A brief and pointless observation

One night last week I wanted to fill an hour with mindless entertainment and scanned the DVDs on the shelf for something that would be less than a feature-length movie but more than a half-hour episode. (Yes, I could have watched two half-hour episodes, but never mind about that.) On a whim, I grabbed my set of Van Dyke & Company DVDs and selected episode six. If anything brought about that particular choice (aside from ethanol-induced randomness), it was the Justin Timberlake song “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” that I have heard too many times on the radio in recent days.

Let me explain. For reasons that elude my thinking even on ethanol-clear days, Justin Timberlake chose to record and release a song that strongly resembles the disco anthems of the mid-1970s. Van Dyke & Company was recorded and broadcast in 1976 and 1977. Being a variety show, it had musical guests, and some of those musical guests performed disco music. Trying to understand why anyone would want to revive said music, I chose an episode that features a performance of one of the original perpetrators of disco music—namely, KC and the Sunshine Band.

Van Dyke & Company was more than just another variety show. Seventies television was crowded with variety shows—some of them great, including Carol Burnett’s shows, but many of them average to poor. Dick Van Dyke was already a very popular entertainer; he had hosted his own situation comedy (sitcom) and had appeared in classic movies such as Mary Poppins. Everybody knew Dick Van Dyke. Rather than create just another variety show, Van Dyke chose to risk a parody of variety shows. Several running jokes fed subtle humor into Van Dyke & Company. For example, Dick Van Dyke presented himself as a star who was completely in control of his own show, yet he continually found himself forced to change his plans by the producers of that show. (One of those producers, also a writer of the show, was the comic genius Bob Einstein, who also played his character Super Dave Osbourne in two of the episodes of Van Dyke & Company). In episode six, Dick Van Dyke complains to the studio audience and viewers about a letter received by the show claiming that he only provided space to popular music performers to enhance the show’s ratings. Van Dyke emphasized that he personally chose the music performers and was close friends to all of them; he then completely garbled the name of KC and the Sunshine Band, leading to corrections from off-stage by Bob Einstein. Later in the show, Van Dyke complained that the producers had promised KC and the Sunshine Band two musical segments; Van Dyke went on to say that he was not consulted about that promise and that he demanded the second musical segment for his own song. As he began his song, his seat was wheeled off-stage and a curtain lifted to reveal KC and the Sunshine Band, who proceeded to perform their second song—a disco anthem which repeatedly informed the hearer, “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.”

Andy Kaufman appeared on most of the twelve episodes of Van Dyke & Company. Any fan of Andy Kaufman should own the recordings of this show, since they include Andy Kaufman performing before audiences who did not yet know what to expect from his act. In this sixth episode, Andy appeared as a cowboy. Dick Van Dyke had already selected four volunteers from the audience before Andy appeared. When he came on stage, Andy started a record and convincingly lip-synced the performer on the record, who was leading four children in singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Part of the joke was that the four volunteers apparently had no indication, when they were chosen from the audience, that they would be expected to lip-sync parts of a song. Andy was able to appear totally in control of the act, to the point of pushing his four volunteers into place and backstage as they performed for the audience in the studio and at home.

Unintended (I think) additional humor contained in this episode lies in the fact that KC and the Sunshine Band were also lip-syncing their two songs, but Andy’s lip-syncing talents completely blew them out of the water. Especially notable are KC’s hands on the keyboards—he appears to be striking the same chord repeatedly throughout the entire song without any change in hand position. (Given the lyrics of the songs, it’s entirely possible that they also involved only one chord.) Andy’s lip-syncing as a joke contrasted with KC’s lip-syncing as a serious attempt to entertain made this episode of Van Dyke & Company even more amusingly surreal than the writers and performers had intended.

Viewing this episode did not help me to ascertain why Justin Timberlake would care to revive a style of music that quickly became obsolete and deserves to remain forgotten. This noon in the car I heard once again his rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and I thought I could hear one of the background singers slipping into “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.” J.


