Man on the Moon, Milos Forman’s new film biography of Andy Kaufman, opens with a bit borrowed from The Andy Kaufman Special, a TV show the comedian made for ABC in 1977. Jim Carrey plays Kaufman as Foreign Man (better known as Latka Gravas from Taxi); he fidgets, his eyes dart around, he stammers out a welcome and an apology. The film is terrible, he says, full of distortions and lies, so he’s edited it down to this: nothing. The gag plays out through credits and a blackout, then Carrey as Andy returns and takes it all back. He’s just been weeding out the bad audience members, he explains–the film is excellent and very funny.
Unfortunately he’s lying: the generic script sticks mostly to the misunderstood-yet-cuddly-genius line, avoiding the question of whether Andy Kaufman might have been mentally ill or, as many had concluded by the time he died in 1984, just an asshole. The film is also wildly inaccurate. Two recent books, Bill Zehme’s Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman and Bob Zmuda’s Andy Kaufman Revealed!, take a closer look at Kaufman. Each contains its share of disinformation too, but both paint him as a canny oddball whose whole life was a performance, one that ultimately may have overtaken him.
The books complement each other: Zehme’s biography is comprehensive, its psychological conjecture scaffolded by a meticulous reconstruction of Kaufman’s life; Zmuda’s is less ambitious, a memoir that recounts his years as Kaufman’s writer and coconspirator, the period when Kaufman was most in the public eye, without much concern for who he “really” was. Still, Zmuda’s backstage stories offer real glimpses of what Zehme frames but wistfully concedes he can’t fill in, at least not without skeptical question marks: the incidental, “off” Kaufman and the inner workings of his incessant cons. The books inform each other, but with two qualifications: you’ve got to take Zmuda at his word and buy into Zehme’s psychologizing, both treacherous propositions.
Lost in the Funhouse tells Kaufman’s story from a jumble of fragmentary perspectives, a collection of voices that sometimes echo his stage personae and other times read like the musings of a distanced Kaufman observing himself. In an ingenious turn Zehme steals pages from Kaufman’s own books, excerpting passages from two unfinished novels: a fantastic, monolithic bio of an Elvis figure called God, or Gosh, and a fantastic, monolithic bio of a transparent Kaufman surrogate, called The Huey Williams Story. The second pays abortive third-person visits to formative moments in Andy’s life, and using Kaufman’s biographical fakery as a point of departure, Zehme adopts the voice of a bogus Boswell, filling in between words and phrases (in bold) with sentences and paragraphs of his own (in italics). He becomes Kaufman describing/fictionalizing the seeds of his future successes, a pseudoautobiographer. Then the italic voice swells, drifting toward conventional narration–whatever that means in this context–and the objective narration, almost forgotten, diversifies into a variety of third-person snapshots, some placeable, some indeterminate. Where one ends and another picks up is sometimes unclear, and the eruption of future events into the chronology only adds to the confusion. But Zehme shapes the jumble into a model of Kaufman’s psyche.
Phony third-person descriptions of first-person events are a hallmark of youthful self-dramatization but can also indicate instability–the affectation is harmless unless it’s not entirely an affectation. It could be a divided consciousness that makes the victim either a spectator to himself or the perpetual subject of blank autoscrutiny. Zehme suggests that Kaufman shuttled between the poles of just such a consciousness, and that The Huey Williams Story, like his stage characters, sprang from a sinister intersection of fantasy and insanity: the imaginary friend, the invention that’s harmless unless it doesn’t go away.
Kaufman’s invention was named Dhrupick, we’re told, and he never went away; he grew and split into a succession of alter egos, finally mutating into a predatory doppelganger that ruined Kaufman’s career and poisoned his soul. Zehme characterizes Kaufman as neurotic, not psychotic, as aware of this process and perhaps complicit in it; and Kaufman’s notorious self-fictionalization, combined with Zehme’s weird floating perspective, makes the whole book seem a little suspect, maybe just another con. Trying to psychoanalyze Kaufman plays into a classic Kaufman trap, sprung on late-70s critics whose pans took his unbalanced performances at face value.
