Spinning the World On Its Head -Andy Kaufman and Other Random Thoughts

It’s been a rough week.  More deaths by the hands of cops, and then cops being killed.  It’s enough to make me turn to comedy for relief–for distraction from reality.

Enter Andy Kaufman, circa 1978.  I found the 3rd season of Saturday Night Live at my local library, and had chuckled my way through a couple of rousing performances by the great Gilda Radner when a skit by Andy came on.  He was standing in front of the microphone, talking in what seemed to me to be gibberish.  It’s difficult to explain exactly what happened, because it was so bizarre.  Here he was, making gibberish, and then his tone would change, so that it sounded like he was having a conversation.  He began to shout-the two people were having an argument? -and then beat the bongo drums that had been waiting for him onstage.  After his song ended (with some especially loud nonsensical shouts), he stopped playing the drums.  Then, he start speaking in gibberish again–I interpreted it as him explaining the bit, but that could have just been my imagination.  It didn’t make a whole lot of sense, to be honest.  He called a woman up to the stage, someone from the audience, and while he spoke to her only in the made-up language, he got her to lay down on the stage.  He then danced around her and chanted, pretending to try to get her to stand up – motioning her to stand.  She finally tried to stand up and he pushed her back onto the floor.  It was this moment that got him the biggest laughter from the audience. As the audience is engaged in the hilarity of that moment, he grabbed the woman’s head and pulled the woman up (or at least seemed to!) by her hair.  She didn’t seem hurt, but I worried that that move had been painful for her.  He congratulated her and that was the end of the skit.

I suddenly felt completely confused.  Had I just watched a comedy act?  Was it funny?  If it was, why was it?

I admit that I don’t know the answers to those questions.  I have been looking up youtube clips of Andy Kaufman since watching that skit the other day, and I feel as though I’m falling into the rabbit hole – and I am beginning to get the feeling that that’s what his aim was, to create that sense of confusion and curiosity in his viewers.

In a world where we appreciate comedy that has a clear beginning, middle, and end (as most Saturday Night Live sketches have!), as well as a clear punchline, I’m recognizing that one of Andy’s talents was fracturing this stereotypical act and being unsettling -perhaps for the sake of it.  And in a world where I am feeling unsettled pretty much all the time, I can’t say I’m definitely a fan of it as a form of comedy – but it sure is intriguing.

I watched The Man in the Moon years ago, before I had seen any of Andy Kaufman’s sketches.  Jim Carrey did a great job of capturing Andy’s wackiness, but the chaotic nature of Andy’s comedy was lost in such a structured, plot-driven movie.  I wasn’t expecting to be so thrown for a loop by Andy Kaufman’s comedy, considering I’ve watched a biography of it!

It seems that the internet pegs Andy Kaufman as a Dadaist comedian (harkening from the Surrealist art period, where artists like Duchamp wrote “R. Mutt” on a urinal and called it art), or as an anti-humor comedian.  I’m not sure how to label that kind of comedy – but I know it’s a way of spinning my ideas of what comedy is on its head, and I appreciate the riskiness of that kind of effort.  However, as I watched clips of Andy Kaufman on the David Letterman show in the early 80’s, he seemed to be fundamentally unhappy with how his comedy was received by the masses – but with an act like that, how could he have been surprised?  Or maybe anytime he was on television, he was acting, putting on a persona for the cameras and the audiences.  If I were a public figure, I could see that being a way to hide my true self, to disconnect it from who I was when I was in the spotlight.  However, if I did that, I can imagine I would find myself fundamentally unhappy, being both seen and not understood.  If I were Andy, I might have faked my death, too.

What it really makes me wonder, is what kind of a society are we living in that produces the kind of people who become Andy Kaufman.  And what kind of society are we living in where murder is a daily reality–murder in schools, nightclubs, murder by the same people who have sworn to protect the public, and murders at peaceful protests.  Andy Kaufman’s comedy, it turns out, wasn’t enough to fully distract me, but it definitely got me thinking.





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