Near the end of his life, Andy Kaufman planned a college tour—but not as a performer. Instead, he envisioned a series of lectures entitled On Creating Reality: the Physics of Human Response. Although he died before delivering a single lecture, his agent had printed promotional material in the form of postcards. The material teased the lecture would discuss Andy’s career in relation to “the dynamics of human behavior.”
No known notes exist for this lecture and its contents remain as enigmatic as the man himself. His career in shambles, Kaufman had hoped to legitimize himself by touring the lecture circuit. Of all the titles and all the approaches to a tour, On Creating Reality seems most apt for a man who built a career on challenging peoples’ perceptions of reality.
To watch an Andy Kaufman performance is to experience the panoply of human emotions and experiences within the span of only a few minutes. Kaufman didn’t aspire to entertain—although he occasionally called himself an entertainer; instead, he manipulated and challenged reality itself. At his peak, those aware of him expressed strong opinions. Many people despised him, which he probably found more exciting than praise. But few people understood him—and it’s easy to assume he liked it that way.
Andy was playing a game, after all, and people took it seriously. Like most games we play in our day-to-day lives, his game wasn’t trivial or inconsequential. In fact, he did more to expose the illusion of objective reality while shedding a light on personality and persona than any artist, philosopher, or scientist of the twentieth century.2.
It’s hard to appreciate how radical Andy Kaufman’s performances were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Warping and altering reality while preying on the audience’s expectations of conventional acts and personae, his performances remain as radical now as they were then. By any metric you might use, you might eventually conclude that he remains one of the entertainment industry’s most enigmatic and brilliant performers. A proto-performance artist, his act transcended comedy altogether and ascended the heights of fine art, of perverse and profane art.
Today, we know him as a comedian, a label he rejected. It both haunts and solidifies his legacy. He’d never told a joke in his life, he’d say, claiming not to know or care to know what other people found funny. If hard-pressed, he’d alternate between referring to himself as a song and dance man or, generically, an entertainer. While the former was apt in most circumstances, the latter was insincere at best. You might say he was an artist who had established a new form, what we could call anti-entertainment.
He hit the comedy scene like a hurricane. It won over comedians and actors in the early days, and his lovable Foreign Man, reimagined as Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi, made him famous. His legend endures more than three decades after his death. Those who remember him are familiar with his shtick. Sadly, the magic, the radical nature of his art, is lost to us.
But let’s bracket what we know about Kaufman and imagine we’re encountering this strange man for the first time. Imagine you’re at the Improvisation, a New York comedy club, in the mid-70s. Now imagine a typical 70s comedian—influenced by Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, Richard Pryor or Robert Klein—just finished his set. An emcee jumps onstage, makes a few jokes, and announces someone whose name you didn’t catch.
A man waddles to the stage. His arms at his sides, fingers twitching, he exemplifies anxiety. He’s wearing white pants, a white polo shirt, a black turtleneck beneath the shirt. A loose fitting suit jacket, which droops at the shoulders, completes the ensemble. The emcee introduces the performer as a newcomer to America, a man from an island in the Caspian Sea, an assertion which would only cause geography buffs to raise eyebrows.
This strange comedian is awkward: he stands in silence. Coupled with his body language, the silence telegraphs fear. Then he speaks, his voice high, his English broken. He tells terrible jokes with no sense of timing. “Take my wife. [without pause] Please take her.” “My wife’s cooking ees so bad, ees teddible.” He smiles and surveys the audience, waiting for laughter—which doesn’t come. If people do snicker, it’s probably the result of embarrassment.
The poor man is bombing. Hard. At some point, while he’s telling another joke, someone in the audience snickers. Even more humiliating, this poor Foreign Man misinterprets the motivation behind the snicker, so he waves and says, “Vait, vait; I’m not finished,” as if he thinks the audience is warming up to him or on the verge of exploding with laughter.