Comic geniuses

Tim Conway died this week; he was eighty-five years old. Tim performed on many occasions over the years, but he is best-remembered and best-loved for his comic antics on the Carol Burnett show. Along with Carol and Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway would play parts in comedy sketches. Each episode of Carol’s show was taped twice, on consecutive nights, and then the producers would edit the best performances of each night into one broadcast show. After having followed the script on the first night, Tim Conway would often improvise on the second night; his unexpected antics frequently forced his acting partners to burst into laughter on stage. The producers generally chose to broadcast the second-night version, making Tim Conway famous for his ability to take his fellow performers by surprise with his comic wit.

Andy Kaufman died thirty-five years ago today; he was thirty-five years old. Andy may have been best-known for playing Latka on Taxi, but he was best-loved for the material he created on his own. Latka was an adaptation of one of Andy’s inventions, Foreign Man, who would attempt stand-up comedy and fail miserably. He would finally resort to celebrity imitations, from which he would suddenly emerge with an Elvis Presley imitation, one so brilliant that even Presley admired his work. Andy appeared on Saturday Night Live more than a dozen times, including its very first episode. He also had two television specials that are still available—one made-for-TV special and one live performance at Carnegie Hall. Many of his other performances can be found by searching the Internet.

Tim Conway and Andy Kaufman never performed together, so far as I know. Their styles would not have meshed, given Conway’s slapstick and improvisation skills and Kaufman’s performance art and characterization skills. Both comics flourished in the same format, that of the variety show. This kind of television peaked in the 1970s, with some weekly shows like Carol Burnett’s and some seasonal shows like the Bob Hope Christmas Special. Variety shows focused on one or two famous performers, a company of stock performers, and special guests, usually a mixture of musical performers, comedians, and other celebrities (serious actors, sports figures, and politicians, for example). Carol Burnett’s show was one of the best of the genre. Countless bits of hilarity still come to mind when her show is mentioned, but the musical ability of Carol’s team and their guests also rises above much of what was done for entertainment at that time.

In 1976, Dick Van Dyke assembled a short-running variety show; Andy Kaufman appeared on more than half the episodes that were shown. Van Dyke and Company was, in a sense, a parody of variety shows. Van Dyke feuded with the producers of the show, disdaining their suggestions or openly regretting their refusal to let him do what he pleased. He responded to letter-writers who claimed that his musical guests were merely a means to gain viewers and had no relationship with Van Dyke; following his denial of the charge, Dick Van Dyke immediately mangled the name of his next musical guest. When Andy Kaufman appeared on the show, he was generally Foreign Man, interrupting Van Dyke to the elder comedian’s apparent annoyance. Van Dyke actually thought Andy was brilliant and was delighted to have him on the show. Andy got to perform with other celebrities, including Carl Reiner and John Denver. The recording of his transformation into Elvis on Van Dyke and Company is special because the audience is not prepared for the routine, as they are in other recordings of that act.

Another comic genius, Bob Einstein, worked on Van Dyke and Company. Einstein died in January of this year; he was seventy-six years old. Einstein was a writer and producer of the show; he also appeared in several episodes. In one episode, Einstein walks onto the stage during the closing monologue after Dick Van Dyke has fumbled a line; like a baseball manager, Einstein calls for a relief comedian (who turns out to be Tommy Smothers). Einstein also introduced his Super Dave character on Van Dyke and Company; as Super Dave he would later appear on many television talk shows, including those of Johnny Carson and David Letterman.

In the 1970s, many comedians drew laughter from their audiences by shocking them with vulgar language and taboo topics. That trend has continued to the present. Tim Conway, Andy Kaufman, and Bob Einstein were able to amuse and entertain without descending to the depths of human depravity. Their humor surprised people, but the surprise was generally one of delight, not one of repugnance. It’s a good thing that so much of their material was recorded and saved, so we can remind ourselves and show others how genuine comedy looks and sounds. J.

23 Odd Facts about Man on the Moon

In 1999 the film Man on the Moon was released as a bio-pic of entertainer Andy Kaufman. Because today is the 67th birthday of Andy Kaufman, I plan to watch that film tonight. Even before I do so, though, here are some interesting facts about Man on the Moon.

