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Lost in the Funhouse (Bill Zehme)


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photo of Andy Kaufman
























































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photo of Andy Kaufman
 
To crack a nut is truly no feat, so no one would ever dare to collect an audience in order to entertain it with nut-cracking. But if all the same one does do that and succeeds in entertaining the public, then it cannot be a matter of simple nut-cracking.

Franz Kafka,
A Hunger Artist



Like never before, this was their time. Those possessed of youth and hubris who stood alone with microphones, telling clubdrunks about their mothers fathers wivesgirlfriendsboyfriends lovetroubles neuroses ethnicities fears, sharing their Observations about life dating commercials hygiene pets fashion fastfood toiletseats politics movies doctorslawyers agentsshrinks conveniencestores hotelrooms airlinemeals sexdrugsandrockandroll--it was their time to say notice me and it began a rush, then an onslaught, wherein more and more of them kept coming forth to display their singular/similar attitudes. And if it were not for this being their time, it could not have also been his time, even though he did not do what they did. He was theater whereas they told jokes--but he belonged with them; there was nowhere else to put him. It was the only context in which he made sense, not that he made sense, not that he ever tried. So the others, the joke people, they always stood in the back of the room, whatever room, to watch what he would do next. To them, he was spectacle and mascot, not a peer; scant few of them could ever manage what might resemble normal conversation with him. He would not/could not drink beer with them or talk sports or chicks or news of the day with them; after his sets, he busied himself with the club's supply of ice cream or chocolate cake, sometimes asking mommyish waitresses to spoon it into his mouth ("I had to feed him as if he were in a highchair," said Zane Busby, who willingly indulged him at Catch. "Like here-comes-the airplane-open-the-hangar-doorrrrr!) But they all watched him work--Robert Klein (revered elder statesman of young comics); Gabe Kaplan (bound for television sitcom); Jimmie Walker (also bound, who observed, "The foreign thing always amazed me because sometimes he actually communicated without speaking English.... People responded and you'd go, 'My God! How is this working?!'"); Freddie Prinze (also bound); Richard Lewis (chief intellectual neurotic, who observed, "Andy was almost like Ionesco doing stand-up"); Richard Belzer (emceed at Catch, often helped lug Andy's props into the club basement before shows, who observed, "I couldn't believe the courage. Either consciously or unconsciously, Andy was challenging and educating audiences, stretching their imaginations.... He made other performers more daring--he had that effect.... He was a performance artist before the term existed"); and Jay Leno (attitudinal iron man, who observed, "Most of us thought he was very funny, but we worried that no one else would get him. We even felt sort of sorry for him.... He just behaved strangely, in order to get a reaction of any kind, even hostile. There were nights at Catch a Rising Star when he would lie onstage in a sleeping bag"). No comic ever wanted to take the stage once he departed from it, for he never left an audience the way he had found it--the room would be transformed, rendered giddy or dizzy or dumbstruck or irate. "It didn't take very long to realize as a young comedian that Andy Kaufman closed the show," said Lewis. "You couldn't follow him unless you just ran around the room setting furniture on fire. I think he tried that, too. He was devastating in every sense, great but sometimes completely insane." Of course, they all believed him to be crazier than they were; he believed it was just the reverse--but only whenever he gave it, or them, thought, which was not usually, not to be aloof no really.