After a few more failed jokes, he tells the audience he’d like to perform some impersonations. A few people groan. If his impersonations are as bad as his jokes, then this will be painful. First Archie Bunker, then Richard Nixon. He performs both in his high-pitched, broken English. More silence. A few snickers. He’s clearly bombing. Then “last but not to be de least,” he says he’s going to impersonate “de Elvis Presley.” If you were in the audience, at this point you might groan or snicker or feel a tinge of embarrassment on behalf of this misguided, possibly delusional, man.
He spins to face the back wall and drops his suit jacket and pulls off his white shirt. He pulls strips of fabric Velcroed to the sides of his pants, revealing Elvis-style studs. After grabbing a guitar and wrapping the strap around his torso, he shakes his leg and peers over his shoulder, curling his upper lip.
To the audience’s astonishment, he mimics Elvis’s banter, in a spot-on impersonation, then sings a song. Perfectly. Andy Kaufman was a good singer and an exceptional Elvis impersonator. At the end of the song, he bows and, resuming the voice and affectations of the Foreign Man, says, “tenk you veddy much.”
If you’re in the audience, then you, like many, feel flabbergasted. You weren’t simply tricked. You were manipulated. The brilliance of this performer, was, in part, predicated on the ease with which he had manipulated you. And he did so, in part, by preying on your expectations.
In a sense, the entire Foreign Man act was a build up to the Presley impersonation. The two characters might do well independently but together they transform two bits into a phantasmagoric experience. The audience responds in part to the Elvis performance itself. It’s possible, however, that their positive reaction is largely the result of a sudden and radical aspect shift. The way you might feel while staring at a scrambled image before finally experiencing an optical illusion.
Kaufman’s performance itself was analogous to an optical illusion—and he planned and perfected every step before shifting your perception. The downside to this, however, is that once we experience an optical illusion, we can’t “unsee” it.
“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.”
Shakespeare’s passage is beautiful and poetic and it’s profound within the context of the story and the setting—the stage—and for the actor reciting the dialogue. It’s easy to wonder if he understood the accuracy of his assertions.
Sociology, anthropology, and cognitive science have made significant advances with regard to the sense of self and human interactions—when either are expressed, they produce personality.
An argument devised by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902, the so-called Looking Glass Self, argues that our self is developed by our interactions with society. Our sense of self, he argued, is derived from our perceptions of how others might perceive us. Cooley simplified it beautifully when he said, “I’m not who I think I am. I’m not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.”
You could even argue that, in a sense, our personalities or personae, our outward behavior, is dependent on context. Our sense of self isn’t fluid. If you’re surrounded by people who are friendly, for example, you’ll behave one way. You’ll perceive yourself and behave differently if you’re surrounded by people who are demonstrably smarter than you, or funnier, or skilled, and so on.
Our personalities aren’t fixed. They’re ever-changing. You can’t step into the same river twice, Heraclitus told us, because it’s not the same river and you’re not the same person. Every situation, we could argue by perverting the meaning of Heraclitus’s assertion, represents a constant flow of water, and with every new situation comes a new personality or persona.
In their book Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret, sociologists Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor spent a considerable amount of time in the Drag Queen subculture. They integrated themselves into the lives of these performers, studying them, getting to know them, and paying attention to their performances.
Rupp and Taylor found themselves astounded by the preparations drag queens underwent to get into character before a performance. The performers sometimes spent hours waxing themselves, putting on makeup, and getting into costume. In some cases, they dedicated hours to prepare for performances lasting only a handful of minutes.
Rupp and Taylor marveled at this—then a crucial insight occurred to them: those drag queens didn’t spend any more time preparing themselves for their performances than Rupp or Taylor did when going on a date or on a night out with friends. This line of reasoning led to another insight. We—all of us—are performers. When we’re on a date, at work, in line at the grocery store, and so on, we’re performing. In our day-to-day lives, we prepare ourselves for performances. Then we perform during social interactions—whether it’s with a loved one, a friend, or a stranger.
Combining this insight with Cooley’s, we can infer that our performances, and personalities, differ from situation to situation. That is, we don’t possess a single, static personality. Instead, what we call our “personality” is a series of responses dependent on context and the people with whom we interact.
It’s important to keep in mind that these actions are non-conscious. We’re not aware that we’re behaving as such. You could even make the case that a variety of cognitive biases prevent us from perceiving ourselves as possessing erratic, shifting, non-static personalities.
