operate. They lure you in with plausible scenarios, exaggerate them, then stretch them to absurd conclusions.

How comedians tell stories and how they manipulate laughs depends, at least in part, on your expectations.

A well-formed bit allows for a certain level of deduction on the part of the audience. The points triggering the deductions are often misleading, of course. This is how great comedians succeed: they lead you in one direction, coax you farther, then veer into an entirely different direction. The moment you’re caught off guard, the moment your expectations are subverted, creates and releases tension you communicate through laughter.

Kaufman preyed on an audience’s implicit expectations of how comedy clubs and even comedy worked. Foreign Man, his most famous character, worked so well in the early days because he played to the established norm and to an audience’s expectations.

Here was a meek man wearing an ill-fitting suit, speaking in an impossible-to-place accent, telling bad jokes. They weren’t even jokes, although they seemed to form the basic structure of a traditional joke or story, they lacked key elements. Foreign Man’s timing was also atrocious. He’d pause too briefly, too long, or he wouldn’t pause at all. In a business where poor timing equals death, Foreign Man was the grim reaper incarnate.

In the early days, audiences didn’t know what to make of this man. He elicited empathy, annoyance, embarrassment. People laughed for the wrong reasons—for his misguided enthusiasm or unequivocally atrocious jokes and storytelling.

After a few minutes into his set, Foreign Man would announce to audible groans his intention to impersonate celebrities such as Ed Sullivan or Richard Nixon. To no one’s surprise, these impersonations were “teddible.”

“And last but not to be de least,” Foreign Man would say, “I’d like to do de Elvis Presley.” Groans and laughter would follow.

Then this strange little man did something astonishing: he performed a spot-on Elvis impersonation, complete with the King’s trademark nonsensical stage banter.

Unlike the other impressions, Foreign Man assumed Elvis’s speaking and singing voices, where he had earlier impersonated a character in Foreign Man’s voice. When Elvis finished his song, he’d assume Foreign Man’s timid and awkward body language, his strange voice, shuffle up to the microphone, and say, “Tank you veddy much.”

And it worked beautifully. By playing to the audience’s expectations, Kaufman manipulated them into thinking he was a terrible fool telling awful jokes. He played the game the audiences of a comedy club expected him to play—or so they thought.

In reality, Kaufman was playing an entirely different game. In one brief set, he transformed the audience from passive to active, from object to subject to object again. He subverted their expectations, then, through the Elvis impersonation, he confirmed them—but with one important distinction: he so thoroughly manipulated them that he altered their realities twice during the same set.

Keep in mind, we’re talking about the years before anyone knew Kaufman. Back then, as far as the average audience member was concerned, this meek foreigner had somehow convinced himself he was funny. Worse, he stood on stage in front of an audience expecting a positive response.

Those audiences, in the moments Foreign Man stammered onstage, experienced a reality in which a failure of a comedian, a misguided soul, wasted their time by embarrassing himself. By transforming into Elvis, Kaufman shifted their reality again. He did more than simply “play with their heads.” He altered their reality, their entire universe. Then he altered it again.

We must veer into philosophical territory for a moment to emphasize the impact of the above paragraph. Don’t worry, this won’t take long. In fact, we’ll do it in a single sentence: what we “experience” as “reality,” all of our perceptions, is the product of models constructed by our brains based on constantly refreshed information it receives through the senses and by retrieving memories—i.e., “reality” is, in a real way, a product of that meat in our skulls. By manipulating his audience, Kaufman manipulated their perceptions. By manipulating their perceptions, he manipulated their realities. By manipulating their realities, he manipulated their universe.

He wasn’t simply fucking with their heads. He was exploiting their sense of time, space, and reality. In those moments, he was shifting and changing the universe as far as unwitting spectators were concerned. This is a trait he shared with all great artists—from Cezanne to Nietzsche to Miles Davis and beyond. He forced people to confront the nature of reality, to question everything.

Nothing illustrates this better than Tony Clifton, a talentless and obnoxious lounge singer Kaufman claimed to have encountered in a Vegas lounge in the 60s.

Audiences hated Clifton. He ridiculed them, belittled them, insulted them. He made his first public appearances in connection with Andy when Kaufman integrated him into his act. In the early Clifton appearances, Andy wore a mustache and essentially worked to piss off his audience.

Later, Clifton took on a life of his own. Prosthetics, a fat suit, bad suits and tuxedoes, and dark sunglasses distinguished him physically from Kaufman.

Clifton had his own agent, performed his own shows, and trash talked Andy. People would ask Andy about his Tony Clifton character. Andy denied Clifton was a character. He insisted on the veracity of their earlier encounter and said he took to impersonating Clifton. Eventually, he quit impersonating the lounge singer and paid him to make appearances, such as at Carnegie Hall, where Clifton and Kaufman appeared onstage together.

Venues booked Clifton because they thought they were getting Kaufman at reduced rates. Television shows invited him on because they, too, thought they were getting Kaufman. They were wrong. And their audiences weren’t pleased.

Even at his weirdest, Kaufman was sweet, likable, benign, devoid of cynicism. Clifton, on the other hand, was condescending, irritable and irate, cynical and abrasive. He acted as if everything he did, every venue he set foot in, was beneath him.

Clifton was particularly obnoxious in one memorable interview with David Letterman. Letterman took it in stride. He knew he was really interviewing Andy playing a character named Tony Clifton. Comedy clubs also usually put up with Clifton because they were in on the joke, too: it’s just that Kaufman nut acting weird again.

But here’s the rub: Kaufman didn’t always play Clifton. Zmuda sometimes assumed the role. When Letterman interview Clifton, knowing it was Andy, he was wrong. In that appearance, Bob Zmuda played Clifton.

No one knew Kaufman didn’t always perform as Clifton. It was kept secret for years. When Zmuda as Clifton berated David Letterman, Andy had altered reality for Letterman and every spectator who assumed they were watching Kaufman doing another shtick. And neither Kaufman nor Zmuda let anyone in the public in on the joke.

Clifton proved the ultimate means of reality manipulation, of playing with people’s heads.

Asking about the nature of Andy Kaufman—who was he? what was he? what was wrong with him? and so on—is to miss the spectacle and the brilliance of a performer unlike any other in the history of the arts. Categorizing him is a waste of time. His effect on people, and how he exploited biases most of us aren’t even aware of, to manipulate them and their sense of reality, however, briefly, should always remain at the forefront.

Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman by Bill Zehme
Was This Man a Genius?: Talks with Andy Kaufman by Julie Hecht
Andy Kaufman: Wrestling with the American Dream by Florian Keller
Andy and His Grandmother

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daultondickeyDaulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: StoriesStill Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other storiesElegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novelRooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.



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