  • The title of the movie comes from a 1992 song by R.E.M., portions of which are heard several times during the movie; it is heard in full during the closing credits.
  • Jim Carrey, who portrays Andy Kaufman in the movie, was born on January 17, 1962, Andy’s thirteenth birthday.
  • Andy Kaufman’s granddaughter plays Andy’s sister Carol in the movie.
  • The real Andy Kaufman can be heard in the movie, singing the song “Rose Marie.”
  • The opening monologue of the movie, in which “Andy” tells the audience that there is no movie, is based on the opening of Andy’s TV special, in which he tells the audience that there is no special.
  • In the opening monologue, “Andy” tells the audience that “all the most important things in my life are changed around and mixed up for dramatic purposes.” The most significant change is that Andy’s Carnegie Hall performance took place several years before he was diagnosed with cancer.
  • The film presents Andy’s TV special as a condition for him to play a character in Taxi, but the special was actually filmed before Andy was invited to be part of the Taxi cast.
  • Jerry Lawler, David Letterman, and Wendy Polland are among about a dozen people in the film who play themselves.
  • Paul Giamatti plays Andy’s friend and co-conspirator, Bob Zmuda, and Bob Zmuda plays Jack Burns, the director of Fridays, who fights with Andy during the live show.
  • Danny DeVito plays Andy’s agent, George Shapiro (DeVito’s character in Taxi is ignored), and George Shapiro appears in the film as a nightclub owner who tells Andy that his act is not funny.
  • Courtney Love plays Lynn Marguiles, who was Andy’s girlfriend from 1982 to 1984, and Lynn Marguiles is briefly seen during the funeral at the end of the movie.
  • The movie shows “Andy” wrestling Lynn on the Merv Griffin show, but the two did not meet until long after Andy began wresting women as part of his act, and the two never wrestled each other in public.
  • The movie only mentions Lynn’s last name once, when Andy answers the telephone in the house they are sharing.
  • In the movie, “Andy” reads the entire novel The Great Gatsby, to an audience. Actually, Andy never read more than the first lines of the book to an audience. That skit ended with the recording of Andy reading the book after the audience has been asked to choose between hearing Andy read the novel or hearing a recording. However, when this skit was part of Andy’s act, his associates successfully spread the rumor that Andy had read the entire novel in his previous performance, making the audience’s reaction to his reading more genuine.
  • In the movie, “Andy” has already apologized for wresting women as part of his act and apparently has ceased doing so before the Carnegie Hall performance, but Andy actually did wrestle a woman as part of the Carnegie Hall performance.
  • The filmed version of the Carnegie Hall performance omits showing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the New York City Rockettes, probably because the real Choir and Rockettes did not appear in the show; their names were used by a different choir and group of dancers. As a result, Santa Claus is seen only in the background while Andy invites the audience out for milk and cookies.
  • In the movie, “Andy” reveals Eleanor Cody Gould’s age, but in the Carnegie Hall performance Eleanor Cody Gould refuses to reveal her age.
  • In the Carnegie Hall performance, Eleanor Cody Gould claims that the short movie “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” was made in 1931, but the copyright date of 1946 can be seen in the film itself.
  • As shown in the movie, Andy Kaufman was voted off Saturday Night Live in January 1983, by a vote of 195,544 to 169,186; Andy’s career was considered a flop at that time, not because of the difference of 25,000 votes, but because nearly half a million people had participated in a similar stunt the previous October, in which the question was whether to cook or release a lobster. Having more people care about the lobster than about Andy made a larger impression than the results of the vote.
  • When he imitated Tony Clifton, Andy never broke character; the movie’s scene set in a restaurant kitchen (in which “Andy” allows “George Shapiro” to recognize him) never would have happened.
  • As of this movie, five performers have imitated Tony Clifton: Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Michael Kaufman (Andy’s brother, at the end of the Carnegie Hall performance), Jim Carrey, and Paul Giamatti. Zmuda has probably imitated Clifton more often than the other four combined.
  • While filming Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey demanded that he always be addressed as Andy, both on and off the set.

Ten books on a deserted island

A question is sometimes asked of celebrities, or among friends having a conversation. The question is, “If you were to spend the rest of your life alone on an island, what ten books would you want to have with you?” Since no one has actually asked me that question, I am free to change the rules. I will allow myself twelve books on my deserted island, because the Holy Bible and the hymnal are such obvious selections that they need no explanation. The following ten books are listed alphabetically by author.

  • Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights. I have been enchanted by this book from the first time I read it, which was a winter weekend while I was still in school. One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it contains not a single likeable character. Each of them, even the minor characters, is deeply flawed. Even the narrator of the story has more flaws than virtues in his weak yet self-centered approach to others. What is enjoyable about reading about flawed people? One tires of endless nobility and generosity in so many other books of this genre. Wuthering Heights is the truest novel of its time and setting of any I have yet discovered. Yet it also far surpasses all the later attempts to write novels of fiction that contained only believable storylines with no fantasy or mystery.
  • Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, fortunately printed in the same volume. This is one of eight books I read faithfully every summer of my childhood. (Perhaps someday I will blog about all eight.) In contrast to Wuthering Heights, the Alice stories depict a whimsical world of nonsense that is not quite nonsense, because it possesses its own inner sense. I would be sorry to spend the rest of my days without one childlike pleasure in my collection.
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot. Some years ago I began reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky because I thought I should, and this novel stood out as the gem of the collection. The title character is a simple-minded prince who wanders into the treacherous world of polite and refined society, yet survives all its traps, at least for a while. Many readers have tried to present the prince as a Christ-like character. I’m not sure that is true, but the story possesses a delightful view of Russian noble life in the nineteenth century that blends well with the world of the Brontes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Lewis Carroll.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Not one of my favorites the first time I read it, this novel has grown on me with repeated readings. It truly deserves to be considered “the Great American Novel,” because it depicts both sides of life in the America of its time, while also presenting timeless messages about wealth and about finding meaning in life (or failing to do so). I find it completely appropriate that Andy Kaufman chose to read this particular novel to his audiences at one point in his career, because so much of the novel reveals the difference between surface impressions and deeper realities.
  • Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. If I was allowed to choose only Hemingway or only Fitzgerald for my library, I would go with Hemingway without hesitation. This is, no doubt, his greatest novel. I remember reading it late at night during a hot summer when I came home from work after midnight, not yet sleepy. The characters and settings of this book are as vivid and as believable as any I can remember from literature in general.
  • A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by Robert Bretall. I could not spend the rest of my days without some Kierkegaard, and if I cannot have the complete collection with me, Bretall’s anthology is second-best. Kierkegaard is a thoughtful writer and surprisingly relevant to present-day topics. He is not easy to read, and is often misunderstood, but I find time spent reading his writing worth the effort.
  • Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind. If I’m to spend the rest of my life on this island, I want to have at least one book I have never read before. Ever since I read Moby Dick a few years ago, Gone With the Wind has been the “most important book I never read.” I’ve seen the movie a time or two, and other members of my family have read the book and enjoyed it, so I think I will include it in my collection.
  • Vladimir Nabakov, Pale Fire. Hemingway and Fitzgerald write well, but Nabakov paints with words; his artistry surpasses all other authors who write in English. This sublime writing is particularly amazing, because English was Nabakov’s third language, after Russian and French. Although he is most famous for writing Lolita, Nabakov’s best work is Pale Fire. He weaves several stories together by having one character write a thousand-line poem and having another write the Foreword and Commentary on the poem. The misunderstandings shown by the second character are both farcical and elegant. Nabakov creates a multi-layered work which remains readable and entertaining, unlike the cubist writing of James Joyce. “Chapman’s Homer” indeed!
  • Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book also works on several levels (Spoilers coming!!) as it combines a story of a father and son traveling cross-country by motorcycle, memories of a nervous breakdown, a history of western philosophy, and elements of eastern philosophy. Pirsig’s ability to weave these disparate elements into a satisfying novel not only make me want to read the novel again and again but also to study the philosophers he mentioned.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. If I had to choose between these masterpieces, I would go with Cat’s Cradle. Fortunately, a publisher has recently produced a several-volume set of Vonnegut’s novels, and these two works are in the same volume. Vonnegut’s work has been described as “dark humor.” He writes with a light touch, but he conveys deep thoughts. His style is perfect to lift the heaviness of some of the other works I have chosen.

I hope I am never stranded anywhere without my complete library—my follow-up list of honorable mentions would be longer than some of these books. But if I had to limit myself to just a few books, these are the ones I would choose. J.

