Christmas tree past

With apologies to the late Tom Petty… and to my son:


He’s a good boy, but sometimes curious,

Can’t help touching what he sees.

It’s a blue spruce, but make of plastic

With ornaments of ceramic and glass.

It’s got colored lights and shiny tinsel.

It’s wobbly, won’t stand up straight.

He’s a good boy, but sometimes curious,

Can’t help touching what he sees:

Now the tree—

Tree falling!

The tree–

Tree falling!



Christmas letter

Dear family and friends,

It has been great receiving your Christmas cards this year and reading your letters. Congratulations on the spectacular accomplishments of your children and on the wonderful vacations you have taken in the past year.

Our older son graduated from college eighteen months ago and is still looking for a job in his field. If you know of a laboratory or corporation that is hiring chemists, please drop him a line. Meanwhile, he continues to develop his skills mixing paint at Home Depot, which at least supplies him money for rent and groceries.

Our daughter left college last winter and spent three months in the hospital. They have changed her medication a couple of times, and she seems to have stabilized. Of course some days are harder than others for her. She was employee of the month at the McDonalds on the highway in October. Meanwhile, she remains very popular, as she receives letters and phone calls nearly every day from collection agencies that want to discuss her student loans and medical bills.

Our younger son is adjusting to life at the military academy, and his parole officer believes that he has turned the corner in making good decisions. Best of all, the owners of the car have dropped their lawsuit.

The Mrs. and I were not able to get away for a vacation this summer, although we did spend some pleasant Sunday afternoons at the free museums downtown. We also had some pleasant hikes at the two nearby state parks. We did have the opportunity to travel out of state in September for the funeral of my mother-in-law, and we agree with everyone there who said that the family ought to get together once in a while for happier occasions.

My back is steadily improving from last year’s fall down the stairs when the dog attacked me. What a relief it was to learn that the dog did not have rabies! I carry a can of pepper spray on my route now, but I haven’t had to use it yet. Of course the bag of mail has gotten a lot heavier the last two months with all the advertisements and holiday greetings. It’s such a pleasure to be back on the job, though, that I really don’t mind the extra weight.

The Mrs. sends her greetings. She has decided to stay with the housecleaning business for the foreseeable future, although most of her coworkers are younger than she is. She says that she could write a fascinating gossip column for the paper about the things she has learned about people by cleaning their houses.

I guess that’s about all the news from our household this Christmas. We wish you blessings for the new year, and we hope that 2018 is even better for all of you than 2017 has been.

Reprinted from last December with two small edits. J.

A charming wedding

Earlier this month I attended the wedding of my friend Mary to Walter Aznoe, a funeral director she has known for the past three years. It was his second wedding and her fourth, but it still was a beautiful ceremony for all involved. About three dozen people were there, all of us family or friends of Mary or of Walter. Afterward we had cake and punch in the church basement and assured the bride and groom of our best wishes.

Mary was born to Edna Hatter and William Little. William (usually called Bill) was a local businessman who dabbled in politics. Edna was an attorney who kept her last name for professional reasons. Mary and her two brothers hyphenated the two names, creating somewhat of a tongue-twister for their teachers.

When she was eighteen, Mary wed Elliott Richard Lamb, the richest man in the state. The marriage gathered a lot of attention, since he was sixty years old, more than three times her age. They had ten happy years as husband and wife—at least they both seemed happy—before he passed away, leaving his entire fortune to his young wife.

She then enjoyed an active life, attending concerts and plays, becoming acquainted with many of the younger public figures around town. Eventually she caught the eye of Johnny Fleas (real name, Claude Itzfliesvas), a semi-famous jazz pianist. Both thirty years old, the two remained in the public eye throughout their marriage. They had a son and a daughter. After seven years, their marriage burst apart with great acrimony. Public shouting matches and rumors of worse in private, as well as infidelity on his part, led finally to a split. Mary retired from her public life to raise her children.