If our personalities aren’t static, if they depend on a combination of situations and our expectations of the expectations of those with whom we’re interacting, then what about persona? How does it play a part?
For our purposes, we’ll define “persona” as a willed coherence and stability, an attempt to project an ideal iteration of ourselves despite the situation or people we encounter. It is, in a sense, a character we create and cultivate and play.
What does this have to do with Andy Kaufman?
Kaufman obsessed over television and entertainment from an early age. He often created and performed shows in his bedroom for hours at a time. Imagining hidden cameras in his walls broadcasting his shows around the world, he created characters, played to audiences, probably even bantered with them.
Like many of us, he developed an interest in entertainment through perceived personalities. Howdy Doody, the wooden cowboy marionette, possessed a persona conveyed as personality. So, too, did Elvis Presley. He cultivated a persona millions adored and emulated. Another persona Kaufman admired belonged to professional wrestler “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers.
Although back then wrestling was frowned on as the lowest form of entertainment, it still packed theaters. Hundreds or even thousands of people attended the events. They cheered for the good guys and booed the villains.
Buddy Rogers could turn an entire audience against him through a gesture, a snarl, or an insult. Thousands booed him, screamed at him, flung insults at him. Young Andy must have eaten it up—and he probably participated instead of sitting idly as a passive observer. And he must have admired Rogers’s command of the audience. That one man could dominate thousands of people must have left an impression on Andy.
Here was a man people hated, a man people wanted to hate. Instead of groveling for their affection, Rogers encouraged their hatred and bile. To someone like Andy, someone fed milquetoast and inoffensive entertainment, a performer like Rogers might have struck him as revolutionary. Instead of cultivating love and likability, Rogers inverted the paradigm and cultivated disgust and hatred.
Like any other form of entertainment, wrestling is a shared fantasy. Those who derive the most pleasure from it are those familiar with the game. We play games throughout our lives. Every second of every day. When I’m in line at a fast food restaurant, I’m playing a game. When I order food, I’m playing a game. I’m even playing a game when I’m waiting for my food. We learn the rules of games throughout our lives and we mostly adhere to them. You could even argue that abiding by rules of a panoply of games established order and minimizes chaos in society.
Each kind of entertainment has its set of rules. Audiences, as well as performers, follow them. In a setting such as professional wrestling, following these rules allows both performer and spectator to share the fantasy both sides are crucial in establishing and maintaining.
When you step foot into a comedy club, you implicitly agree to play a game and to follow its rules. You’ll respect the performer as long as he or she fulfills the purpose of the evening: to make you laugh.
The performers onstage also make an implicit agreement—with one important caveat: the rules by which they’re playing differ slightly. They’re up there to entertain you, not to respect you. Some comedians sing, some tell jokes, some tell funny stories and anecdotes, some riff on current events, and so on. But almost every comedian adheres to the rules of the game they’ve agreed to play.
Compelling, intriguing, charismatic, repulsive, vitriolic, and so on—comedians also present personae. You could argue it’s one of the fundamental rules of comedy. They hone their personae in conjunction with their craft. The audience, in turn, accepts these personae as genuine. This rule extends to games other than comedy clubs, of course—it’s what helps actors, for example, establish and maintain careers, especially in the realm of public relations. It’s also played in the political realm—it propels demagogues.
Kaufman’s obsession with personalities and personae early on seemed to give him an almost preternatural understanding of both concepts. Although I can’t say with certainty, I’m willing to wager that he’d find it difficult to articulate such an understanding. As with most people, it was probably intuitive, non-conscious.
Andy Kaufman’s intuitive understanding of personality and persona allowed him to thoroughly manipulate people. He watched heroes such as Elvis Presley and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers excel at it, and he seemed to absorb it. He seemed to understand how people tick, what they’re willing to accept, and how to exploit the implicit willingness of all parties to adhere to rules of the games we play.
