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Locked in the Punch

Two New Biographies Grapple With Andy's Myth

Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman

Author:Bill Zehme

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted 12/22/1999

To those who hazily remember Andy Kaufman as a supporting player with a silly accent from the sitcom Taxi, the current surge in public interest surrounding him must be puzzling. Why a major motion picture from the director of Amadeus? Why the articles heralding him as a genius? Why discussion of him as though he's still alive, given that he's been gone for 15 years? In anticipation of Milos Forman's big-budget biopic starring Jim Carrey, Man on the Moon, two new biographies tackle Kaufman's mystique. Both books erase all confusion about those first two questions, and, perhaps unintentionally, raise reasonable doubt about the third.

By far the more compelling of the two texts is Andy Kaufman Revealed! by Bob Zmuda (with Matthew Scott Hansen). If you've seen footage of Kaufman performing, you've probably seen Zmuda as well—he's usually the beleaguered stagehand or audience volunteer Kaufman berates to the point of tears or rage. The two recognized each other as kindred spirits from their first meeting at New York's Improv. They would go on to write routines together, co-orchestrate spectacular pranks, and share performing duties as obnoxious alter ego Tony Clifton.

Zmuda's book, then, is the ultimate insider's look at Kaufman's life—although more accurately, it's an intimate portrait of the Zmuda-Kaufman friendship. Zmuda dispenses with biographical niceties and jumps right into his pal's 1984 funeral, documenting the disbelief of even his closest friends that the 35-year-old comic had died. From there, Zmuda delivers unprecedented insight into the mind of a brilliant performance artist who felt the need to offset his rising popularity with stunts that would inspire confusion or even intense hatred amongst his fans.

Picture our heroes flying first class, always leaving a seat between them for a stranger whose stomach would be tested by the nauseating plane-crash-victim photographs Kaufman and Zmuda would pass back and forth. Such personal pranks mirror larger, career-threatening stunts. Zmuda reveals for the first time what motivated Kaufman's obsession with wrestling women (frottage), and the truth behind professional wrestler Jerry Lawler's infamous attack on the comic on Late Night With David Letterman.

Kaufman's best-known character was always the Foreign Man, who later morphed into Latka Gravas on Taxi. As Zmuda skillfully illustrates, the Foreign Man was almost universally misunderstood by fans. There was an aspect of Kaufman that was as gentle and childlike as this character, but originally he used the Foreign Man to confuse his audience, taking them through painfully bad imitations of Ed Sullivan and Archie Bunker before becoming a living, breathing, unaccented Elvis. He would then slip back into Foreign Man, acknowledging applause with an embarrassed "Tank you veddy much," thereby creating doubt as to who the "real" performer was. Zmuda chronicles Kaufman's frustration with playing the same character every week on Taxi, frustration the actor constantly transformed into more extreme acting out.

Perhaps most emblematic of Kaufman's need to toy with his audience was his Tony Clifton character, an aging lounge lizard who insulted five spectators for every song he sang. Amazingly, Zmuda tells us, while "being" Clifton Kaufman would chain smoke, drink to excess, and feast on fatty steaks, whereas the "real" Kaufman was a vegetarian who abhorred tobacco and alcohol. That's a balancing act even an acute sufferer of multiple-personality disorder would be hard pressed to pull off without severe physical repercussions.

The beauty of Zmuda's book is how clearly it communicates his friend's love of the prank. At one point, Zmuda confesses a singularly dark moment in the comic's life. Kaufman's TV special had a segment he called "The Has-Been Corner." He arranged for former Broadway child star Gail Slobodkin, now a grown woman, to perform. Directly afterwards, he asked her how it felt to be washed up and discouraged her from returning to show business. Zmuda admits that Slobodkin cited this national humiliation in her suicide note. Only later do we learn that there was never a note, nor a suicide, and that Slobodkin was in on the gag. Using his readers as guinea pigs to illustrate how a Kaufman prank might unfold brilliantly secures Zmuda's right to be the primary chronicler of his friend's warped mind.

Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman is no slouch of a book either. However, most of its material has been trumped by the earlier release of Zmuda's book, and its style is flawed. Author Bill Zehme is best known for his best-selling Sinatra appreciation, The Way You Wear Your Hat. Zehme writes about Kaufman's childhood in a weird amalgamation of academic writing and first-person baby talk. He relies upon run-on sentences—presumably in an attempt to capture the breathless segues of Kaufman's frantic mind—and punctuates moments in which the comic would be excited (typically involving chocolate consumption or wrestling women) with little asides of "(oh!)" These facile, overbearing techniques simply distract from the book's absorbing content.

That said, certain jewels of information appear only in Zehme's book. No fan should pass up the opportunity to read a synopsis of the Kaufman-Zmuda first draft for their never-filmed Hollywood script, The Tony Clifton Story, a plot so rich in postmodern mind games that it makes Being John Malkovich look like You've Got Mail. Also exclusive to Zehme's book are excerpts from Kaufman's body of unpublished writing, which includes at least three completed novels.

Reading both books is enlightening in the ways they corroborate some of the more outlandish details of Kaufman's life. Both describe Kaufman, pre-fame, springing out of a Vegas hotel closet to confront his hero Elvis Presley and seek the King's blessing. Both books revel in the extreme mayhem caused by Tony Clifton the day he descended upon the Taxi set. Last but not least, both books agree that the next stunt Kaufman was planning to pull before he died of lung cancer was going to be . . . faking his own death by lung cancer.

Zehme avoids investigating the theory that Kaufman still lives, but he meticulously documents the comic's obsession with pulling that elaborate final prank. Zmuda seems fairly certain that Kaufman truly passed on, that friends succeeded in convincing him that faking his own death would be too cruel a joke. Then again, his book's uncertain dedication reads, "Kaufman, if you're still alive, I'll kill you."

In the end, it doesn't matter whether or not Kaufman lives. He was always about truth and deception, mystique and confusion, reality and doubt. Almost all of his performances hinged on his ability to raise doubt in the mind of his audience. He believed in never breaking character and taking every performance well beyond the threshold of "going too far." He created a trash-talking, women-wrestling persona that made people perceive him as a sexist pig, irreparably damaging his career. He was willing to "bomb" on purpose, telling jokes so truly bad that even his diehard fans would believe he'd finally lost it.

Kaufman integrated his death into his art, an act clearly ahead of its time. More relevantly, his lasting, posthumous ability to make us wonder even a little about something so large and final illustrates on a grand scale the process by which we were so completely hoodwinked by the hijinks he pulled while alive. He was always about making us feel stupid. But don't worry: As both Andy Kaufman Revealed! and Lost in the Funhouse illustrate beautifully, he laughed with us, not at us.

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