I’ve always hated the knee jerk opinion that Andy Kaufman was a genius. People seem to subscribe to the fallacy that because a lot of geniuses are misunderstood in their time, if you are misunderstood in your time, that means you are a genius.
In Poking a Dead Frog, Glen Charles articulates how I’ve always felt about Andy Kaufman. Charles goes into what it was like to work with Andy, discussing the character of Latka on Taxi and the stipulation that Tony Clifton would be featured in at least two episodes a season. Charles described Kaufman as “sui generis”, which is a term I had to look up. Wikipedia defines it as “of its own kind/genus” and hence “unique in its characteristics.” In other words, Kaufman went beyond conventional genre boundaries. I agree but that doesn’t necessarily make him a genius.
The first time I ever saw him was in his SNL Mighty Mouse sketch or performance or piece or whatever. I didn’t get it. I had it explained to me. “So, the joke is how nervous he is before he sings the chorus.”
And I firmly believe Tony Clifton is just plain dumb. Tony was a character created by Andy Kaufman. Kaufman would insist that he and Tony were different people. Everyone knew the truth, though. Everyone knew that it was Andy in the costume. But then, one night, Andy got on stage with Tony. They aren’t the same person! Pretty genius, right?
It turns out Andy’s comedy partner Bob Zmuda was in the costume. Okay. So the joke is that you keep guessing if this incredibly annoying, unentertaining person is a real guy or just a character? That’s the joke? That’s the piece?
I just don’t care.
But Kaufman and Zmuda must have thought this was brilliant because they just kept on doing it. In his WTF episode, Zmuda claims that Tony Clifton is now Tony Clifton. No one “does an impression” of him anymore. Andy did an impression, Bob did an impression, Jim Carrey and Paul Giamatti did impressions but now, in some sort of Pinocchio-esque miracle, Tony Clifton is Tony Clifton. He’s a real boy!
There are diminishing returns on a hoax. You have to be circuitous and deliberately obtuse all in the name of protecting a bit that isn’t very entertaining. Marc summed it up when he said to Zmuda, “after all this talking you’re going to fuck with me?” Zmuda didn’t come off as transgressive or ahead of his time, he just came off as rude, clinging to something stupid.
This all leads me to Glen Charles and his experiences with Andy Kaufman, Latka Gravas, and Tony Clifton.
I can’t honestly say that Glen Charles is a comedy hero of mine but he did create Cheers and Cheers is arguably the greatest sitcom ever. So, Glen Charles’s opinion matters to me. Glen Charles worked with Andy Kaufman on Taxi.
Kaufman, as Clifton, was just all over the place, intentionally. The director would say, “Can you say a line this way?” And Tony Clifton would say, “I’m doing’ it the way I want. You can go fuck yourself!” [Laughs] That may be the first time I ever laughed at Tony Clifton.
The upshot is that Andy wanted to be fired – or he wanted Tony Clifton to be fired. And he wanted the firing to be done in front of a lot of people on the soundstage. He wanted the security to come in. He wanted to make it a performance.
Charles said, “I found it surreal. I didn’t find it funny. I find it even less funny in retrospect that we allowed the indulgence.” Charles later tells how Tony Clifton – not Andy Kaufman but Tony Clifton who either is or is not a different person – brought a gun to the set. That’s when he got fired.
He doesn’t sound like a genius. He just sounds selfish. Anything else I’ve heard about him hasn’t helped his image in my eyes – reading The Great Gatsby to a crowd, wrestling with women, the Jerry Lawler stunt.
Charles also relayed another story about Kaufman. He said after a Taxi wrap party, Andy invited him and director James Burrows to his dressing room to meet a poet, a young blonde woman who preferred to read her poetry naked. When she started taking off her clothes, Burrows got up to leave, reminding Charles that their wives were downstairs.
Looking back on it, I’m thinking maybe that that’s what Andy wanted – our wives to walk in. Not out of any animosity toward us but just as, what… performance art? If all this had happened to somebody else I might have loved it.
That’s the essence of Kaufman’s comedy. Hearing about it is funny. Watching it or experiencing it just seems kind of mean spirited. Can you imagine being told that? “One time I tricked two guys into being in a room with a naked woman. Their wives walked in and they all got into a huge fight. Isn’t that classic?”
I guess what I’m saying is that Andy Kaufman’s comedy may have been so unique and ahead of its time that we never see anything like it again and I’m perfectly okay with that.