So The New York Times came to take his photograph onstage at the Improvisation in May 1974--about a month after he taped his Dean Martin appearances and about a month before the appearances aired. He was wearing a feathered Indian headdress (his unspoken homage to wrestler Chief Jay Strongbow; he often wore it to and from the club, even on subway trains) and a yellow T-shirt with silkscreened palm trees swaying across his chest which was the sublayer of all other layers and it was the layer he wore when performing at conga the various "folk songs" from his home island of Caspiar to celebrate seasonal harvest. (One such song, "Aba-Dabbi," was performed in native gibberish to the tune of "Alouette"--with perplexed audience sing-along always attendant.) And then the photograph was published in the esteemed newspaper of record on May 28--which could not have been more exciting--since his likeness was featured among pictures of legendary comics Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman and contemporaries David Brenner and Freddie Prinze. But the photos were assembled around a package of stories about the dark and craven lives of comedians, emblazoned with such headlines as IT'S NOT A LAUGHING MATTER, BEING A COMIC THESE DAYS and DESPITE GAINS HERE, IT'S TOUGH TO EARN A LIVING and PSYCHOLOGIST FINDS FUNNY MEN ARE SAD MEN. And the caption beneath his photograph mistakenly identifed him as "Howard Itzkowitz, a young unknown trying out at The Improvisation." And this was his debut in The New York Times. Moreover, he was mentioned in none of the articles therein--although he was rather pleased to have been excluded from the one about a dispiriting survey of fifty-five nationally known comics conducted by a psychologist who pinpointed a common thread of childhood trauma in all of the subjects. Meanwhile, the psychologist--one Dr. Samuel S. Janus--was described in the first paragraph as a former "song-and-dance man on the Catskills borscht circuit." (Oh!) Song-and-dance-man! Well, there was the solution! Never, ever had Andrew G. Kaufman considered himself to be a comedian. And from that moment forward he would traverse great lengths to correct anyone who ever accused him of such. "I never claim to be a funny man, a comedian, or even a talented man," he would say always thereafter. "I'm just going up there and having fun. And if people want to join me, and watch me, have fun with me, then that's...um, fine." And he would conclude always, "What I am is a song-and-dance man!" He thought it sounded jauntier. Anyway, The New York Times said that he wasn't Howard Itzkowitz in a correction printed two days later.

There had been this meditation girl whom he had met not long before leaving Boston and about whom he was crazy. Her name was Kathy Utman--she was a roommate of Prudence Farrow's--and her spritely air and small mellifluous voice enchanted him completely. He had never met such a blissful being--even among all of the other blissful ones. Diminutive, childlike, she seemed to sprinkle love petals wherever she stepped; he often compared her to a pixie named Piccoli from some story he knew--"He said I was like this little fairytale pixie person who came to earth and her job was to make people love each other more and to especially teach all the little boys how to love," she would recall, giggling. He also said that she reminded him of Little Eva from Uncle Tom's Cabin and sent her the book with all of the Little Eva parts marked up. He wrote her fanciful, delirious letters--signed them I could just eat you up or MBFUA!!! ("He said that was the sound of a kiss.") She was a cloud; she loved him back like a cloud might love, couldn't fully commit because she knew he couldn't either really--"I was a little bit careful," she said. But they would play together--when on park lawns he insisted they run in slow motion toward each other with open arms flapping--and she would come to New York early on to see his act at the Bitter End et al. and they maintained an understanding that she, as a cloud, would sweetly hover nearby throughout his life, which she in fact did, more or less, even when she married other guys and in between those marriages as well. "He always said we would live together when we were old. He also said that he heard bells whenever he stood near me."

For this reason, Elayne called her Kathy Bells, not in a bad way, although maybe in an arch-bemused way, as would be her way. But then Elayne was different, like no one else had been or would be--"I was twenty-one years old...street-smart, cynical, and a tough cookie." He met Elayne Boosler not long after Budd Friedman had welcomed him to the performing fraternity of the Improv, where she was a hostess when not slipping onstage to sing, for her dream was to sing herself to riches. The night they connected he had just led the audience--in a bunny hop/conga line--out of the club and onto Ninth Avenue and around the block and back into the club. "I had to seat the whole damn audience again." He was wearing a sweatshirt that said I LOVE GRANDMA which was a new alternate sublayer. She told him, "You're crazy." He replied, not as Foreign Man, "Thank you very much"--and took her to a restaurant in Chinatown for breakfast, where "with a cool move" she signaled a waiter to bring them water, which he later told her was the reason he fell in love with her. She, meanwhile, loved his beautiful big blue eyes and the way he looked so strikingly handsome from behind.