But if it’s a con it was presumably begun by Kaufman himself, and it’s a compelling metaphor the way Zehme lays it out: “He had to name Dhrupick himself, because nobody else ever saw Dhrupick, or they didn’t know that they saw him even when they saw him. And also, since Dhrupick was his exact replicate, he could be Dhrupick when he wasn’t himself, which was often, eventually more and more so. . . . He would later tell some person, ‘Every once in a while, every week or two, I would wake up in the morning and I would say, “I think I’ll be Dhrupick.” D-h-r-u, I think, p-i-c-k.'”
This is Zehme’s page-one opener. Part of the quote could be attributed to Kaufman, but only on the authority of some person, and the rest of it seems to be Zehme, but in a voice that’s far from objective. The instant embedding of vaguely ascribed quotes within quotes signals the kind of guessing game the book will be, another purposeful echo of Kaufman’s onstage guessing games. It’s also arguably how Dhrupick would describe himself–that is, by describing Kaufman describing/discovering him. Mercifully, Zehme settles into less elusive archaeology within a few pages.
Kaufman was born in Queens, New York, on January 17, 1949. His family says he got his start in showbiz at nine months, when he learned to operate a portable Victrola through the bars of his crib; by four years he’d begun performing for an invisible camera in his bedroom wall. By then the Kaufmans had moved to Great Neck, Long Island, an upper-middle-class suburb known for its swell former residents Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald–in fact The Great Gatsby had been written about a mile from the Kaufman home. Stanley Kaufman was a thrice-decorated war hero who sublimated a performing itch into selling jewelry for his father, Paul (himself “a barely repressed showman”). Andy’s mother was a former teen fashion model. Andy was the first of three children, reportedly beloved by all, especially his grandfathers Cy, a profoundly gentle man who Stanley calls “the love of Andy’s life,” and Paul, who’d bought the Victrola and who first taught Andy the art of bombing. Performing at childhood parties, Paul would purposely bungle magic tricks and fumble with musical instruments, his face creased with dismay, to the delight of the screaming tots.
Yet Andy was already withdrawn, Zehme offering no explanation beyond the death of Cy and the birth of brother Michael. While the other kids were outside playing, Kaufman sequestered himself, rehearsing, pantomiming. According to Zehme, Kaufman was already performing for Dhrupick or for himself-as-Dhrupick. “He and/or Dhrupick became many characters and now the characters were working regularly. They made noises that burst out of him; he was a crowd; he was a spectacle.” The characters were inspired by a steady diet of cartoons, monster movies, variety shows, and wrestling matches from the infant days of television. At just the age when most children outgrow their imaginary friends, Zehme suggests, Kaufman began growing into his. Eventually the impressions would become differentiated, codified, finally blossoming into personae he could manipulate, less hyperinflated ego than a kind of puppetry. “Howdy had Buffalo Bob and what great pals they were! One really couldn’t exist without the other (they even sort of sounded alike), it seemed to him. . . . Superman was two guys who were one guy. Popeye ate spinach and became a different/same Popeye.”
Zehme catalogs the rest of Kaufman’s early pop culture heroes: Fabian, Elvis, wrestling villain Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers, conga player extraordinaire Babatunde Olatunji. He describes some of Kaufman’s habits, mannerisms, occupations: staging surreal “fights” with himself on the school playground, wearing ludicrously layered clothing he’d agonizingly, endlessly remove once indoors to a chorus of stares. The childhood heroes, Zehme argues, generated the adult comic’s shtick, not as rediscoveries but as steady, perhaps arrested obsessions. As an adolescent Kaufman was sent to various shrinks, occasions he’s said to have treated almost like auditions, glowing with cocksure diagnosability. Visits to a sideshow, Hubert’s Museum & Live Flea Circus, convinced him that what was different, freakish, out-of-the-ordinary about something was precisely what made it interesting or entertaining.
