Thursday, April 06, 2017

Book Review: Lost In The Funhouse: The Life And Mind Of Andy Kaufman

by Richard Grooms, Fiction Department, Central Library

Lost In The Funhouse: The Life And Mind Of Andy Kaufman
Bill Zehme

A meek little man onstage puts a record on a child’s record player. It’s the Mighty Mouse theme. He stands silently by. When the refrain comes up, he joins in: “Here I come to save the dayyyyyyyyyyyy!” The chorus finishes, and he returns to silence. The audience is puzzled at first, but soon catches on. Even his standing gets laughs. Each time he joins the refrain, the laughs get bigger. The sketch ends with overwhelming applause.

When I saw this on Saturday Night Live in 1975, I suspected a new era in comedy had begun. Ever since, I’ve re-watched old Kaufman routines, read all the biographies, kept the flame alive. Bill Zehme’s book is as good as any of the accounts of Kaufman’s life. He spent six years doing research, trying to separate fact from myth, and it usually pays off. Occasionally, the usage is clumsy (“He felt anxious, knew not why…”) but it’s overall a solid piece of writing and should be read by anyone more than casually interested in Andy Kaufman.

Andy Kaufman spent much of his childhood acting out dramas alone in his bedroom, creating his own TV shows. It wasn’t entirely unlike Rupert Pupkin in the basement in the movie The King Of Comedy. But, being a dutiful son, he went to college and made the dean’s list. Still, it was the sixties, and when Andy signed up for Transcendental Meditation courses, it changed his life. The training would give him the astounding concentration and memory that would serve him well throughout his career.

Andy (most fans find it unnatural to refer to him as anything but Andy, and I’m following suit) didn’t save his acting for stage work alone. His characters spilled into his regular life. A coworker remembers him doing what he’d later realize was the Foreign Man character in the men’s room. “And I thought, well, I guess he’s the real thing. I mean, there was no reason to put on a foreign accent for me alone in the men’s room. Then he went out and did the act and I realized I’d been had.” Andy fooled legions of people in this way. Comedian Richard Belzer said: “He was a performance artist before the term existed.” But Andy didn’t consider himself a comedian. Ultimately, conventional terms didn’t apply to him. Nor did unconventional ones. Still, comedian seems as good as any, at least comedian in the new, Kaufman-broadened sense. He was always funny, or trying to be.

One of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen, still funny more than twenty years after I first saw it, is the SNL audition tape of Andy doing a yokel. Zehme has it that a “mushmouthed hillbilly” drawls “Fasterna-speedn-bullet-mo-pahrfulna-loc’motive-abletuh-leap-tawl-buildnsna-sanglebown…it’s Suprymayn…” This and other phonetic accounts preserve the intonation (though I’d spell it “SOOPmain”) and comic thrust. It’s necessary to use phonetic spelling to convey the flavor of Andy’s characters with their distinctive voices. Also included are bits I’ve never encountered outside of this book (and these are vital to the Kaufman hordes as Andy is poorly documented on film), such as a Foreign Man-narrated joke about a “little boy named Jesus—not the same Jesus that live in de church, you know.” It’s a measure of Andy’s talent that these pieces, even written down, still retain much of their original punch. Written accounts of comedians’ sketches usually don’t come off, but they do in this book.

Who was the real Andy Kaufman? Everyone wants to know that, and it’s not easy to figure out, as Andy was a famous dissembler. I don’t know if knowing the real Andy is knowable. Andy so buried himself behind his characters, his mirrors and fantasies that we’ll probably never know the real him. Still, you want Zehme to make a good job of it and he does, concluding that “the real real him was the existential puppeteer who decided what would happen whenever people were looking.” That’s as good an answer as I’ve read anywhere, but there are other, equally good answers. Robin Williams said you could look at Andy and realize no one was driving.

Andy wasn’t always in fine form. The Intergender Wrestling thing wore thin for me after a while, and the connected My Breakfast With Blassie is tedious. Heartbeeps, Kaufman’s only feature drama, is famously unwatchable and I can’t get more than about twenty minutes into it. Kaufman probably wouldn’t have minded these criticisms, which are widely shared, because he himself demolished his own career on several occasions. He famously did so live when he bombed onstage in a routine and a heckler savaged him. Only Andy knew the heckler was his creative partner Bob Zmuda, but it was so real that once when performing this, a man with a gun threatened to shoot Zmuda. The comic Sinbad was utterly taken in as well, ashamed that, in a milieu where people are always doing made-up things, he didn’t catch on. This was a Kaufman goal: to embarrass the audience. Once the audience grew wise to the sham, Kaufman would invent a new routine. When Andy announced in the mid-eighties that he was dying of cancer, no one, not even Zmuda, bought it. But it was real this time. Or was it? Zmuda is convinced the death was faked, but it took him decades to come to this conclusion. Andy’s own doctor, at the funeral, poked Andy’s body when no one was looking. It was a dummy, he says. But was that really Andy’s doctor? Would coming back now, after more than thirty years later, work? He kept topping himself, always finding new convolutions, always succeeding dramatically, always fooling people, even those who knew he did pranks for a living. Would a return to life now clear that impossibly high bar? Maybe he could go into pest control or something. Driver Ed. Just not tell anybody anything. Just be undercover forever. For someone who claimed to hate all things highbrow (My Breakfast With Blassie was meant to be a parody of My Dinner With Andre), Kaufman expanded comedy and theatre into new and radical dimensions. He really was the ultimate avant-gardist. He just did it in a field not associated with the avant-garde, did it with a lighter touch, and so wasn’t usually seen as such.

Lost In The Funhouse is the best biography of Kaufman to start with. It’s the most conventional and thorough one. All the other accounts are well worth it too. I thank you, Mr. Zehme for nailing some mercury with a pitchfork. It couldn’t have been easy.

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