She was brass like he never knew. She was also game and they became characters together--"I happily discovered that whoever he became, I had just the girl for him." At Coney Island, she was the bitchy gum-snapping moll to his Tony Piccinini, "an overconfident, inept Romeo" who loudly promised to win giant stuffed animals for her, drawing large and larger crowds that watched him fail and fail until she stormed off while he called after her, "Sweetheart! Baby! Don't do me like this--I love ya!!" He took her to Times Square porn parlors, where she would pruriently stare over men's shoulders and ahem until the places were emptied. She would accompany Foreign Man to wrestling matches at Madison Square Garden, where he entertained their seating section whenever a behemoth took a questionable fall--"Look at cat! Dat guy is so good, he knock de other guy down weethout even haffing to touch him!" They perfected a volatility that was sometimes real and often not and few witnesses ever knew the difference. Silver Friedman watched one nasty imbroglio unfold late one night on the pavement outside of the Improv--"We heard some shouting and the next thing we knew she was hitting him with her purse. And he was shoving her. Then he grabbed her purse and whacked her with it. And they're haranguing like two cats and didn't care who saw it. It was hysterical. But it was a lover's spat and they were very involved in it. I think it was real. It lasted about six minutes."

On nights when he didn't have to return his father's car to Great Neck, he stayed in her Greenwich Village apartment; Sunday mornings in bed he would read her the funny papers while eating ice cream. She studied his act and understood every nuance--"To listen to your own silence is an amazing secret of comedy," she would observe (without ever having met Maharishi), "and most people are not brave enough to do that. But he could stand there the longest with nothing perceptible happening, and yet so much happened." Whenever she sang at the Improv, however, he left the room; as such, he convinced her to become a comedienne. She had, after all, attitude to spare and had assisted him most splendidly with a character that he had begun developing who wasn't him or Foreign Man but a guy very much like the foul lounge singer he maybe/memorably saw in Las Vegas--Tony Clifton was his name, although nobody in New York knew of him, so he decided to call his character Tony Clifton. (He privately admitted that Richard Belzer, the acidic emcee at Catch who bore no resemblance except in stage demeanor, also partly inspired the character.) Which meant that he abused everyone from the stage while warbling badly while dressed in a dark coat and clip-on bow tie (for now) and wore a little grease paint mustache while singling out some schlub down in front and berating him until this noisy hostess chickie got fed up and bounded onto the stage and climbed on his back and started whaling on him while he insulted her and told her to knock it off with the women's lib jazz and said she oughta go back into the kitchen and raise babies like all chickies were meant to do whereupon she slugged him and he fell and begged for mercy until she left the stage in triumph and he started in again about how she should go back to the kitchen/babies and she moved toward him again and he said he was just kidding and everyone was furious and he would flee as hissing filled room as per busted steam pipe. Anyway, she was funny--could actually make him laugh (nobody else did really)--and so he counseled and coached her (quite incongruously) on how to relate to audiences and break that fourth wall and "come down off the stage"; one night, in desperation, she offered gum to an audience and heard better laughter and she knew she was onto something. No one really understood their relationship, the yin and yang of it, the fire and ice cream of it, although Silver Friedman would note, "I think he released the child in her." And everyone saw his influence when she took to arriving onstage while humming "The Way We Were"--just as Barbra Streisand did at the very beginning of the hit record--except Elayne never sang a word and kept humming and hummed the entire song; it got big, if unusual, laughs.