Remembering Andy Kaufman

May 16, 1984, was a meaningful day for a number of reasons. To give one example, that was the day I took my last college final exam on my way to graduation that weekend. May 16, 1984 is also the day that Andy Kaufman died.

Andy was an entertainer who was usually lumped with other comedians. Andy, though, was much more than a comedian. The term “performance art” had not yet been coined when Andy was at the peak of his career, but one could argue that Andy invented performance art. In his live shows Andy portrayed a number of characters, jumping from one to another so quickly that audiences and critics were bewildered. Whenever Andy was performing a character, though, he was deeply involved in the role. People often asked each other if there was a real Andy Kaufman, or if Andy was nothing more than a collection of diverse characters.

Steve Allen wrote that “for Andy, it seems, the borderline between reality and imagination has always been unclear. Not surprisingly, this is the gift he brings us in his comedy. Although even those critics most fond of Andy as a performer insist that he is exploring this borderline, I believe they are mistaken. He is not exploring it; he lives there.”

Andy grew up on Long Island, living with his mother, father, sister, and brother. Television was new to the American home in those days, and Andy spent his childhood immersed in TV. When he wasn’t watching a show, he was performing, acting out his own television shows. Andy sometimes told interviewers that he truly believed that cameras were filming his acts. Whether he was in his bedroom or on the school playground, Andy continued performing, playing all the parts in his self-created television-land.

As a teenager, Andy performed at birthday parties and other local events. He always loved performing for children, because they accepted Andy as he was and did not question his performances. After finishing high school, Andy spent a year working odd jobs—waiting tables, driving a taxi (yes, really)—and then he enrolled in Graham Junior College, a two-year school which had a program in television broadcasting. As a student at Graham, Andy created a children’s program called Uncle Andy’s Fun House. He would reuse that name for his television special, although the network insisted on calling it The Andy Kaufman Special. In his last months, Andy again began planning a children’s program, still to be called Uncle Andy’s Fun House. After Andy died, one of his friends took his idea and presented it on Saturday mornings as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

Next, Andy began appearing in nightclubs. The story that early audiences didn’t understand or like Andy’s act is fiction. Andy shocked his audiences, but he also entertained them. At this point he developed his famous Foreign Man character, and often he would make special arrangements with night club owners. To draw attention to Foreign Man between other acts in the clubs, Foreign Man would repeatedly approach the owner and beg for a chance to perform, the owner would continually say no, and eventually the owner would relent and allow Foreign Man a few minutes.

Most recordings of Andy’s Foreign Man routine were taped in front of audiences that knew the routine very well. They were thoroughly entertained and were not shocked. In the nightclubs, though, audiences were not prepared for Foreign Man. The point of the performance was that Foreign Man did not understand American humor. When he complained about how bad the traffic was, audiences were prepared for a quip, but instead he finished by saying, “It took me an hour and a half to get here.” When he complained about his wife’s cooking, audiences again were prepared for some kind of punch line, but after saying, “She doesn’t know how to cook,” Foreign Man would add, “Last night she made spaghetti and meatballs.” Of course the surprise of not hearing a joke when a joke is expected is itself a joke. (Sometimes this kind of joke is labeled “antihumor.”)

After several jokes that were funny by not being funny, Foreign Man would offer to do some imitations or impersonations. He would begin with an impression of Archie Bunker that was nothing like the television character in sound or in appearance. Then he would do Ed Sullivan. The voice was still wrong, but Foreign Man would capture the mannerisms of Ed Sullivan enough to draw a few chuckles. These chuckles distracted Foreign Man, and he would “lose his place” and need to start again. Audiences expected him to start Ed Sullivan again, but instead Foreign Man would return to the very first joke and race through the entire routine.

By this time audiences were fully accepting the idea that Foreign Man had no talent for humor or for impressions. When he promised to imitate Elvis Presley, the audience expected more of the same. Here Andy fooled them. His impression of Elvis was impeccable, matching the singer’s speaking voice, singing voice, stance, and gestures. Audiences responded wildly. As they applauded, Andy—still dressed as Elvis—would suddenly change faces and would respond with Foreign Man’s voice, “Tenk you veddy much.”
Andy was very fond of Elvis and of other performers from the 1950s. He intended his imitation of Elvis to be a tribute to the King. Elvis, it is said, considered Andy’s imitation the best of all that he ever witnessed.

