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Bob Zmuda's memoir Andy
Kaufman Revealed! is both invaluable and exasperating. As Kaufman's writer
and fellow provocateur, Zmuda was involved in all of his best known outrages: he
served as referee (or ringside "lawyer") for the inter-gender wrestling matches,
heckled Kaufman from the audience in televised comedy club appearances, and most
memorably, he helped create Tony Clifton - Kaufman's grotesque lounge lizard alter ego -
then took to playing the role in lieu of Kaufman. Zmuda knows all, and is willing to tell
what he knows.
Since Kaufman's work was so ephemeral (it survives now largely as rumor, stories passed on by people lucky enough to have been shocked by him in a comedy club or on a talk show), Zmuda's book is necessary. This isn't so much a biography as Kaufman's greatest hits.
The stories are everything one could hope for: confounding, ridiculous, hilarious. Much of Kaufman's most intriguing material was played for small audiences who didn't know what they were seeing, and Zmuda goes to great pains to detail these events. A particularly fascinating and indicative tale: Kaufman once agreed to play a Borscht-belt resort, on the condition that his family appear with him. Before a crowd of 600, he trotted them out and made them each perform the songs and jokes they'd been telling each other for years. The crowd, of course, turned hostile at watching a sub-amateur hour talent show. Rather than salvage the evening with a quick bit of crowd-pleasing comedy, Kaufman prompted the family to keep performing for the duration of the show. They were kicked out of the resort later that night.
What does one make of a performance like this? Like all of Kaufman's best work, it defies explication. It's not comedy, per se, though if one is in on the joke it's rather droll. It cruelly victimizes everyone involved but Kaufman. Those closest to him are humiliated, and the paying customers witness a terrible performance. Zmuda believes it was a sort of gift to his family, Kaufman's way of sharing with them the exhilaration and defeats of performance. This is an intriguingly perverse explanation, but it only goes so far, failing utterly to account for the raging hostility necessary to inflict such a show on anyone.
The book has two fundamental problems. First, Zmuda (working with Matthew Scott Hansen) is an indifferent writer. He manages to deflate some of the most entertaining material with leaden prose. Here's his account of a stunning Letterman appearance:
Bringing out three young black men on one of the shows, Andy insisted they call him Dad. Also, that he was thirty-four and they looked to be in their early twenties was unimportant: Andy told Dave they were his kids and he was proud of them...That a nice Jewish boy could father three inner-city youths is ludicrous, and therein lay the humor.
It's a dryly serviceable description, but it loses the shock of the moment. The skit wasn't just ludicrous, it was challenging. It skirts the edge of racism (the joke wouldn't have been nearly as effective with three Morehouse preppies) while forcing the audience to consider their visceral reactions.
One of our favorite taunt tapes had Andy holding up a roll of toilet paper and instructing the poor benighted "bumpkins" of Memphis on its use...The reality was, he actually loved Memphis and found most of the citizens as sophisticated and charming as those in any other place he'd been.
Even if the observation is true, it blunts the glorious ferocity of the performance (best seen in the documentary I'm From Hollywood!). The "joke" depends upon Kaufman's swaggering superiority, and plays upon our worst stereotypes of the Deep South. To tell us that it was all a harmless little joke lets us off the hook (see, we didn't really share his low opinion of the yokels!) far too easily. The more we wonder where Kaufman really stood in relation to his performances, the more we're implicated, and the more powerful the work becomes.