Five years later, she was walking up the church aisle once again, this time to wed the Rev. Hezekiah White. Pastor White, a Methodist minister, professed astonishment to family and friends that after decades of bachelorhood, he had found a woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Alas, he had only five years left to him before a heart attack robbed Mary of yet another husband.

Walter handled the funeral arrangements for the minister, as he also handled arrangement for most members of the congregation when they passed away. Within a few months, the mortician and the minister’s wife were an item around town, as they say. Walter’s first wife, Ruth, had died about a year earlier. All of us who knew them urged them to tie the knot, but Mary resisted. Having been twice widowed and once divorced, she was content to leave things the way they were. It took two years of courting (with many a wink and smile behind their backs) before the couple finally agreed to make their marriage legal and respectable.

The point of this story? There are actually two points to be made. The first is this: Mary Hatter-Little Lamb Itzfliesvas White Aznoe. The second is this (rim shot, please): It’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go. J.

Where were you when the lights went out?

Several unanticipated problems arose this afternoon when electric power failed at the local shopping mall. Fortunately nobody was hurt, and order was eventually restored.

The restaurants in the food court of course could not cook more food. One fast food establishment had some sandwiches and salads already prepared, but financial transactions were still difficult without use of the cash registers. Eventually, the manager discovered that one of his recently-hired workers was home schooled and was able to calculate correct change in her head, so the food was sold before it spoiled.

Emergency lights came on in the main corridors of the mall, but the rear sections of many stores were shrouded in darkness. One customer, trapped in darkness in a dressing room, mistakenly put on three pairs of pants in his confusion. Eventually he found his way out of the dressing room. When the magnitude of the problem was realized, store employees and regular customers all over the mall began using their cell phones as flashlights to rescue those customers who were trapped in the darkness. One helper spent fifteen minutes trying to comfort a woman apparently frozen in terror in the darkness. When a second helper arrived, the two of them discovered that the first helper had been consoling a mannequin.

Some customers became confused about which store was which in the darkness. A number of men of various ages stumbled in and out of Victoria’s Secret, claiming that they were trying to find the tools department of J. C. Penney.

Most traumatized were the people trapped on the mall’s escalators. Security was able to assist those who were near the top or bottom of an escalator when the power went out, but those trapped in the middle had to wait nearly two hours for electricity to be restored.

Happy April Fools’ Day to all, and to all a good night. J.

Stretch Summer, Shrink Winter

In 2017, the United States government is going to try a new plan in order to extend the summer and shorten the winter.

After August 31, 2017, the calendar will revert to August 1, 2017, and the entire month of August will take place a second time. To balance this extension of summer, the month of February 2018 will be canceled, with calendars for 2018 skipping from January 31 to March 1.

The reason for this change is obvious. More energy is consumed during the winter than during the summer, due to the need to heat buildings during winter and to provide light during the longer nights of winter. By adding one month to the summer and shortening the winter accordingly, the U.S. government hopes to accomplish a five percent improvement in energy usage. Furthermore, shortening winter by one month should increase public safety, with four fewer weeks of ice and snow and other winter weather.

Schools that begin their academic year in August will have two openings a month apart, with a brief vacation at the beginning of the second August. Schools that begin their academic year in September will not be affected. Since there are no major national or religious holidays in August, most other schedules will not have to be adjusted, although citizens with birthdays in August will need to decide whether they want to celebrate during the earlier month or during the later month, or perhaps celebrate both birthdays during the same year. Plans are still being made to reschedule Groundhog Day, Valentines Day, and Presidents’ Day in January 2018.

Opponents of this plan have indicated that the year will be two or three days longer with an extra August and no February. Advocates of the plan respond that, since the extra days will happen each year during the summer, probably no one will particularly mind.

Expect to see advertising of this plan in the coming months, with the motto “Stretch Summer, Shrink Winter” employed to help people remember when to adjust their calendars to conform to the government’s conception of time. J.


