by Greg Carlson
The legacy of Andy Kaufman is a puzzling one, which in some ways is fitting, as he continues to confuse and provoke fans and newcomers alike with his pioneering absurdist comedy from beyond the grave (?). On one hand, several A-List actors and comedians appear to have taken a page from Andy’s odd career moves, making fans and critics wonder what exactly is going on: Will Ferrell and Kristin Wiig playing it straight in a Lifetime movie. Shia LaBeouf’s live streaming performance art pieces. James Franco going back to school, directing a series of small Warhol-like films, and appearing on General Hospital. Joaquin Phoenix growing a beard and temporarily quitting acting to launch a rap career.
On the other end of the spectrum, Andy’s friends and family are making questionable choices in regards to preserving his legacy. Andy’s co-writer/co-conspirator Bob Zmuda now dons the Tony Clifton costume and attempts to cause confrontation with politically incorrect jokes, to little effect. It was recently announced that Hologram USA, the company behind the touring Tupac Shakur and Whitney Houston images, will bring back Andy’s likeliness in hologram form, with cooperation from the Kaufman family. Who is going to see this? Casual comedy fans and hardcore Kaufman devotees aren’t the type to shell out the cash to see this “performance” in a sleek Vegas casino.
This difficult issue of appeasing Andy’s cult fan base while trying to pique interest in his legacy to a new generation of fans is what plagued 1999’s biopic Man on the Moon. Aside from decent performances by Jim Carrey as Kaufman, Paul Giamatti as Zmuda, and Courtney Love (as Andy’s girlfriend Lynne Margulies), the film unfortunately follows the conventional biopic formula, and rearranges/embellishes several events in Andy’s life for dramatic purposes. Despite Man on the Moon failing to bring Kaufmania to a new audience, several books and videos of Kaufman’s material continue to be released, and a documentary examining whether Andy faked his death or not is currently in production.
My favorite pieces of Kaufman-related collectibles are the ones that serve as a reminder of a bygone era, mediums that don’t exist anymore that Andy relied on to play his comedic pranks. My prized video-oriented document is a DVD of Andy Kaufman’s 1981 appearance on The Midnight Special. Part “Greatest Hits” compilation, part fact & fiction documentary, this DVD is a great way to see Andy’s routine from start to finish. It’s all here – the Foreign Man’s Elvis impersonation, the Intergender wrestling matches, Tony Clifton, “It’s a Small World” accompanied by conga drummers, and much more. Surprisingly, The Midnight Special also ran some of his “living theater” bits, such as footage of his actual part-time job at a Los Angeles deli that he held down while filming Taxi. In addition to the now-square hosting duties by Wolfman Jack, the choice of musical guests Slim Whitman and Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon further emphasize Andy’s love for old-time showbiz performers. It was intentionally unhip back in 1981, but viewed now, the musical guests add to this theater of the absurd, filmed in front of a classic rock-loving audience (indeed, this DVD foreshadows the current batch of alternative comedians’ preference for performing in rock clubs to more appreciative audiences.)
Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts is a hardback collection of the hate mail and challenges from female viewers that Andy received after his first televised women’s wrestling match (on Saturday Night Live, in 1979.) Andy was definitely a pioneer in trolling, and the collection of typewritten and longhand notes prove that outrageous commenting (complete with grammatical and spelling errors) existed in the pre-Internet era. The pre-selfie photographs of the potential female contestants are a hoot, too. While the messages are the same, I felt a sense of nostalgia while reading the angry letters that people took time and effort to type up and send through postal mail, as well as the multiple tasks involved with including a photo. Nowadays, big-time corporations use stunts like this as co-branded promotions, and would receive hundreds, if not thousands, of photo and text submissions within hours of a public call for entries.
My most recent piece of Kaufman-related memorabilia happened by chance at an antique mall in Petaluma, and was yet again related to a dying medium. With the recent announcement that Playboy magazine would no longer be featuring nude pictorials, I was keeping my eyes peeled for back issues (preferably from the ‘60s and ‘70s – better articles, you know.) As luck would have it, I found an issue chronicling Andy’s Intergender Wrestling Championship match with Susan Smith, the “Miss September” 1981 Playmate. What a find – it was great to see the photos of the press conference and match the way it was intended-on the printed page. The accompanying article is great as well, and while many involved in the match were taking this event seriously, there are several hints (one dropped by Andy’s mother) that suggest that this was another one of Andy’s put-ons. Near the end of the article, the author mentions that all parties involved may have been pawns in a Dada event, which is both insightful and hilarious in that it was probably the first time Dada and professional wrestling were used in the same sentence.
While part of me wishes that Andy had the chance to make one classic movie before he died (?), and had more compilations of his performances, the bits-and-pieces nature of his work makes it easy for newbies to experience via YouTube searches. For fans who remember watching Taxi during its original run, traditional documents of Andy’s work are still out there – you just have to keep your eyes peeled.
About Greg Carlson: I’m a huge movie fan who frequents Scarecrow Video on a regular basis. My top three films are (in random order): “Time Bandits”, “Repo Man”, and “Taxi Driver.” In my spare time, I like to hunt for vinyl records and kitschy items old-school-style, via thrift stores and estate sales – eBay and Craigslist are not part of the strategery.