Comic Genius or Piranha Food?

andykI’ve been going to bed with my I-pad and mining YouTube starting each night with a lecture on physics. Once I weary of Einstein’s world I retreat into the same situation comedy escapism that kept me sane thirty years ago when I was first teaching grade school science: Taxi. Taxi ran for six years, had great writing and featured Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Judd Hirsh, Christopher Lloyd, Tony Danza, Jeff Conaway, and the incomparable Andy Kaufman as Latka Graves.

Kaufman died in 1984 at thirty-five and it is about him I write.

The other night after watching the show, I diverted into other television appearances by Kaufman, including some extremely awkward David Letterman shows. Television loves a train wreck and Kaufman’s appearances on Letterman and The Tonight Show with the great Johnny Carson were often just that. You (and the hosts) never knew what was coming. Sometimes he would do a straight and energetic Elvis impersonation, sometimes the persona, Foreign Man (?), which Taxi integrated into the show as Latka, the gibberish speaking country peasant, while on one Letterman show Kaufman appears in a depressed stupor and speaks directly to the audience about bleak and disturbing details of his personal life. The audience, uneasy and off-balance, struggle to laugh as if trying to right the ship of a comedic performance. Then, there was his bombastic wrestling phase, when he challenged all, especially women, to a go-around on the mats.

At his best and worst, you never knew exactly what Kaufman was up to. The only clues were the reactions by Carson or Letterman to Kaufman’s behavior, because even the late Carson and Letterman, who can go very deep in their appreciation of comedy, generally want their guests to be uplifting funny not existentialist angst down.

According to the Andy Kaufman site on Wikipedia, Kaufman disliked being characterized as a comedian, rather instead saw himself as a performance artist. And when you watch his body of work, from Taxi, to the talk show appearances, to an episode of his own show where he interviews his ex-partner Elaine Boosler from an elevated host’s desk that renders all host guest interactions surreal, you never know if he is completely nuts or totally in control of his own iconoclastic art. He reminds me of Tom Waits’, another performer who seldom breaks from the carney-down-on-his-luck-gambler-trucker-on-the road-characters that fill his songs and live performances.

The legends of artists who die young often surpass the reality of their lives. Kaufman has been lauded for his genius and there are plenty of theories about the nature of his work. Was Kaufman a comic genius or was he simply crazy? Was he deliberately obscuring the lines of entertainment and reality?  Was he a cultural revolutionary exploring and pushing with an incisive mind, or was he just a tormented and talented guy on which the popular culture piranhas fed?

I’m sure the people in his life know, but I don’t. But man, the guy was full of energy and talent and I love watching him. “Thank You Very Much.”