First Friday Fiction — Old Faithful

I buy used cars. I take good care of them, and I try to keep them as long as I can. Until recently, I had been driving a car that was built during the last century and was older than my two youngest children. Recently the repair bills were becoming too frequent and too big. I decided to visit the used car lot and trade Old Faithful for something a bit newer.

I looked at a lot of cars and test-drove a few, and finally made my selection. The price was more than I expected, and the trade-in for Old Faithful was pitifully small—would you believe five dollars? Still, newer wheels were what I wanted, and newer wheels were what I brought home that afternoon.

The next morning I was astonished to see Old Faithful back in my driveway, right behind the newer used car. I had to wait until nine o’clock to speak with the dealer, but I called him from work right at nine. He was surprisingly dismissive over the phone. “No, J,” he told me, “no one drove your car back to your house. It must have found its way back overnight.” I shook my head in disbelief and asked if he wanted me to bring it back. “Don’t bother,” he said. “We found almost seven dollars in spare change in the seats and under them. Nothing else in the car is worth our bother.”

I wasn’t sure what to do next. I don’t need two cars—the insurance alone is too expensive in my neighborhood. Finally, I decided I would have to abandon Old Faithful. I asked my neighbor to follow me in his pick-up truck. We went to the mall, I parked Old Faithful, patted it on the hood, and got in my neighbor’s truck.

The next morning, Old Faithful was back in my driveway again.

My neighbor and I tried all sorts of tricks. We tried leaving Old Faithful in the state park, knowing that the gates would be closed at sunset. The old car still made it back to my driveway. We took it to another town, but ten minutes after we got back, Old Faithful was back as well. We left it in a parking garage, and somehow it still came home again. Everything we tried—disconnecting the battery, deflating the tires, even emptying the gas tank—only managed to slow it down a little bit. Old Faithful was determined to return, and I had no way of stopping it.

Finally, I told Old Faithful to my regular mechanic. He had worked on the car for years and knew all its faults and all its needs. I started telling him what had happened, but he interrupted me to look at the car himself. He opened the hood and looked at the engine, he kicked the tires, and then he started the engine and listened to its sound. After thinking quietly for a minute or two, he turned to me and said, “Well, J, I know what I would do if this was my car.”

“What would you do?” I asked him.

“I’d go ahead and buy another car,” he told me.

At first his advice seemed silly, but my mechanic is a wise man, and he’s never given me bad advice. So now I have three cars crammed into my little driveway. Old Faithful seems happy, and the other two cars don’t seem to mind sharing me with it. I just wish I knew where to find the money to take care of all three cars. J.


Dave Barry fan

Dave Barry and I moved to Miami, Florida, the same summer. I was there for an internship; he has stayed in Miami. Reading some of his first columns after the move was compelling for me, because I was having many of the same experiences and reactions he had.

Aside from that, Dave Barry and I don’t have much in common. He has made a successful career from his writing; my writing has been little more than a hobby. He makes millions of people laugh with his observations; I often fail to elicit even a single chuckle. Dave Barry is able to describe life in this world with great humor and wit. Even when I disagree with his opinions, I always find his writing entertaining.

At first Dave Barry wrote a regular newspaper column. Over time, it appeared in more and more newspapers. Then Dave Barry started writing books. His first few books were simple humorous observations about home repair, parenthood, and the like. Gradually he developed a richer style in his books. By the time Dave Barry was writing about computers (Dave Barry in Cyberspace), he was showing great writing talent. In that book, he even included a short story which is written entirely in the present tense, and—what is more amazing—entirely in the second person. Dave Barry did not become less amusing or entertaining, but his writing gained substance and actually provoked profound thoughts in his readers. My favorite of his books was written about this time: Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys.

I have one post card from Dave Barry. When he wrote about music (Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs), he observed that the city of Chicago does not have an east side. (He was critiquing the song “The Night Chicago Died,” which refers to the east side of Chicago.) Barry suggested that any police officer patrolling the east side of Chicago would be in Lake Michigan. I wrote Barry a letter pointing out that Lake Michigan, like Florida, has a rounded southern boundary. Chicago does indeed have an east side in its southeastern corner, located about where the Everglades are found in Florida. In reply, I received a handwritten, signed postcard which said, “J. Stop confusing me with facts. Dave Barry.” It is one of my most treasured possessions.