He discovered Hubert Selby Jr. and Jack Kerouac, wrote a disaffected novel (The Hollering Mangoo) and incomprehensible poems, all rage and outsider angst. He discovered drugs and alcohol, fell in with a group of likable delinquents who called themselves F Troop after the bumbling TV heroes, and explored the new outlet of spontaneous guerrilla street theater, in-character put-ons to terrify the squares. In 1967 he was classified 4-F, a “paranoid schizophrenic with psychotic tendencies,” an achievement of which he was reportedly proud. The F Troop dispersed to college and elsewhere, leaving Kaufman alone again. He began perfecting his Elvis character, an impression that would supposedly become the King’s favorite, and his Foreign Man, who would later get his phony name and a smudged-up jumpsuit from the “writers” of Taxi. He moved to Boston and enrolled in Grahm Junior College, studying TV production; he hosted a Howdy Doody-style children’s show for closed-circuit campus TV, complete with beatnik puppets. Then he discovered transcendental meditation, which he would always claim with wide-eyed fervor had saved him from the gutter.
In accordance with TM doctrine Kaufman had to clean up his act; he became a teetotaler and later a vegetarian. Meditation, he said, gives “deep rest and expands your consciousness and gets rid of things that are holding you back.” Zehme credits it with conquering Kaufman’s shyness and adding crucial focus and command to his burgeoning one-man troupe. In 1969 he found a mentor in Prudence Farrow (of “Dear Prudence” fame), and in 1971 he attended a retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the Mediterranean island of Majorca. Near the end of the retreat he asked the Maharishi about craziness or strangeness in an entertainer or comedian, eliciting a response that would later be archived under the heading “Maharishi on the Value of Entertainment”: “Oddness, according to his holiness, was simply a tool with which to create contrasts for an audience…the comedian’s craft, he said, was akin to building two walls side by side and leaving a space in between. The mere presence of those two walls then creates a contrast based on an awareness of the space.” Zehme-as-Dhrupick labels this the last piece of the puzzle, the key to Kaufman’s conception of his art. He would practice TM for the rest of his life, even teaching at various retreats in the 70s.
He began performing at clubs, graduating to gigs at the Improv and Catch a Rising Star in New York. Stand-up was enjoying a revival, but Kaufman wasn’t doing comedy–he’d sleep onstage; he’d lie in a sleeping bag reading; he’d break down. It was more art than entertainment and more performance than art, but a quick look at his contemporaries–Steve Martin, Robin Williams, George Carlin–reminds us that 70s comedians could be less formulaic and more conceptual. Certainly such peers made for a sophisticated audience. One night Kaufman met a flesh-and-blood Dhrupick that he conned without hesitation.
Bob Zmuda met Kaufman at the Improv in 1973. Kaufman had done his first realized piece, the Foreign Man-to-Elvis transformation, in which he would shift from absolute incompetence to utter command, then acknowledge the audience’s cheers with a meek “tenk you veddy much.” Its basic arc, one that confuses and tests an audience before rewarding it, is cited by comics as the essence of Kaufman’s approach. A template for all his cons–establishing a premise, then inverting it–and for the art he was to make of “dying” onstage, it impressed Zmuda. When he went backstage after the show, Kaufman convinced him that he was Foreign Man, had a bad back, and needed someone to load up his equipment. After Zmuda finished helping him, Kaufman leaped into his car and sped away, spitting out a decidedly American “Sucker!” Zmuda was even more impressed.
A struggling actor from the northwest side of Chicago, Zmuda convinced his New York roommate, struggling actor Chris Albrecht, to join him in doing comedy. Zmuda had done situationist-style street theater in Chicago–one stunt involved spreading the “troupe” out along a bus route and each player beginning to cough once he was on the bus, until even the driver started coughing. A participant in the riots at the ’68 Democratic convention and then an avid Second City fan, Zmuda claims his sense of humor was confrontational from the start, designed to explode hypocrisy and perforate illusion by holding it up to the light. His mimicry of Kaufman’s routine was good enough to hook Albrecht, but the pair didn’t have any material. Undiscouraged, they pretended they had an act until they were onstage. As a result of their botched audition, Albrecht ended up managing the Improv, and he got Zmuda a job working for someone Zmuda calls Mr. X (Zehme calls him Norman Wexler).
