Andy Kaufman: Comic genius or silly nut

This is one of those things that I wrestle with from time to time, but with the advent of the movie, all of the questions come pouring back in. You see I think I have a pretty good sense of humor. Most of the basic funny things that everyone else thinks is funny, I also think is funny. I also tend to see the humor in many things that is lost on the general populace. Intellectual humor, I somtimes think… though maybe I’m just kidding myself.

But with Andy, things have always been different for me. Sure I thought he had an occasional funny moment, but all around me people were calling him a comic genius. I kept thinking that I just wasn’t getting it, but more and more I came to believe it was a case of the “emperor’s new clothes”. When I think of comic geniuses, I think of Johnathan Winters, Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, Gene Wilder, Steve Martin, Jerry Sienfeld, Lenny Bruce, Joseph Heller, Douglas Adams, etc…

I know that Andy is sometimes characterized as a performance artist and that a cheap laugh was not always what he was striving for. His proponents say that all he wanted was a reaction… I guess this is where I never got it, because my reaction was usually something on the order of curious indifference.

As far as I’m concerned, the funniest thing about Andy Kaufman was that everyone else thought he was funny when I didn’t… Hey, mamybe that was the effect he was after, but I suspect that this is giving him too much credit.

Any Andy Kaufman fans out there that care to try and change my mind? I’m really trying to be open minded about it, because I admit that maybe I really just don’t get it…

Roger Ebert had a good observation in his review of the movie. He said that Kaufman’s whole career was not so much dedicated to entertaining people as to studying the concept of the relationship between entertainer and audience; and understood and appreciated that a performance is never more fascinating than when it is going terribly, terribly wrong. To that end, he kind of made audiences EARN entertainment from him, for better or worse (often worse).

Or, as I said to my wife last night,“The best way to conquer flop sweat is to do it on purpose.”

“It’s my considered opinion you’re all a bunch of sissies!”–Paul’s Grandfather

Silly nut.

An occasional genuinely funny moment, but for the most part just plain silliness.

“Comedy” rountines such as:

Reading “The Great Gatsby.”

Bringing his parents to Letterman’s show to tell them how much they meant to him.

Bringing three young adult black youths to Letterman’s program, showing him the “children” he was planning to adopt.

Doing stand-up routines in gibberish.

The “Fridays” incident.

In spite of all this, I like him more now, looking back, than I did at the time.

Back then, I just thought, “What an idiot!”

Now, though, I think more of “I wish I could get paid for doing that kind of idiotic stuff.”

JoeyBlades, I think Andy Kaufman is funny, but I only have seen him in the TV series Taxi.
Although, you gotta admit, there really IS no difference between a “comic genius” and a “silly nut”. It’s all in the perspective…

< o | o >
.<_ | _>

I always thought there were two kinds of comedians, the ones that said laugh at me (Jerry Lewis eg) and the ones that said laugh with me (Lenny Bruce, George Carlin.) Then Kaufman came along and was totally different. The main thrust of his act was “I am laughing at you.” Much like art that is a single silver dot on a red field, you either get it as art or think of it as a silver dot on a red field.

Kaufman was an artist like that. You either “got” his message (or pretended to get his message so you wouldn’t look like an idiot to your friends,) or you didn’t. At that time I “got” him about half the time. Looking back I realize that half of time was when I was stoned.

I regret he died (if he truly did die and is not off somewhere co-managing a 7-11 with the King, but that’s another thread) as young as he did because I think he could have developed into an awsome actor. His whole life was one big act, I think he could have translated himself to film very easily.

A hat with bells on is not funny, it is the jester underneath.

Andy Kaufmann was a lot like Frank Zappa, and I DON’T mean that as a compliment. What I mean is that Frank and Andy were both:

  1. Sometimes very funny

  2. Usually stupid

  3. Never NEARLY as important as they (and their most slavish admirers) wanted to believe

  4. Cop-out artists of the worst kind; rather than come clean and admit that some of the things they did were sheer crap, they (and their slavish admirers) pretend (a la Pee Wee Herman) that their failures were INTENTIONAL! Point out that a given Kaufman routine (or Zappa album)was stupid, annoying or uninspired, and you’ll get a sneer that says, “You a**hole. That was SATIRE! If you were as smart as me, you’d get it, and realize how brilliant it was… but of course, you’re too dense to understand such subtle wit.” (I dunno… sounds like the gimmick from “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to me.)

#4 is what made Kaufman and his most rabid fans so annoying. Hey, I frequently found Kaufman’s bit on “SNL” and the Letterman show hilarious. I loved his “Old MacDonald” routine, his Elvis imitation, his Mighty Mouse bit, and several other things he did. Three minutes of Andy Kaufman was frequently a delight. An hour of Andy Kaufman got tedious very quickly, partly it never seems to have occurred to Andy Kaufamn that anything he did might be less than brilliant.