Andy’s first national television exposure was on the initial episode of Saturday Night Live. Here he performed another of the routines that played well in nightclubs. He brought a record player onto the stage and started playing a recording of the theme song from Mighty Mouse. Andy then stood awkwardly and uncomfortably in front of the audience. When the song reached the line, “Here I am to save the day,” Andy lip-sinced that one line with confidence and boldness, afterward returning immediately to his nervous demeanor until the line reoccurred at the end of the song.

I became familiar with Andy’s act when he appeared on Van Dyke and Company in the fall of 1976. The network only broadcast eleven episodes of the show, and Andy appeared in ten of them. Van Dyke and Company was a variety show, hosted by comic actor Dick Van Dyke. Many big-name performers appeared in the show. Andy used variations of his nightclub acts, even begging Dick Van Dyke for the opportunity to do an act in the show. Van Dyke always seemed to be annoyed and puzzled by Andy, but that was just an act. Dick Van Dyke actually believed that Andy was brilliant, and he was proud to have him on the show.

In one episode, Andy played a pair of conga drums while singing nonsense syllables to the tune of the French folksong, Alouette. Generally when Alouette is sung, the audience is expected to repeat certain short phrases from the song. Andy expected the same, but after getting the audience involved, he threw a long stream of syllables together. Only those who knew Alouette realized that they did not have to repeat that line; they only needed to sing a long “O.”

I never understood why Andy took a part in the television situation comedy Taxi. That show seemed so much unlike his act, which jumped from character to character without notice. Later biographies portrayed Andy as unwilling to take the part, but pressured into taking it because it was what comedians did to get ahead in their careers. Reading that, I felt vindicated in my opinion about Andy and Taxi. The writers of Taxi took Andy’s Foreign Man character, named him Latka, and had him part of the regular ensemble. The show ran for several seasons, even switching networks at one point, but I was not a fan of the show.

Even before Andy was offered a role on Taxi, the network invited him to create a television special. His fame was growing because of Saturday Night Live and Van Dyke and Company, as well as live performances before audiences all over the country. Andy eagerly accepted the offer of a ninety-minute special and began crafting a mind-bending production.

The Andy Kaufman Special, or Uncle Andy’s Fun House, begins with Foreign Man seated in a chair in front of a television set. He looks into the camera and explains that he wasted all the money that the network had given him, so he had no guests, no sets, nothing to show the audience except himself and his chair. He warned that he would be sitting there for the entire ninety minutes. After this performance drags on for a while, Foreign Man leans to the camera and says, “Now that the audience is gone and only my friends are here, this is my special.”

After this introduction and the opening credits, Andy does his usual Foreign Man routine, complete to the ending imitation of Elvis Presley. At the end of the Elvis imitation, Andy begins stripping off his costume, throwing his clothing into the audience, until he is down to a sweat shirt with the words “I love Grandma” on the front. Andy becomes a new character, a cheerful and lovable character, and he claims, “Up until now, I have been only fooling. This is the real me.” After the show supposedly breaks for commercials, Andy changes characters again. Now he is pompous and strutting, berating the members of the audience for not returning his clothing.

The Nice Andy and the Mean Andy alternate for the rest of the show. Andy acts as the host of a variety show, leading the audience in a sing-along, and interviewing guests including Cindy Williams of Laverne and Shirley and Gail Slobodkin, who had played one of the Von Trapp children in a stage production of The Sound of Music. Both interviews are extremely odd, actually parodies of variety show interviews. The conversation with Cindy Williams degenerates into the awkwardness like that of two teenagers on a first date. Repeatedly, when Cindy tries to tell a story, Andy interrupts her with another question. Later, they both remain silent for nearly an entire uncomfortable minute, punctuated by the nervous chuckling of the live audience. Andy then pressures Cindy into singing, something which she claimed they had agreed to cut from the show. Later, Andy calls Gail Slobodkin a has-been, tells her that she will never succeed in show business, and openly mocks her behind her back while she sings.
All of this, of course, was scripted, and Cindy and Gail both were playing along with Andy’s style of entertainment. Meanwhile, Andy’s friend Bob Zmuda plays a stagehand who must placate the prickly host between guests. In one of their conversations, Andy and Bob both flub their lines. Clearly they meant to include the mistakes in the final version of the show, since they could easily have retaped that segment if they did not want the mistakes to be broadcast.