Zmuda makes a big deal of not revealing Wexler’s name, claiming he’s still afraid of how Mr. X might retaliate if he were identified. This reeks of a put-on (in fact, Wexler died last August), probably designed to emphasize X’s mythic qualities, yet the bare facts are pretty emphatic already. Wexler was the respected screenwriter of such angry antiestablishment films as Joe and Serpico, yet he had the appearance (and odor) of a filthy, hardened derelict. Zmuda says his job was to assist Mr. X as he rode around in a limo, spewing invective and audiotaping people 24 hours a day. “He would venture out daily to manufacture and electronically document real conflict and then immediately adapt the experience to whatever project he was writing,” says Zmuda. “This sounds relatively safe until you discover that most of Mr. X’s characters were in constant mortal danger.” Mr. X would provoke his subjects well beyond the predictable response and often chose tough customers. His more notable exploits included crashing a Mafia birthday party and publicly relieving himself in an airport concourse. Mr. X bought and discarded three brand-new recorders each day (“The CIA might be taping us”) and told Zmuda that “the Nazis wanted to destroy the Poles…because the Poles were developing extraordinary powers of ESP.”
After three harrowing weeks with Mr. X, Zmuda had had enough. Yet X was notorious at the Improv, and Kaufman was fascinated by him. One night he asked Zmuda to come help with a performance, pumping him for stories: “Mr. X’s totally sociopathic behavior transfixed him.” Kaufman’s full roster of characters was now established, but he was perfecting a last, nightmarish incarnation of his old friend Dhrupick–grotesque Vegas lounge singer Tony Clifton. Kaufman’s Foreign Man, says Zmuda, “was so sweet and gentle, a magical creation, yet Tony Clifton’s unredeeming cruelty had a power all its own. Suddenly it hit me: Tony was the bastard son of Mr. X.” According to Zmuda, Kaufman debuted Clifton that night, with Zmuda as his first sacrificial audience plant–“He poured a full glass of Chianti over my head”–and their friendship was sealed.
They planned and executed more theater-of-life hoaxes, convincing unsuspecting crowds that they were deadly enemies, that they were both horribly, messily ill. “Andy and I were very seldom in the moment,” says Zmuda. “Our times together were often lived in sheer fantasy. Together we played out hundreds of television and movie scenarios, casting ourselves as various characters and then performing the roles.” Kaufman told Zmuda that one day, when he was famous, he’d make Zmuda his writer. Then on the first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975, Kaufman broke across America. Performing one of his oldest bits, he played a record of the Mighty Mouse theme, tapping his feet, coming to life only to lip-synch the line “Here I come to save the day!” That night it killed, and Kaufman’s career took off. In 1976 he moved to Hollywood. “Look, you’re still going to be my writer,” Zmuda quotes him as saying. “But I just need to go out and get settled in.” Zmuda remained in New York, later drifting into San Diego and stoned apathy, dully aware of the boat he’d missed: “Andy was no longer alone in his room with an imaginary friend–that imaginary friend was now real. The only problem was that Andy was moving his room to the West Coast without me.”
At least that’s how Zmuda pitches it. Zehme presents him as entirely peripheral until Kaufman’s later years. He’s often been characterized by Kaufman’s fans and colleagues as a leech who made a career out of bringing out the worst in Kaufman. The publication of his book and his role as coexecutive producer of Man on the Moon hardly refute the notion. But then, Zmuda very publicly played Tony Clifton’s sidekick Bugsy and Memphis Mafia sycophant Red West to Kaufman’s Elvis on SNL. The pair encouraged amateur psychoanalysis in the press and leaked phony scandals to eavesdropping tabloid reporters, so it’s just as likely that they agreed to demonize Zmuda, leading people to think they’d drawn the conclusion themselves. So when Zmuda calls the wrestling sexcapades of the early 80s “good clean fun” and explains that part of their overall con was to conceal his role as Kaufman’s writer, one wonders whether skepticism or credulity is the more cynical response.
But perhaps the ambiguity confirms that Zmuda was a privileged dweller in Kaufman’s fun house. One of Zmuda’s principal storytelling techniques is to explain how a con was played, then describe how he and Kaufman in fact executed it, which reproduces the profound doubt of a Kaufman performance. He makes himself difficult to believe and then throws down “facts” about his relationship with Kaufman that would be dubious in any context. He claims that his connection with Kaufman began in 1962, when he saw Turko the Half Man at a sideshow at Riverview and Kaufman would see the same freak later that summer at Hubert’s. Later he implies that in 1977 Kaufman sent him a psychic message telling him to quit his job in San Diego and await a message from Kaufman’s manager, George Shapiro. If nothing else, these whoppers are exactly what you’d expect from a confidant of Kaufman’s.