Tony Clifton was a bad idea, badly executed. Even as a parody of a bad Vegas lounge act, Tony Clifton was neither accurate nor funny. And while his wrestling-with-women routine was mildly amusing for a while, it got old FAST. Those were just two examples of bad, unfunny bits that Kaufman should have abandoned quickly, and written off to experience.

But of course, Kaufman’s die-hard fans will never admit that Kaufman ever did ANYTHING wrong. Instead of acknowledging that TOny CLiftonwasn’t funny, they’ll say “Tony CLifton wasn’t supposed to be funny- he was ANdy’s way of intellectually exploring the issue of what’s funny and what isn’t.”

Sure. And Paul McCartney hasn’t REALLY made lousy albums for the last 20 years- he’s merely been DELIBERATELY pushing the envelope to make us think about what separates good music from bad music.

I’m with Jester. I admit, all I’ve ever seen of him, I’ve seen in the past month, but I think he did what he did for no one but himself. Right now, he’s probably laughing at how he was able to be on SNL, Letterman, everywhere, when most people were wondering what the hell he was doing. I think he’s funniest if you see what he sees.
Sorta like, when you’re playing with your cat, pointing a laser pointer on the wall and watching him go after it, wondering what the hell it is. We watch this and we laugh. Same with him. He laughed at our confusion, and hey, I thought that was funny.

JMcC, San Francisco, JJM’s page from the Bay
If I were beaned with a fastball, fling my limp, lifeless body to first, cause, dammit, I earned it!

The ‘imitations’ bit on SNL was beautiful. Whatever spark of inspiration that led him to that seems to have abandoned him in everything else of his that I have seen. I do not consider him a comic genius because a comic genius produces great comedy in great quantities (the OP examples I’ll second are Heller, Adams and Seinfeld).

Incidentally, if you look at Zappa’s work as comedy music or satire or social commentary I think you really are missing the point. The point of it was great rock n’ roll - the lyrics were just accompanianment (SP???) to some of the most diverse, complex (yet searing) music ever produced.

What made Andy Kaufman a genius was a timely death. He was basically an amusing bufoon who would have faded into obscurity or gone mainstream had he lived. Death has a way of making people suspend their face in a particular time.

Lets say Jimi Hendrix had lived a little longer. Toward the end of his life, according to what I have read, his drug and personal problems had seriously affected his talent. Near his death sucked as a musician.

Andy Kaufman I heard lived a very healthy lifestyle. Drank little if at all and stayed away from drugs. But he was wierd enough anyway.

Comparing him to Frank Zappa in a bad way I feel is inaccurate. Frank had a lot of stupid things to say, but his music was always top notch. People who played with him say that he was an instrumental perfectionist and his music showed that talent. Frank Zappa was generally nice to his audience, Kaufman often angered his audience by his stupidity.

I have mixed feelings about Frank Zappa AND Andy Kaufmann, though I don’t deny that each was talented, and each did some brilliant and highly original work in his chosen field. Both bring to mind Dr. Johnson’s old critiscism: “This work is both good and original; however, the parts that are good are not original and the parts that are original are not good.”

I give Zappa a lot more credit than I give Kaufman, for several reasons:

First, Zappa knew, understood and accepted that his work would not be embraced by most people, and contented himself with cultivating a small, loyal audience that appreciated his work. Zappa didn’t try to ingratiate himself (via pop hits) with mass audiences, only to pull a fast one at live concerts, and play nothing but experimental music. Kaufmann was far less honest than Zappa. He DID ingratiate himself with mass audiences (by playing Latka), and sold plenty of tickets to his live perfromances on that basis. It was a cheap trick to woo thousands of people to a concert, expecting to see lovable Latka, and then spring Tony Clifton on them, or lie down on stage and sleep through a show.

Second, because Zappa accepted that his music and humor were not for everyone, he didn’t spend a lot of time whining about how “nobody understands my genius” and crying about his dwindling popularity. When you insult large segments of America, and large parts of your audience, you’re going to drive many of them away. Zappa didn’t just accept that, he REVELLED in it. Kaufman, as we see in “Man on the Moon,” thought he had to divine right to insult his audience while STILL keeping their love and devotion. That was immature, stupid and hypocritical.

Third, none of Zappa’s friends have tried to make more of Zappa in death than he was in life. The people who loved his music STILL love his music. The people who thought he was hilarious still do. But they’re not on any crusades to convince non-believers of Frank’s sainthood. Kaufmann’s admirers have used his tragic death to turn a so-so comedian on the way down (his last big career move was “Heartbeeps,” a movie so stupid, boring and oversentimental, I’m surprised Robin WIlliams wasn’t in it). Kaufman was well past his peak at the time of his death. If he were alive today, I suspect he’d be doing “Hollywood Squares.”