We can examine this by focusing on his Foreign Man character. As mentioned above, Foreign Man was a callous performer who followed the rules governing a comedy club. But his ambitions as a performer exceeded his abilities. “His routine ees so bad ees teddible,” as he might say. Of course, that was the point. By conforming to the rules in an almost zealous manner, he preyed on the audience’s instincts with regard to personality and persona. You could even argue that he used their intuition against them.
Some people say he played the audience for fools or he trolled them—in modern parlance. It’s possible that neither is the case. It’s possible that he, in fact, conformed to their intuitive understanding of the human condition and social circumstances—and played it to a radical conclusion.
His conformity to peoples’ expectations was so radical, it ended up ruining his career. By the end of his life, his was struggling to get gigs. But it the early years, some people embraced him with awe. Seeing him for the first time, early in his career, must have been a shattering experience.
People still don’t know what to make of the man, his career, or his behavior. To this day, no one’s certain how to categorize him: a comedian, an anti-comic, a surrealist or Dadaist, a performance artist or an avant-gardist. What was he?
Kaufman repeatedly expressed a desire to entertain people. But we should approach his declarations with skepticism. Even if he meant it with sincerity, it’s hard to gauge if that was his non-conscious intentions. People tend to behave in certain ways then justify their behavior with ex post facto explanations. Sometimes, you could argue, a person’s explanation for their behavior is actually an interpretation. Sometimes we don’t even understand why we behave in certain ways.
About Andy Kaufman, David Letterman once said “You got the impression that the engine was running but no one was behind the wheel.” That’s true of all of us. In a sense. Our personalities and personae depend on other people. It’s possible that Kaufman’s early obsession with entertainment invited such insight. We play off other people. Sometimes their reactions or expected reactions help drive us. This is as true of the average person as it is of an entertainer.
Kaufman understood it and he used it to his advantage. People never knew what to expect from him. In many cases, they didn’t know how to respond, especially to his weirdest or more avant-garde bits—chucking clothes into a washing machine onstage then playing the bongos. Or sitting at a table and eating a bowl of ice cream. This bit is of particular interest. By exploiting his audience’s understanding of the rules, he made eating ice cream funny. The context, of course, coaxed the laughter. In other settings—e.g., a church or at a car parts store, where people play by different rules—the performance probably wouldn’t elicit the same laughter.
Or any at all.
Kaufman once claimed he wanted to play with peoples’ heads. If we accept it at face value, we can concede that he excelled at it. He not only played with their heads, he fiddled with their perceptions of reality. People questioned everything Kaufman said or did—and for good reason. He repeatedly told the audience not to take any situation for granted. Not to trust anyone. He might not have explicitly uttered these sentiments but he articulated them with his behavior.
Over time, through antic after antic, people learned not to trust him. Not to trust anything. But they didn’t seem to entirely dismiss him or his antics, either.
On Fridays, a live variety show in the vein of Saturday Night Live, Kaufman famously created controversy when he refused to participate in a sketch midway through it. The scene ended with yelling and slapping and producers and crew rushing the stage before cutting to commercial. People expressed bafflement, some articulated anger, some wondered if Kaufman was arrogant or insane, others wondered if Kaufman and company had staged the ordeal—and if so, to what degree?
The following controversy provided Kaufman with an opportunity to further muddle reality. A week later, the producers invited him back on the show. But not as a performer. Instead, they wanted him to come clean and apologize. In one of his greatest moments, Kaufman offered viewers something more, something better, than an average sketch on an average variety show.
His physical appearance provoked laughter. Pale and disheveled, hair unkempt, stubble covering his usually smooth cheeks and chin, he seemed exhausted. Out of it. He sat opposite the producer, in front of a set, and faced the cameras and audience. The scene the week before had created bedlam. Rumors of nervous producers and club owners refusing to work with him surfaced, rumors he didn’t do anything to dispel.
He spoke in a monotone, his voice cracking. No one would hire him after the Fridays debacle, he said. His career was probably damaged beyond repair. The chaos of the previous week’s show also affected his private life. His wife left him and took his kids. He spoke slowly during the admission. He seemed exhausted—broken, even. He had taken risks, acted arrogantly or immaturely, and now he was losing everything.