After permanently relocating to the west coast, Kaufman started popping up on TV more often and headlined regularly at the LA Improv. Yet his exposure threatened to defuse his comedic bombs. His humor relied on novelty and surprise; if the audience knew Foreign Man was just a character as he took the stage, his transformation into Elvis would have no weight. If they knew that Kaufman’s biggest joke was how unfunny he could be, their laughter would become conventional. TV was making him and unmaking him at the same time, broadcasting his tried-and-true routines to their greatest success ever and in the same stroke rendering them unperformable.
According to Zehme, Kaufman was afraid that TV only wanted Foreign Man, and he was right. Dick Van Dyke, Johnny Carson, the creators of Taxi–they all wanted Foreign Man, and only Foreign Man. Kaufman resented the pigeonholing. “Foreign Man was only a small part of his repertory company,” adds Zehme-as-Dhrupick. So he would become really unfunny, not just Foreign Man unfunny–he’d demonstrate just how unfunny his unfunniness could be. He would call himself a “song-and-dance man.” He sent for Zmuda, his partner in crime, and became Tony Clifton again, more Clifton than Clifton had ever been. Just to show them.
It was bombing elevated to a new level. Kaufman and Zmuda designed a new elaborate, unrecognizable costume and makeup for Clifton, plotted worse and worse atrocities in an ever mounting assault on the audience–which occasionally led to assault by the audience. He began opening for himself as Clifton, loudly and unbelievably disavowing any connection to “Kough-man.” Other Ugly Andys began to surface, usually introduced with disarming sincerity as “the real me.” There was the casually cruel Andy of the Has-Been Corner (“When did you first realize you weren’t going to make it?”). There was the two-faced Andy who hosted the Midnight Snacks “talk shows” at the Improv, who’d speak sweetness and light into the “camera,” then spew profanity and abuse during the “commercials” (a riff lifted from Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd and later appropriated by Tim Meadows playing Bryant Gumbel on SNL). He made a science of inspiring hatred and significantly directed much of it at the lies of showbiz. Still his star ascended. In 1977 he signed the contract that would put him on Taxi, a handful of TV specials, and a pilot and late-night special of his own. Kaufman insisted that Clifton also be signed for several appearances on Taxi, and he got his way. It may have been his high-water mark.
Zmuda crafted a new resolution to Kaufman’s British Man routine for an SNL appearance. The standard routine was a matter of goading the audience into revolt by reading The Great Gatsby aloud with a pretentious accent, then closing the book and threatening not to finish if they wouldn’t settle down. Repeat as necessary. The Zmuda version crossed it with the Mighty Mouse routine, which everyone loved: Kaufman dangled the positive reinforcement of playing “a music record” to the audience if they’d settle down. They didn’t, and when an angry Kaufman threw on the record anyway, to sudden cheers–Here’s your damn music!–it was a scratchy recording of British Man reading Gatsby. In “Variations on a Theme,” Kaufman’s routine is “killed” by heckler Zmuda, who then kills the routine again by revealing he’s a plant. Kaufman’s 1979 shows at LA’s Huntington Hartford Theater and at Carnegie Hall were received with something like wonderment.
But a new tone creeps into both books with the centerpiece/apocalypse of Kaufman’s career, his first major project cowritten and produced with Zmuda: The Andy Kaufman Special. Filled with exquisite silences, often excruciating to watch, intermittently hilarious and discomforting, and all by design, the special stands up as riveting antientertainment for the ages. It combines classic bits and new routines starring various Ugly Andys and their victims, strung together with the fake talk-show format. Cindy Williams (whose career was also sabotaged by TV exposure) appears opposite Host Andy’s towering, too-high desk, their talk-show chat grinding into the awkwardness of a genuinely uninteresting conversation. Then Kaufman makes her sing an impromptu “Mack the Knife,” impatiently feeding her lyrics when she stumbles. Later, during the Has-Been Corner, he berates Zmuda in the background while former child star Gail Slobodkin sings, pushing him off-camera when he realizes he’s in the shot. Cynical Children’s TV Host Andy complains that the chocolate milk he’s hawking has given him an ulcer (Krusty the Clown, anyone?). There’s a conga bit, an Elvis song, and then near the end a downright disturbing scene in which Kaufman meets Howdy Doody.