Spoken like a man who really misses both the humor and the music of The Donnie and Marie Show

Plunging like stones from a slingshot on Mars.

Neither. Pain in the ass.

In my judgement, his best part was when he played on Taxie and even then, when they decided to give him a split personality, I didn’t like the alternate one.

What? Me worry?’

Well, I am one of those who just fell outta my chair at the SNL routines. Completely hilarious. And I can appreciate what he was trying to do for himself, but I have to say that I could not personally appreciate Clifton or the wrestling crap. That disappointed me. I admired his balls, but I wasn’t entertained.

My sister knew him, she was a regular on the Dick Van Dyke variety show in teh 70’s and he was on it. She said he was as strange in life as he was on stage, but sweet.

The impression I get from Andy Kaufman is that, had he not died, he would have wound up like an aging vaudevillian who never changed his act, but still managed to get occasional gigs on local variety shows or an occasional cameo in a movie.

Just like the guy who only juggles fishbowls with water in them, Kaufman was stuck being the “weird guy who doesn’t always make sense”. Steve Martin’s earlier years were sort of similar. His humor didn’t always make sense, and sometimes it was just plain dumb (remember “Cruel Shoes”? Pathetically unfunny). But it was hip, and that’s what counted.

The difference between Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman is that Martin went mainstream, managing to learn how to act for film and still stay funny. Selling out? Perhaps, but the name of the game in entertainment is to stay marketable. Andy Kaufman got weirder and weirder in an attempt to keep his name in front of people. He chose the road less traveled by, and for some, that made all the difference. But the best career move he made was dying young. It saved him from approaching 50 and trying to find some other bizarre schtick to get his name in the papers.

The Dave-Guy
“since my daughter’s only half-Jewish, can she go in up to her knees?” J.H. Marx

First, let me say (again) that I did find some of Kaufman’s humor pretty decent. The “Foreign Man” who eventually became “Latka” is pretty good. His Elvis impersonations were sometimes OK. I even smiled at the Mighty Mouse routine, so I guess I’m not down on all of his bits. It’s just that a lot of the latter stuff struck me as patently unfunny.

The Frank Zappa argument is an interesting one that only complicates the issue more for me. First, it is very clear to me that Frank was a very, very sophisticated musician. Not everyone appreciates musical complexity and even I have to admit that some of Zappa’s music failed to appeal to me, though by and large, most of it did. Much of Frank Zappa’s humor was certainly avant gard and I’ll be the first to admit it that I didn’t find all of his humor funny, though most of it does strike me as pretty damn funny…

So here’s my delima. Maybe Kaufman to me is as Zappa is to astorian…

One other observation about Kaufman. I’ve seen comics bomb before. Life is full of unfunny people who are completely oblivious to their lack of humor - in spite of their attempts at comedy. The difference is that with these failing comics, I can almost always recognize the underlying elements of the comedy that they are attempting. With Kaufman the comedy was usually non funny, non interesting, almost psychotic, non sequitur. It’s almost as if he put all of his energy into being as blandly unfunny as possible - if this were the case, I would certainly label this as a bizarre kind of genius, though not particularly entertaining. In comedy, it’s not how funny YOU think you think you are that counts…

This point and the Zappa one did make me realize one thing. Just as I don’t like all forms of music and, in fact, don’t recognize some forms of music as being musical - why should I expect more from various forms of comedy? When I think of it this way, I don’t find it quite as troubling.

I think he was good.Not a genius. Look at most comedians. They are kindof boring.Can you remember a Seinfeld joke? Andy kept your attention,which Is important if your a performer.

Why can’t he be a comic genius and a silly nut?

Anyone can be silly. The source of Andy’s genius was not his silliness, but the fact that he made it so vivid and believable for his audience. He made everyone a willing participant in his silliness, and that is something only a master can do. That’s why his audience would cheer him after his routines and let themselves be loaded onto a bus and taken for milk and cookies. A silly ass is sometimes amusing, mostly annoying. Andy turned everyone into happy and wide-eyed children. That’s the work of a master.

As you can see in his bongo routines, there are very complex layers of social and symbolic cues. Nothing makes sense on the surface, but there is always a real story and dialogue going on underneath. This is what engaged his audience and made them laugh in disbelief- they had no idea why they were understanding gibberish. He was pulling them into his silliness using very specific techniques of pantomime, gesture, expression and his sheer confidence. Watching Andy Kaufman is like being talked into walking happily off a cliff into…what exactly? That was his secret. So to answer your question: Genius. To quote Dana Carvey “All roads lead to Andy Kaufman”

If you feel like responding to this thread, please note that all the posts before Tony Clifton’s are from December 1999.

Calling him a comedian is a mistake-he was a performance artist, and his instrument was the audience. In my opinion his acts were designed to elicit a variety of responses, not just laughter.