The subject of Andy Kaufman is one which it’s pretty trendy to be into these days. As Neutral Milk Hotel are to music, or Infinite Jest is to literature, Kaufman is the go-to mainstream obscurity of comedy.
But, as with those other two things, I can’t help but be fascinated by him. So I voraciously devour any and all content to do with him. Just this year I’ve watched Man on the Moon twice (and adored the Jim Carey doc about its production – “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”), watched countless interviews with him, that legendary Carnegie Hall show, and read Bill Zehme’s comprehensive biography: Lost in the Funhouse.
But this post isn’t about Andy Kaufman’s life, or why he’s so amazing. ((Of course, it is really)). Instead, I want to focus on one short piece of video that to me is the pinnacle of what he was about, and just an incredible performance in itself. Not necessarily of performance comedy per se, but of a performer doing something and getting a reaction from the audience. It’s that relationship between the two that is fascinating to me, and something I think Andy had complete mastery of.
BUT IMMA SHUT UP AND LET YOU WATCH THIS
The title of the video claims that it’s Andy Kaufman’s SNL audition tape, but I don’t think that’s 100% accurate. From what I can gather it’s more of a screen test – just checking how you look and come across on camera. In any case, it’s a chance to perform something on camera like a monologue, which is what Andy does here.
Well, I say ‘monologue’. But technically he’s reciting a song. Specifically, MacArthur Park – a song by Jimmy Webb, and most famously performed by Richard Harris (aka FIRST DUMBLEDORE). And what you’ll probably notice is how incredible mad the lyrics are.
Like, it’s a song about leaving a cake out in the rain? Listening to the Richard Harris version you can easily gloss over the lyrics, and come away with the impression that it’s a pretty standard love song or something. But really focussing on the lyrics – as Andy forces us to do in this clip – reveals how asburd they are.
According to Wikipedia: ‘The Jimmy Webb-penned “MacArthur Park” is popularly held as the worst song ever written‘ [source]. The lyrics are patently nonsense, even by the standards of the 1960s. So is Andy just picking a deliberately awful song and doing a dramatic reading of it? Is that the joke here?
Sure, dramatic readings of songs are a staple of comedy. It’s pretty much standard fare for American Late Night Talk Show content. And it’s usually pretty fun.
But there’s something extra about Kaufman deliberately picking an unpopular song. A song that’s widely ridiculed and disregarded. Taking that and treating it with the upmost seriousness. So the joke isn’t just “ha ha these lyrics are dumb lol” but “what if this song was actually amazing?”. It’s the classic Kaufman manoeuvre, to not only subvert your expectations, but to make you question them in the first place. As I’ve seen other writers say: Kaufman knew how to make you wonder.
And it’s that sense of wonder that shines through in this piece. It literally radiates out from his eyes – those bright beacons of child-like excitement. Look at him at the start, hands-on-the-table looking around the room like a toddler sitting in front of a birthday cake. How he never breaks character throughout, flashes a ‘dumb’ grin to the people around him, seems to have an alien-like fascination with what everyone is finding so funny. It’s so far removed from “I am comedian and here is a joke”, it’s a fully realised and expertly-delivered performance. And the performance itself is a performance, if that makes sense.
Diving a bit deeper into the details, watch the actual delivery of the monologue – which he goes through twice. Watching the first pass, it appears awkward and unprepared. He fumbles the very first word (“s… spring was..”), and mispronounces “striped”. But then they ask him to do it again.
And the second time is exactly the same as the first. The ‘s’ is fumbled again, ‘striped’ is tackled in the same way. We have to conclude that these are deliberate parts of the performance, expertly rehearsed and included. Why fumble the first word? Maybe to start the whole thing off badly, or to create awkward tension for the rest of the rendition to inhabit. Only Andy knows for sure. And it’s the idea of him knowing these secrets that I find compelling. Again, he make you wonder.
And then there’s the weird Superman bit at the end. It kinda comes out of nowhere, which I like. We go from two tenderly performed monologues, to a completely random piece with the weirdest southern accent. It shows Andy’s range, and his ability to make comedy out of just about anything. And again, afterwards he smiles and looks around at the reaction, seemingly oblivious to what we’re all finding so incredible – like a dog happily looking up as strangers fawn over it.
Is it comedy? Sure. If we take something, hang it up in an art gallery, and critics respond to it, that seems to be enough to call it “art”. Likewise, a performance for SNL that makes its audience laugh, seems to fulfil the sufficient conditions to be considered “comedy”. Call it anti-comedy or surrealist humour if you want. But there’s more to it than just the absence of traditional comedic elements like punchlines or even jokes.
Kaufman himself often rejected the title of comedian and would sometimes refer to himself as a “song and dance man” (or was that, too, just part of the bit?). A lot of his stuff was just him singing songs, or doing other traditional performances – like his bongo drumming. But at a fundamental level, it’s the same: establishing a relationship between performer and audience.
Andy didn’t care what the nature of that relationship was. If they liked him, fine. If they hated him, fine too. His Tony Clifton persona was deliberately obnoxious. His wrestling career (where he did things like fight women live on TV) was an exercise in garnering hatred. SNL audiences eventually voted him off the show, such was the level of vitriol he ended up generating. In a sense these were all successes: the audience were feeling something.
And that’s what we get from this tape. We feel confused, amused, entertained, full of wonder. We want to see more, but we also don’t really know what we’re seeing. Even taking a step back and viewing it ‘as a performance’ doesn’t help, as for Andy the lines between performance and reality were so blurred.
His whole life a performance, and we’re still his audience. And we’re still wondering.