Near the end of the show, Andy interviews the puppet Howdy Doody. In this conversation, Andy is at his nicest and most sincere, telling the puppet how much he loved the show as a young boy. The audience waits for a joke, but no joke ever comes. Andy ends by hugging the puppet, and the show then concludes with every member of the cast joining Andy on stage so sing his signature closing song, “This Friendly World,” which was a minor hit for Fabian in 1959.

Network executives hated the special and refused to air it. More than two years later a different network did air the special, but only on a Friday night after the late news, clearly a dead spot in the network’s schedule. I was able to see the show that night, and I thought it was wonderful. Years later I bought a VHS recording of the special, but (sad to say) it had been edited down to less than sixty minutes.

Andy could not keep performing the same act over and over; too many people had already seen it on TV. Andy added a new character, a man who looked like a wrestler and boasted like a wrestler but would only wrestle women. Andy wanted to include the sound and feeling of wrestling in his act—not the Greco-Roman wrestling of the Summer Olympics, but the staged drama of traveling wrestling shows. Many members of his audiences hated this part of his act, and many other people protested his wrestling. They considered it insulting, demeaning toward women, and thoroughly lacking either taste or humor. Andy seems to have felt that getting this reaction was far better than being ignored. He included the wrestling portion in his act for years.

Andy also created a character named Tony Clifton, a Las Vegas singer who bellowed his songs and then scolded and insulted his audience. At first, Tony Clifton was merely Andy with a grease mustache, but Andy eventually added facial prosthetics, thick glasses, a more convincing mustache, and a glaringly tasteless tuxedo. The tuxedo must have been padded, because Tony Clifton was visibly much heavier than Andy Kaufman. Tony Clifton was grating and abusive; when he attempted humor, he failed much as Foreign Man failed. Nothing was likeable about this character, and Andy clearly used him to get a reaction from the audience, not merely to make the audience laugh.

Once Andy had completed the disguise, he never broke character while wearing it. Stagehands checking sound equipment were astonished to hear Tony Clifton carrying on in a fit of rage in the dressing room with no audience to witness the act. After a while, Bob Zmuda began to portray Tony Clifton while Andy took a break. Several of Tony Clifton’s appearances on television shows were actually Bob Zmuda and not Andy Kaufman.

Andy also continued to do an act he had done on Van Dyke and Company. Adopted a British accent, he offered to read The Great Gatsby to his audience. After a few sentences, people in the audience persuaded Andy to stop reading. Asking if they would prefer to listen to a record, a proposition to which the audience readily agreed, Andy then played a record which was a recording of him reading The Great Gatsby in a British accent.

Andy never read more than a few sentences of The Great Gatsby to any audience. Playing the record of his reading was the end of that routine. However, to get the reaction he wanted from the audience, Andy had friends and followers spread a rumor among those who were gathering for one of his live performances. The rumor was that Andy actually had read the entire novel to a bored audience somewhere else recently. Enough people in the audience heard and believed this rumor that they sincerely begged Andy not to read them the entire book.

In 1979 Andy got to fulfill his dream of playing Carnegie Hall. Tony Clifton opened with the Star Spangled Banner and a monologue, rather tame by Tony’s usual standards. Another singing group filled time until Andy was ready to appear. Andy welcomed the audience and pointed to his grandmother who was seated at the edge of the stage so she could enjoy the show. Along the way, Andy played the congas, introduced several guests, and performed Foreign Man complete to a spectacular Elvis imitation. Andy wrestled a woman, and then he also wrestled a man—Jay York, a stuntman who was defeating Andy soundly until Bob Zmuda got a can of spinach to Andy, which gave Andy strength to win the match (to the tune of Popeye the Sailor Man, of course).

