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Divine Comedy

I Shall Be Heard

Andy Kaufman performed for more than just laughs—in fact, his goal often seemed to be something entirely different. A budding comic chases Andy’s ineffable comedy.

Risk, A pink elephant in the room, 2012. Courtesy the artist.

“Andy goes on stage, plays a recording of the Mighty Mouse theme song, and then pretends to sing only the parts of the song that go,” (and here my dad made his best attempt at singing) “Here I come to save the day!”

I stared blankly.

“It’s hilarious!” he said.

I guess. Real comedians tell jokes, right? Setup, punchline, laughs. A guy taking the stage and pretending to sing a cartoon theme song didn’t sound like jokes. My dad’s description and generous singing of Andy Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse bit, which Andy performed on the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live, was my first exposure to Andy Kaufman. My response was: “That’s comedy?”

When my dad told me about Andy Kaufman and his Mighty Mouse routine, it was pre-YouTube—I didn’t have the convenience of immediately watching the clip. If I did, it might have changed my initial reaction. And it wasn’t my dad’s failure in description, even with the singing; I’d later realize that pretty much everything Andy Kaufman ever did sounds like some sort of bizarre stunt and not necessarily like comedy.

Eventually YouTube came along, and I watched Andy’s Mighty Mouse bit. I wasn’t as dismissive as I was when my dad first told me about it. I found parts of it pretty funny. But what makes Andy’s Mighty Mouse a unique, memorable piece of entertainment are the nuances of the performance—meaning, everything Andy did besides pretending to sing.

 

Andy takes the stage at Saturday Night Live’s Studio 8H and starts the audio recording of the song. Watch how he waits a beat. Then, listen carefully—the first laughs start at about 10 seconds in, and on first viewing, or even second viewing, it feels like Andy hasn’t done anything to earn the laughs—yet. No performer goes on stage and does nothing, but that’s exactly what Andy does. Just watch. He stands there. The song plays. He waits. The audience waits.

But really, Andy was doing something. He was a master of subtle facial expressions: Notice how he switches from blinking his eyes rapidly to holding long periods of focused eye contact. Notice how he looks confused, which confuses the audience, which is exactly what Andy wants. Look at Andy twitching; his fingers curl and stretch, back and forth, by his side. He’s uncomfortable, nervous, like it was his first time on stage. This helps Andy’s performance, because at 15 seconds in, when he pretends to sing the first “Here I come to save the day!” the surge of laughter breaks the pent-up tension he built up in the room.

The genius of Andy Kaufman is what happens at 30 seconds into the performance. Andy knows the crux of his bit—pretending to sing “Here I come to save the day!”—is now given away. Andy was a master of comedic timing. He knows he needs to rebuild the tension of the performance to deliver more laughs. So to do this, watch how Andy briefly lifts his head and opens his mouth to make it seem like he’s about to sing again, but then puts his head down in shame after he realizes, and the audience realizes, that it’s the wrong part of the song. It’s perfectly timed, obviously rehearsed. During a single performance, Andy invoked from the audience not just laughter during his singing, but also confusion, frustration, and wonder at everything that happened in between.

Besides Mighty Mouse, some of Andy’s better-known bits include impersonating Elvis Presley, pretending to be lounge singer Tony Clifton (who Andy claimed was a real guy and not Andy Kaufman), pretending to be an Eastern European comedian known as “Foreign Man” (who later becomes Latka on Taxi, and much later, although unrelated, I believe inspired Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat), starting a fight with Michael Richards during a Fridays sketch, wrestling women and becoming the “Women’s Wrestling Champion of the World” (a title he created), eating a scoop of ice cream during a performance, reading The Great Gatsby aloud in its entirety, getting slapped by wrestler Jerry Lawler, singing a song with only the lyrics, “I trusted you,” or taking his entire Carnegie Hall audience out for milk and cookies. It’s quite a list, and the list goes on.

 

Since first learning about Andy Kaufman from my dad, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Andy and attempting to understand his work. I’ve watched his specials and clips on YouTube. I’ve read Bill Zehme’s book, Lost in the Funhouse. I’ve listened to Bob Zmuda, Andy’s sidekick, talk about Andy for three hours on WTF With Marc Maron. Sometimes when I’m at a restaurant waiting for a table, I’ll tell the hostess my name is Tony Clifton. It’s one of those things most people don’t get except for me, which I imagine is how Andy often felt about his work.

When I moved to New York City a few years ago, I started writing and performing comedy. I thought about Andy a lot while writing my earliest material. Could I perform in such a way that made a crowd question if I was in—or not—on the joke? Could I invoke more than just laughter from an audience? These methods helped Andy become memorable early on, although I doubt he ever explicitly considered them. I liked the idea of experimenting with this type of comedy, but wasn’t sure I was a skilled enough performer to pull it off.

Something from Andy I did attempt to bring on stage was his eye movement—Andy could use it to manipulate an audience.