And they were together, more or less, until he had to leave for California a couple of years later and often he taped their conversations before and afterward, because he had recently begun taping conversations with everyone--street people, cab drivers, old people--and he gave her one tape they made together on which he lectured to her about the semiotics of a performer's fortitude in the face of defeat and she would poignantly play a piece of that lecture (which was a piece of him) near the end of one of her HBO stand-up comedy specials many years hence when she was famous and there was his voice, insistent and helpful--"...You're on a railroad train, you go through a tunnel. The tunnel is dark but you're still going forward. Just remember that. But if you're not gonna get up onstage for one night, because you're discouraged or something, then the train's gonna stop. You're still in the tunnel, but the train's gonna stop. [So] you [have to] just keep going.... It's gonna take a lot of times going onstage before you can come out of the tunnel and things get bright again. But you keep going onstage--go forward! Every night, you go onstage."


Every night, he went onstage and most nights received no pay other than spotlight and, with luck, applause--for this was policy at the Improv and at Catch a Rising Star, although Rick Newman graciously permitted performers to order from the menu, which in Andy's case meant dessert, preferably chocolate. And because he went onstage every night on as many stages as would have him, he was pitifully broke most of the time and was forced to consider a life in the theater and began filling up his daybook that spring of 1974 with times and locales of open casting-call auditions for chorus members and male lead singers and male dancers (he was, after all, a song-and-dance man) for such Broadway and road-company and dinner-theater productions as Grease and Pippin and Kiss Me Kate and South Pacific and I Do, I Do--and he was, of course, uniformly dismissed as hopeless in each instance. He also failed at an Equity chorus call for The Music Man, even though he was every bit the blithe and sly con man that Professor Harold Hill was--had even been deeply inspired by Professor Hill as played by the actor Robert Preston; had even taught himself two years earlier all five parts of Act One, Scene One, the convoluted multivoiced "Cash for the Merchandise" number, in which the traveling salesmen in the train car natter on in oddball synchopation about their desperate racket. (He had practiced all five parts with congas and thought he might at least put the piece in his act one day.) Meanwhile, Foreign Man was now getting so much exposure in the clubs that he needed fresh inept material to provide further journeys into the pathos, so he came up with new, um, jokes--like the one about a little boy named Jesus--not the same Jesus that live in de church, you know--whose mother sends him to the market for a quart of milk and a pound of butter but Jesus he say but Mommy I don't know how to go to de market and she say don't worry just follow de people but it was Sunday so de people was going into de church so Jesus followed them into the church and he see de man on his stage go, "Oh Jesus! What do you want?" (So, vait-vait until de punch!) So de little boy he say, "A dozen eggs and a pound of butter--" (Oh, oh no I am sorry.) He say, "A quart of milk and a pound of butter!" You know, because he thought that de church was de market, and that de man was talking to him, you know, because de man say Jesus and de little boy his name was Jesus. Do you understand?) Tenk you veddy much. And then there was the one about the four men on de aeroplane and it was going to, um, sink, so the men needed to get out and so the first man, from Texas, jumps and, as he does, he says "Remember the Alamo!" And the next man, from France, jumps and says "Vive la France!" So eet was only a man from England and a man from New York. So de man from England push out de man from New York. And as he push him, he say . . . eehh, something dat was very funny, but I don't remember what eet was. But but eet was very funny. Tenk you veddy much!