The on-screen meeting and its rehearsal and production were equally, creepily symbolic. A rapt Kaufman expresses his devotion to the marionette, asks to touch him and shake his hand, wonders if living in a box gets boring. He sits beside the puppet, at one point remarking that even though he can see Howdy’s strings, to him Howdy is “just as real as anyone else who’s on this show.” Zehme recounts how Buffalo Bob was flown in to record Howdy’s voice, “which kept dislodging itself into phlegmy coughing spasms during the sound recording session, which frightened Andy–especially when Buffalo Bob gagged at one point and blurted, ‘Could I have a drink of water? My fuckin’ throat is killin’ me!'” Both authors describe Kaufman’s hysterical outburst during a dry run that employed the telegenic stand-in Photo Doody. “That’s not Howdy!” he screamed. “That’s an impostor!”
Fred Silverman, the president of ABC, took one look at the special and refused to air it; it wouldn’t be broadcast until 1979. Ten days after the taping, Elvis died. Later in the year Kaufman “died” as “the real me” with Johnny Carson and wasn’t asked back. Taxi had become a hit in 1978, branding him as Latka Gravas, funny-bumbling-cute-safe Dhrupick. The wrath of Clifton was mighty.
When Clifton’s episodes of Taxi came around, Kaufman stayed in character on the set. A hooker on each tuxedoed arm, cigarette in one hand, flask in the other, he blew all his lines, pushed for his own ad-libs and rewrites between takes, continually stepped on cast members’ toes, and eventually brought production to a halt. Before he was fired Kaufman convinced producer Ed Weinberger to collaborate in a public execution and have him forcibly removed from the set, to the shock and annoyance of the cast and crew. In another stunt that was broadcast on the Ohio children’s show Bananaz, Zmuda played Dr. Zmudee, “expert on psychogenesis,” and bored a crowd of youngsters to tears before Kaufman upstaged him completely in a walk-on he refused to walk out of. The bit ended in an onstage brawl initiated by the snubbed doctor. After suffering minor slights backstage at a Dinah Shore taping, Kaufman-as-Clifton got smashed in his dressing room and bullied the singer, who allegedly wasn’t in on any joke. Again he was removed from the set.
Some wondered if Clifton was even an act. “Tony drank, smoked, ate meat, and picked up hookers right off the street corner–things Andy would never do,” Zmuda reports. Kaufman was obsessive-compulsive, which Zmuda thinks may have been reflected in the precise, unchanging patterns of some of his routines. Like Zehme, he hedges on the question of whether Kaufman’s characters, Clifton in particular, stemmed from a multiple personality disorder. “One expert felt that Andy might have been demonstrating a rare case of ‘controlled’ MPD,” says Zmuda, “in that, unlike most other sufferers of MPD, Andy could actually regulate his disorder, calling it up almost like a channeler.” But that “expert” may be none other than Dr. Zmudee; Clifton was designed to make Kaufman look crazy, a craziness that’s become part of his legend. Like the wrestling.
Zmuda set up Kaufman’s first private wrestling match in 1978, actually a contest between two female friends based on a rumor that Elvis had a wrestling fetish. Kaufman ended up wrestling and sleeping with one of them, which would become the formula for hundreds of subsequent conquests. Zmuda and Kaufman soon incorporated “intergender wrestling” into Kaufman’s act, initially on college tours and then on SNL. Neither author makes excuses for Kaufman–for him, wrestling was a turn-on and, even in the context of his show, a shtick for getting laid. (Midway through most matches Kaufman would invite his opponent to join him after the show, and according to Zmuda about a third of them weren’t hard to convince; eventually Kaufman would install a wrestling mat next to his bed.) But wrestling was also another childhood passion that perfectly matched his choreographed fakery and manufactured conflict, well suited to stoking the audience’s scorn. Only the sexist goading was entirely phony, yet it polarized his fans as never before and generated a backlash that would only begin with demands that Kaufman wrestle a man.
