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. (more…)
Notes on an Essay Concerning Writing, Performing, and the Nature of Reality
[Author’s Note: This is an unfinished essay I vaguely remember writing, the result, I suspect, of having taken too many meds, which I do by accident from time to time.]
My mind reels. Sometimes I lock myself in my head, in my world, and everything around me—my wife, my kids, my friends and job—vanish. Not literally. Figuratively. Everything slips into the background, sometimes into the deep background. Sometimes the universe transforms into background noise, a sort of visuospatial white noise. Other times, it disappears altogether.
I get so locked into my world, the world mutating and transmutating and exploding in my head, that the world and everything in it almost vanishes.
A strange sensation: living in my head inside, then going outdoors and feeling as if the world itself is indoors, as if the world is a set constructed inside a planet-sized soundstage. Sometimes, when these sensations inundate me, I glance around—at the ground and the sky, cars and buildings and passersby—and marvel at the corporeality of it all. Of everything.
On occasions, when I’m experiencing these sensations, I ask myself two questions, sometimes in conjunction, sometimes in disjunction:
What is imagination?
What is “reality”?
So I’m sitting in a wheelchair on the corner of an intersection, wearing a plaid shirt, overalls, and sunglasses. I’m hunched over in the chair, not moving. Concentrating on steadying my breath, minimizing the expansion and contraction of my rib cage, trying to render it imperceptible.
Try it. It’s a fascinating study, something akin to sociology. People ignore you when you play dead. They amble or scurry past you. Some glance while others act as though they don’t see you. Some joke while others furrow their eyebrows.
I’d probably sell the death routine if “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees wasn’t blasting from a speaker attached to my phone in my right pocket. (more…)
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. (more…)