On May 23 (2:00 A.M.), he had begun to diagram on five-by-eight index cards many strange and ambitious new ideas for the act, first inventorying the plethora of people who lived within him and his various plans for each--BRITISH MAN (reads book, is interrupted by dissatisfied audience, continues reading, is humiliated, closes book); TONY CLIFTON (raps, "funny" stories, sings Charlie Brown, women's lib argument, threatened by husband, punched down by lady); LAUGHING MAN (comes out, laughs, tries to speak, raps about kids these days, takes encores & begs off; FOREIGN MAN (tells jokes, stories, Mighty Mouse, Conga Drums, retires from show business > Crying--OR becomes Elvis); BLISS NINNY (talks nice--I love you all, etc., repeat after me: Hello trees, etc., Oohhh); DUMB MAN; PRESIDENT (?); SLEEPING MAN (?); BORED ANGRY MAN; NEBBISH MAN (funny pathetic voice); PARANOID COMEDIAN; SOUTHERN MAN (cowboy country singer); DRUNK (?); WRESTLERS; CRYING MAN; NERVOUS MAN (wears earplugs, can't stand noise); CRAB (cigar-smoking, thicklipped grouch); THE TELEVISION (have a TV character pop out of screen and become live--maybe the bad guy). This last would require greater technical advancement than had been developed by 1974, especially for nightclub stages--but a mad visionary appeared to be at work. And for the next three weeks, in the hours just before sunrise, he drew up plot-twist scenarios that placed these people onstage, one after the other, and sometimes all at once, and sometimes all of them coming through the television screen, and sometimes getting into wrestling matches with each other, or appearing on a mock Dating Game, and there would be Applause & Reaction signs that lit up (at inappropriate times so as to goad audiences) and an anticlimax wherein character unresolved yet forgotten (possibly disliked by audience) returns to be resolved, or else there could also even be an onstage Tornado changing everyone's lives in the middle (or maybe end).

Certain people inside him had been showing up in clubs by now--not with him or anywhere near him, because he wasn't there when they were, which came to be understood when they did not respond to conspiratorial winks or hey Andys. Tony Clifton was making himself known, as was British Man, whose clipped accent faltered as often as his starched readings of The Great Gatsby--British Man was, for reasons unknown, a proponent of Great American Literature. "He would start by reading all the copyright information and small print in the front of the book," said Rick Newman. "The crowd would seem amused at first, then as he kept reading and got two pages into the first chapter, some people would get up to leave. But he wanted that." A protracted negotiation with the audience ever ensued, during which a rattled British Man always tried to press on through the indignation--"Everyone would go booooo boooooo," he later explained. "And I'd say, 'Now, look! If you're not quiet, I will have to close the book and forget about the whole thing!' And there would be cheers. Um, you know, I would just do it for their reactions." (Years afterward, a false legend circulated that he had read the entire book to an audience in Fairfield, Iowa--home of Maharishi International University--because the Midwestern bliss people were simply too polite to leave. In fact, he rarely finished the first chapter anywhere, much less two pages. But he liked telling that story.) Sometimes, if he disliked an audience--"like when they would be so terrible and rude and I felt no satisfaction performing my regular act for them"--he would open the book and begin reading in his own voice. At Catch, he once sent Sleeping Man forth to try it--"He took the book, the microphone and a flashlight with him into his sleeping bag," said Newman, "then read it while zipped up inside. It looked like a talking sandbag onstage."

Meanwhile, he had begun cross-breeding Laughing Man with Bliss Ninny (adding a dash of Clifton) to create Nathan Richards, perhaps the happiest and most unctuous entertainer ever to tread boards. Dennis Raimondi, a TM follower who had become a close friend through Kathy Utman, observed Richards in early club development--"He was the kind of guy who bounced onto the stage and just gushed: 'Hey, ho ho ho how ya doin' it's great to be here you're such a beautiful audience you are beautiful people and I'd like to sing for you because you're just so special to me....' He would just be, you know, a little bit too blissful. And he'd wander through the audience and sing to them--'I have often walked down this street beforrre thank you thank you'--and kiss the women, most of whom just pushed him away. And he'd say, 'Come on, you love it and you know it, baby!' Then after the song he'd say, 'Gosh, I'd love to stay and sing for you all night, but I have another gig.' Then he'd run offstage to no actual applause, then come back and say, 'All right, I'll do another song just because--' He would do that like ten times. Some people were ready to throw dynamite at him. Then again, other people actually believed he was for real and enjoyed him. Once, we were out in front of Catch a Rising Star afterward and a lady came up to tell him, 'Nathan, you really have a beautiful voice!' And Andy looked at me after she left and said, 'Sometimes I think they'll never understand what I'm doing.'"

 
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Excerpted from Lost in the Funhouse by Bill Zehme. Copyright © 1999 by Bill Zehme. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Dell, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.