At which point the tellings necessarily diverge. Zehme plays an imaginary Dhrupick while Zmuda may have been a real one. As Kaufman’s program of audience confoundment spirals into anarchy, Zmuda describes with relish the crowd’s anger and alienation–after all, that was the goal of the con. He characterizes these hijinks as harmless adolescent thrills; a lot of it reads like a Porky’s script (This is so great!). But Zehme can’t ignore how these late “successes” whittled away at Kaufman’s popularity, how the “genius” of Clifton nearly destroyed Kaufman’s career. He’s also more ambivalent about whether Clifton’s brutish persona might have been a smoke screen for Kaufman’s vices and compulsions.
The Clifton era produced some astonishing victories. Having convinced almost everyone that he was the poisonous personality behind the lounge singer, Kaufman pulled the rug out again, outfitting his brother Michael as Clifton so they could appear together onstage. Later he set up Zmuda as a rogue Clifton who played casinos and appeared on Letterman to audiences certain they were seeing Kaufman. The wrestling shtick climaxed in Memphis with the famous Jerry Lawler fights in 1982 (which left Kaufman in a neck brace). Some would say the 12,000 or so wrestling fans that filled the Mid-South Coliseum, screaming for Kaufman’s blood, represent his greatest feat of audience manipulation–which sounds reasonable until you remember that his “injury” in the ring and his subsequent televised altercations with Lawler managed to convince a much larger audience–for a few minutes at least–that TV wrestling was real.
Outside of Memphis, however, Kaufman’s career was disintegrating. Zehme describes the sex-and-wrestling adventures as “serial idiocy,” suggesting that many viewers understood the con but simply found it tiresome. In 1982 Kaufman was voted off SNL in a phone-in poll. Late Night With David Letterman became one of a very few shows besides Taxi that would have him or Clifton. Ticket sales for his college tours dwindled. Zehme acknowledges Kaufman’s transgressive genius but wonders how many remained interested as his sphere of performance reverted to a closet drama. He leaves open the possibility that Dhrupick may have eaten Kaufman after all.
From Zmuda’s point of view, the size of Kaufman’s audience doesn’t matter. If Kaufman’s dedication to staying in character (and later, breaking character as an element of that character) and playing a routine out to the bitter end left him in no-man’s-land, it was a loss for the audience, not for him. “Ninety-eight percent of Andy Kaufman’s performances were never recorded or, for that matter, even seen by formal audiences, for they took place on streets, in restaurants, and in myriad other places,” he writes. “Most of the witnesses to these performances didn’t know they were experiencing a performance, let alone that they had become an audience. But . . . these particular aesthetic treats were often as carefully planned out as our stage shows and employed as much art of design. Yet because of their nature, much of Andy’s best work (and mine too) was cast to the winds.”
Kaufman’s only major motion picture, Heartbeeps (1981), bombed so badly it ended his film career. Around the same time, his old children’s television shtick was co-opted by Paul Reubens. An off-off-Broadway play about wrestling, starring Kaufman and Deborah Harry, opened and closed the same night in 1983. The same year Taxi, the albatross that had become his fail-safe, was canceled. Finally Kaufman was banned from a transcendental meditation retreat. Zehme, Zmuda, and Kaufman’s father and girlfriend agree that this unintended and undesired repercussion of his “out-of-control” behavior was the blow that may have broken him, an excommunication in the truest sense of the word. He kept up the wrestling, to less and less notice.
He also began to talk about faking his own death, the only gag left to his incomprehensible act. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1984 and died later that year, and while everyone close to him seems to want to believe he might still be alive, no one who witnessed his rapid deterioration holds out much hope. Both Zehme and Zmuda, however, entertain the idea his death may have been a case of mind over matter, a fiction that took root and became metastasized flesh in Kaufman’s conceptual garden. Zmuda restricts this notion to Kaufman’s endless plotting, TM visualization, and actualization of his future. Zehme’s chilly finish may imply more: that the disease riddling his body reflected Kaufman’s total assimilation by his cast of dynamic personae, all versions of the same shadowy, pathological playmate.
Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman by Bill Zehme, Delacorte Press, $25.95.
Andy Kaufman Revealed! by Bob Zmuda with Matthew Scott Hansen, Little, Brown, $24.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.