Title: HBO Young Comedians Special
The set-up: When Andy Kaufman was a small child, his parents took him to a psychiatrist. They were concerned about his habit of standing in the middle of the family living room and staring out of the window – "feeling sad", he said. Another worry was Andy's favourite game, which involved spending long periods alone in his bedroom putting on shows for imaginary television cameras. He produced, he later claimed, "four hours of programming" each day.
And we must say "claimed", because nobody ever quite knew what to believe about Kaufman. Today he is routinely declared a genius, and in his fearlessness, radicalism and brilliance, he clearly he fits the bill. The fact that he died from cancer in his 30s, as did Bill Hicks, merely confirmed a mythology that was already secure. There have been songs written about him. There has been a movie made about him. There is even a popular but now rather forlorn conspiracy theory that he did not die at all.
Funny, how? Kaufman's act was to make you wonder if it was one. He claimed not to be a comedian, but rather a performer just playing with his audience. The fact that he did this in standup comedy clubs, on late-night comedy shows and in the sitcom Taxi – and that people laughed – was supposed to be incidental.
In the few scraps of Kaufman we have left, the same motifs recur: the unpleasant character of a lounge singer called Tony Clifton; his "foreign man" character, who speaks and sings in an entirely made-up language; his love of wrestling, American kitsch and light entertainment generally; his fondness for making whatever he did appear to go terribly wrong. His most famous show was at Carnegie Hall in 1979, which he concluded by taking the entire audience out for milk and cookies. But, watching it today, it mostly gives me the feeling that you had to be there.
Instead, this early performance recorded by HBO (and available in full on Youtube) includes many of the essentials, and is a better introduction. The show begins with one of Kaufman's signature disasters. Foreign man – surely an ancestor of Borat – comes next, and is very funny. The last section, filled by a proto-Clifton figure before the costume got out of hand, disintegrates in typical style.
Will you laugh? I do, but don't take that as a promise. Kaufman occupies the kind of place in comedy that Finnegans Wake does in literature. You can't ignore him, and you must admire him, but enjoying is another matter. He truly was a virtuoso actor, singer, bongo player and Elvis impersonator, but mostly he performs not on the stage in front of you, but inside your mind, toying with your sense of what you think is going on. (As in his infamous appearance with a wrestler on David Letterman.) Maybe it would take another genius to understand completely what he was doing.
Steal this: Pass.
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