Waxing Nostalgic Over Classic TV

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Odd Life (and Death?) of Andy Kaufman

The guy was one of a kind. One part stand-up comic, two parts performance artist, you either got Andy Kaufman or you didn't. I remember the first time I saw him, lip synching to the Mighty Mouse theme on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live (1975). I found myself laughing without really knowing why.

When he came to my college campus, I found that I wasn't watching a show as much as experiencing an event. Whether it was his passion for wrestling women onstage or taking the entire audience out for milk and cookies, the excitement of an Andy Kaufman show came from never knowing what would happen next.

He had a lifetime obsession with Elvis, and when he would transform himself from his "foreign man" character into an eerily accurate impression of Elvis, it left audiences breathless. The wide variety of characters he created showed off his creative side, but it was his ability to create scenarios which left the audience wondering what was real and what was not that was his real genius.

The video above is a classic example. It's from the night he appeared on the popular late-night comedy show Fridays. In the middle of a sketch about some friends in a restaurant who keep sneaking out to smoke a joint, he announces that "I can't play stoned," and refuses to continue. His fellow castmates appear stunned, and after he dumps a drink on Michael Richards, a brawl ensues. Was it real, or was it a set-up? Kaufman never really did set the record straight, although most people seem to think it was a practical joke that not everyone was aware of beforehand.

Of course, the problem with being known as someone who was always playing with reality was that, even when you announce that you have lung cancer, some people won't believe you. To this day, there are people who think that his death was an elaborate joke and he'll reappear, like Jesus Christ, in a spectacular Second Coming. Although his longtime friend and partner Bob Zmuda confirms that he did indeed die in 1984, he says Kaufman "tinkered with the idea" of faking his death.

Jim Carrey did a brilliant job portraying Kaufman in the 1999 film, Man on the Moon. He captured his complexity and his spirit. It's one of my favorite films.

So who knows, maybe Andy will come back, arm-in-arm with Elvis. Would that be cool or what?

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