The audience giggled and laughed. He paused his confession to ask them why. Why are they laughing? He claimed not to understand what was funny. Although people rarely knew what to make of Kaufman, some in the audience seemed “in on the joke.” This was another of that weirdo’s famous put-ons. He insisted otherwise. Throughout the confession of this broken man, people laughed. He fed on their laughter to imply the depths of his misery and depression, his confusion and regret largely, through body language and facial expressions—sometimes subtle, sometimes over-the-top. But his insistence on the “truth” fueled some peoples’ skepticism and made others sympathetic to his declarations.
The setting, of course, encouraged laughter. If Kaufman had presented himself in the same manner and spoke the same words in court under oath, for example, it’s doubtful those listening would have received him with laughter. Kaufman understood the situation: a “comedian” on a comedy show discussing chaos he created. Convincing people of his sincerity, of a life and career now broken, proved an upward battle. A challenge suited for Andy Kaufman.
In the end, he refused to apologize or to admit he had staged the incident. By appealing to the expectations of the audience—expectations encompassing him as a performer as well as their intuitive understanding of rules governing situational contexts and human behavior—he established a brilliant ambiguity. Had he staged the incident the previous week? Had he finally gone too far, throwing his marriage and career into turmoil? People had strong opinions, of course, but few could state the truth value of the incident or his confession with certainty.
Some thirty-odd years later, we know the truth, but that’s irrelevant. We should try to bracket our knowledge and perceive the situation as it was then, when no one knew with certainty what had happened. It was a brilliant performance—the set-up and the execution—and it forced people to question the reality of the situation and their responses to it.
In a sense, you can even read the entire Fridays scenario as a commentary on the nature of celebrities and comedians themselves. It perhaps parodied events occurring during or before his performance—but it also anticipated many similar situations. In 2006 Michael Richards—of Seinfeld fame and, coincidentally, one of the on-air performers in Kaufman’s infamous Fridays sketch—created controversy when footage of his onstage meltdown made its way to the internet. Richards was filmed screaming racial epitaphs at audience members. Raw and shocking, the video went viral and incensed everyone who watched it.
Jerry Seinfeld was scheduled to appear on David Letterman’s show the night the Richards scandal broke. His appearance was to flog the DVD release of a season of his show. He used the opportunity to invite Richards on to explain himself. On a television between Letterman and Seinfeld sat Richards’s mug, live via satellite.
Richards seemed tired, disoriented. His hair disheveled, he wore a blank expression. He stuttered and stammered his way through an apology. People tittered, giggled, laughed. The situation probably dictated their reactions. The setting relayed the rules of the game to them. Laughter, in this context, was appropriate. Wasn’t it?
Late night talk shows film in the evening. It’s possible some members of the audience hadn’t heard the news about Richards’s outburst. It’s also possible that his persona in that moment—an inversion of his usual persona—struck them as somehow absurd or uncomfortable. Yet he was at least attempting sincerity. He had said appalling things to African-Americans, and, on a late night comedy show, some people responded with laughter. At one point, Seinfeld shushed them.
“This isn’t funny,” he said. But if the situation—i.e., sitting in the studio and listening to comedians—wasn’t funny, then wasn’t it violating the rules to which they assumed they were adhering? Wasn’t it inadvertently shifting their perceptions? How could they take such an apology seriously?
In every facet of our existence, we play games, but most aren’t trivial or insignificant. Each game has its own set of rules. We each spend a lifetime learning such rules—whether it’s how to behave in line at the store, going on a date, interacting with co-workers, and so on. Andy Kaufman wasn’t different. He, too, played games, but he derived his uniqueness—and importance—from playing with rules.
You could even say he played games within the games we play.
His act, you could argue, relied on the negation or inversion of rules while appearing to play by the rules we implicitly understand and to which we agree. Such negations or inversions might disorient, confuse, or anger people. Imagine how you might feel if you’re standing in line at the grocery store, waiting to check out, and a man in front of you sits on the floor in the lotus position and reads his grocery list out loud. Initially, before he’d assumed the lotus position, he appeared to play the same game as you, by the same rules. Then he negated them and through his actions he established a separate set of rules altogether. In doing so, he might provoke outrage or confusion. You might respond by questioning his sanity, feeling annoyed or irritated or fascinated. You might even glance around in search of people with cameras, wondering if he’s performing a stunt meant for an online audience.