One of the earliest bits I wrote was about my allergies. At different points within the jokes about allergies, I gave myself cues to pretend to sneeze. So, it was jokes about sneezing intermittently interrupted by aggressive, horrifying, seizure-like sneezing. If that doesn’t sound funny, well, that’s probably why I never actually did it on stage. I doubted it. But the concept, at least looking back on it, felt like a young comic’s attempt at doing something like Andy Kaufman. Could I do a bit about sneezing while sneezing and have the audience wonder, or be slightly unsure, if my sneezing was even real? Andy Kaufman could have pulled it off. He wouldn’t have doubted it.

Something from Andy I did attempt to bring on stage was his eye movement—Andy could use it to manipulate an audience. If he wanted to appear worrisome, nervous, or inexperienced, he’d blink a lot and look around the room, seeking approval, sort of like in the Mighty Mouse bit. If he wanted to appear confident and a little insane, he’d barely blink and keep strong, piercing eye contact, like he did in his wrestling bits. I knew I didn’t have Andy’s range as a performer, so my goal on stage with eye contact was just to appear confident, like I knew what I was doing, like the audience was in good hands, like I was a comedian, and that the audience could trust me to give them some laughs.

The transaction that takes place between a comedian and the audience is unusual. “I, comedian, will now make you, group of strangers, laugh.” It’s uncomfortable, even though that’s why an audience is in the room, and in most cases, has paid to be in the room. Pete Holmes frequently mentions this idea on his podcast You Made It Weird. To alleviate the discomfort of the transaction that takes place between himself and his audience, Pete simply acknowledges that there is discomfort and tension in the room at the top of his performance, which helps him get to the laughs sooner. Andy Kaufman wouldn’t have acknowledged this. An uncomfortable audience meant whatever Andy was doing was working.

Andy cared about more than just the laughs. I wanted to care about more than just the laughs, but first I had to figure out why else Andy was performing if it wasn’t just for the laughs. It seemed to be for something bigger—something bigger than comedy. It would take me some time to discover.

 

On Creating Reality, by Andy Kaufman, an exhibit chronicling Andy’s his work and life, was at Maccarone, a gallery in the West Village. Enclosed in 20 glass cases spread around a room with white walls and booming ceilings were items from Andy’s life. Photos of Andy, starting with some from his childhood performances, to magazine cutouts when his career picked up, to later shots of him performing on stage at Carnegie Hall. Scripts and plays, like the still unproduced screenplay, The Tony Clifton Story. Props, like Andy’s guitar, the Tony Clifton jacket and face prosthetics, and an Elvis costume. Pamphlets and materials for Transcendental Meditation, which Andy practiced daily. Also, the letter he sent Elvis saying he was studying to be a “famous TV personality.”

The silence in the room that’s typical for a Manhattan art gallery—even one about Andy Kaufman—was interrupted. “You move your eyes well.” No one’s ever told me that before. I looked up and she continued. “They move like Andy’s.”

“Are you Andy’s sister?”

“I am. I’m Carol.”

I didn’t believe her. After all, this was an Andy Kaufman exhibit. Like Andy, I didn’t expect anything to be what it seemed, just like Andy’s wrestling injuries, or his (or was it Tonly Clifton’s?) stunts on the set of Taxi, or as some believe, his death.

I looked at Carol closely. Her eyes move like Andy’s, certainly more than mine. I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to talk to anyone who knew Andy, much less his sister. I didn’t know what to say, so she started.

“What brings you to the exhibit?”

“I’m a big fan of Andy’s work and comedy. My dad first told me about him when I was a kid. Now I write and do comedy.”

“What got you into that?”

“I like the laughs, I guess.”

“You know, for Andy, it was never just about the laughs.”

Carol walked me around to a few of the glass cases.

“This is Andy visiting a girl in the hospital. She was sick with cancer.”

The picture showed Andy smiling into the camera next to a nine- or 10-year-old girl lying in a hospital bed.

“Look at these. These are the letters Andy sent home from camp.”

The letters were scribbled on postcards. They were longer than the ones I used to send home from camp.

“Oh, and go look at the case over there.” Carol pointed and didn’t walk me over.

In the case was a letter Andy wrote to his father when he was in his twenties, right around my age, right when he began seriously pursuing comedy. Andy wrote in the letter, “I shall be heard.”

Carol introduced me to her husband, Rick, who talked about Andy’s love for professional wrestling.

“Andy’s wrestling antics—wrestling women, getting taken out on a stretcher after matches, insulting the intelligence of wrestling fans by calling it ‘wrastlin’—that was just Andy’s way of becoming part of the wrestling community.”

“Did you ever see Andy wrestle?”

“Yeah, once in Chicago. When Andy got there, the audience booed and threw beer cans at Andy. I stood on my chair and joined in with them! Andy never got laughs while wrestling.”

“What do you make of the people who think Andy’s still alive?”

“I think that I was at the funeral.”

“People still talk about it all the time, if Andy’s dead or alive.”

Rick paused for a moment. “I guess that’s how Andy would have wanted it.”

Alex J. Mann is a writer, director, and comedian living in New York City. He’s written for Nickelodeon, CollegeHumor, Funny or Die, Thought Catalog, HelloGiggles, and Someecards. You can check out his comedy projects that are mostly just for the laughs at alexjmann.com. More by Alex J. Mann