Andy played a short movie and then introduced one of the singers who had appeared in the movie years ago when she was young. After being persuaded to recreate the song and dance of the movie, this elderly woman collapsed on stage. A doctor jumped from the audience to help, but to no avail. There was a long uncomfortable silence, until Andy came out in a feathered headdress and revived the woman.
Andy had dancers whom he claimed were the Rockettes (They weren’t.), and a singing group he claimed was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (They weren’t.). He even had a visit from Santa Claus. The biggest surprises came at the end of the show. First Andy did a brief impersonation of Tony Clifton, and then Tony came out on stage and they sang together. (Bob Zmuda did not portray Tony on this occasion.) Then Andy introduced Robin Williams, who had been sitting on stage during the entire show disguised as Andy’s grandmother. Andy then offered to take the audience out for milk and cookies. The audience boarded rented buses and were taken to a school cafeteria, where they were served milk and cookies and continued to be entertained by Andy, Robin Williams, and some of his other guests. As that ended, Andy promised to continue the show the next day on the Staten Island ferry. Reportedly some audience members showed up at the ferry, and Andy was there and did perform for them.

In the 1980s, Andy’s wresting act seems to have caught the attention of professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, who objected to Andy’s act. After trading insults for some time, the two men agreed to wrestle in Memphis. Lawler of course overpowered Andy, but Lawler then lost the match due to an illegal hold he called the power-driver. For months after this incident Andy wore a neck brace. David Letterman had both men on his show, Andy still wearing the neck brace. Andy began by apologizing, but the conversation turned ugly. Lawler eventually slugged Andy, knocking him out of his chair. Andy then cursed Lawler and threw a cup of coffee at him before fleeing. Only years after Andy had died did Lawler reveal that every one of these events had been planned and staged by him and Andy.

Andy died of cancer in 1984. While he was sick and receiving treatment, many people thought that the cancer was just one more act to deceive the public. Even after Andy died, some people continued to believe that Andy was hiding from the public and would one day appear to reveal the joke. This has not happened, I am sorry to report.

Fifteen years after Andy died, a movie was made about him. The movie is called Man on the Moon, and the name comes from a song by R.E.M. that mentions Andy. Many famous actors and comedians vied for the honor of portraying Andy Kaufman. Jim Carrey was chosen by the director. (Here is an odd coincidence: Jim Carrey was born on Andy’s thirteenth birthday.) In some scenes Carrey portrays Andy almost flawlessly; in others he is recognizable as Jim Carrey. The opening of the movie is inspired by the opening of Andy’s TV special; after complaining that the events of his life were changed and rearranged in the movie for dramatic purposes (and, yes, they were), he says that the movie is over and tells the audience to go home.

The casting of the movie is odd. Some members of the cast of Taxi play themselves, but Danny DeVito plays Andy’s agent, George Shapiro. Shapiro, in turn, plays a night club owner who complains to Andy that his jokes aren’t funny. Other people, including Jerry Lawler and David Letterman, play themselves; according to the credits, Tony Clifton plays himself. Bob Zmuda is portrayed by Paul Giamati, but the real Zmuda has a brief role as a television director. All this switching of roles demonstrates a profound sensitivity to Andy’s personality.

Not only does the movie rearrange the events in Andy’s life, it also occasionally misunderstands Andy Kaufman. In one scene, Andy is portraying Tony Clifton in a restaurant kitchen but becomes Andy to speak with his agent. The real Andy never broke character that way. The movie shows the Carnegie Hall performance as something that follows the cancer diagnosis rather than preceding it by several years. In the movie, Andy actually does read The Great Gatsby to an audience from beginning to end.
In spite of these shortcomings, Man on the Moon is a fitting tribute to Andy Kaufman. Jim Carrey does the Foreign-Man-becomes-Elvis transformation before a puzzled and finally awed nightclub audience, something that cannot happen in the TV special or the Carnegie Hall show, both of which were attended by people who knew what was coming. The long-running ruse with Jerry Lawler is played well, with a subtle revelation of the actual planning. Many of the details ring true, and the performances are outstanding.

Every day the world experiences gains and losses. The world lost a great entertainer on May 16, 1984. Andy Kaufman will be long missed and never forgotten.