Let’s assume this man—in this hypothetical scenario—is a performance artist. Through his act he’s hoping to provoke a response. Perhaps he’s commenting on mass consumerism or the tedium of daily life. Either way, his negation of the rules we’re accustomed to playing provoked a response—whether it’s the response he’d hope for is irrelevant. That his actions altered your neurophysiology and forced you to question the situation in the moment matters. He played with your implicit understanding of games and rules, and he altered your mood, your state, your reality in that moment.
Such is the key to Andy Kaufman’s success. It’s doubtful he thought in the terms elucidated above. Most people don’t. A popular response to strange or confusing or angering statements or actions—at least in America—explicitly mentions games: “Are you playing games with me?” Most telling, this question implies that only the other party is playing a game. The entire scenario—whatever it might be—which led to the question, and the asking of the question, is itself a game. When someone provokes you in a way to elicit that question—“Are you playing games?”—they’re probably disorienting you by playing by different rules than those to which you’re accustomed.
Andy Kaufman was a singular performer, unlike anyone else before or since. To this day, no one knows how to categorize him—and for good reason: he defied categorization. Few people understood his intentions. Then or now. He remains as enigmatic today as he did to audiences three decades ago.
He emphatically rejected the label of comedian, but in true Kaufman spirit he used the label to screw with people. For years, he carried a micro tape recorder and recorded everything. He’d piss people off, confuse them, engage in banal conversations, in sexual conversations. He’d alter people’s realities by pretending to be various kinds of characters and engaging with or provoking them.
And he recorded everything.
He aspired to use the best bits from these tapes to release an album, ostensibly a comedy album. In 2013, excerpts were released on an album entitled Andy and his Grandmother.
In the opening track, he discusses the title with his grandmother and suggests releasing an entire album—promoted as a comedy album—consisting of banal conversations with her. The joke, of course, at least in Andy’s eyes, is on the listener.
“They think, ‘oh wow; Andy Kaufman made a record with his grandmother,'” Kaufman says in the opening track. “‘This must be hilarious.’ And they show a picture of me and my grandmother on the cover […] And then they [the listener] put it on and it’s like a regular conversation … And people are gonna say ‘What? What is this?’
“I like to do that to people,” Kaufman says, “you know? It’s like a …. it’s like a big practical joke.”
The practical joke, in this case, is predicated on peoples’ perception that Andy was a comedian. He may not have embraced the label, but he knew how some people perceived him. He understood the persona they assumed he projected. And he played with it.
Unlike other performers, Andy Kaufman didn’t assume a single persona. His shifted from venue to venue, from television appearance to television appearance. As the recordings released on his album show, his persona and his personality also shifted from situation to situation.
We all assume personae and our personalities aren’t static. Consciously shifting to incite reactions, and for amusement, is the difference between Kaufman and us. He chose to behave this way. We don’t. Yet when many of us look back at Andy Kaufman and his career, we view him as weird, strange, incoherent, hard to understand. It rarely occurs to us that we, too, behave as he did—and that others might perceive us as we perceive Kaufman.
He mined the human condition to manipulate people, to alter their realities, and to play with their heads. But he wasn’t simply screwing with people. He was also “testing the physics of human response.”
Three decades later, few people understand Andy Kaufman. He so successfully penetrated and understood “the dynamics of human response” that many people to this day question whether or not he actually died. Whatever his reasons, it seems as if his “tests” succeeded: so few humans knew how to respond to Andy Kaufman. So few still don’t know how to respond to him, which is a testament to his uniqueness and his greatness.
(Special thanks to Justin Burnett for invaluable notes.)
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
Psychology (3rd edition) by Saundra K. Ciccarelli and J. Noland White
Cognitive Psychology by Robert J. Sternberg and Karin Sternberg
Daulton 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: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.