Dave Barry has written two novels: Big Trouble and Tricky Business. They are not as successful as his non-fiction humor. He has also turned to writing children’s literature. My personal library holds most of his published work, and some summer I hope to be able to read the entire collection cover to cover.


Grammar Dalek: Apostrophe’s

My name is Salvageable, and I am a grammar Dalek.

I would like to describe a small piece of punctuation that is called an apostrophe. If you are not familiar with that particular piece of punctuation, please look at the title of this post. That little mark near the end is an apostrophe, and it does not belong there. I put it there to be ironic.

The apostrophe has two uses. It signals that letters have been left out of an abbreviation. “I am” becomes “I’m”; “have not” becomes “haven’t”. An apostrophe also signals that someone owns or possesses something, although it is used that way with nouns and proper nouns, but not with pronouns.

People are always getting confused about pronouns and apostrophes. It’s always means it is; if you want to show that it owns something, the word you want is its. You’re always means you are; if you want to show that you—not you, the other you—owns something, the word you want is your.

When a noun or proper noun ends with an s, the apostrophe of ownership is put after the s, and then another s should not be used. The correct form is Jesus’, not Jesus’s. When speaking, the word Jesus’ should sound like Jesus, not like Jesuses. Some style books are now allowing the additional s. This makes sense only if a word ends with a silent s. To speak of something that belongs to Illinois as Illinois’s makes perfect sense, but when Texas owns something, that still should be Texas’.

Sometimes people will use an apostrophe with a plural noun, especially when that noun is not commonly used in the plural. Someone might write, “There are too many n’s in that sentence,” but they would be wrong. There are not too many ns in that sentence, and the plural of n is ns, not n’s.

The misuse of apostrophes is an epidemic that should be exterminated. When I see that a writer has used an apostrophe in the wrong place, my opinion of that writer plummets. Not that anyone really cares what I think about their writing, though. I’m just a grammar Dalek.


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.


Murphy’s Gremlins–part two

Note: this post and the preceding post summarize a book that I have tried more than once to write, but I have never been able to finish it.

Murphy’s Gremlins enforce the law that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. They strive to bring the greatest inconvenience to the greatest number of people. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they can be beat.

I struggled with the gremlins for a long, long time before I discovered a system that leads to victory. I call it the TAP system, because its three steps are remembered by the initials T, A, and P.

T stands for trust. As twelve-step programs say, you must believe in a higher power. Things go wrong every day, small things and big things, but evil has been defeated by good. Trust that someone is in control, someone who cares about you and is bigger than all your problems. When the gremlins seem to be pulling ahead of you, take a breath and remember the higher power. Assure yourself that, because there is nothing that power cannot handle, therefore there is nothing that the two of you together cannot handle.

A stands for act. Don’t let your frustrations paralyze you. If a problem can be fixed, do what you have to do to fix it. If you need to call in a professional, make the call. Plumbing and electricity can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and the gremlins will definitely take over when you try to fix something that you do not understand. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to learn. If you have time to figure out how to replace a piece of pipe under the sink or a light switch, go ahead and do the job. Nothing feels better than putting a gremlin in its place by acquiring the satisfaction of a new skill or ability.

P stands for play. No, that is not a misprint; prayer comes under the category of trust. Find humor in the work of the gremlins, and learn to beat them at their own game. Buy a sandwich when you are in a hurry, and let the gremlins decide whether you get the green lights or the chance to eat your sandwich. Either way you win. Make a game out of the traffic lights. Pretend that the twenty lights between work and home are games on a team’s schedule, and keep track of the team’s record. If that gets boring, use your time in traffic to count things. Count Volkswagen beetles. Count yellow cars. Keep track of out-of-state license plates. If counting is not in your line, see if you can assemble a rainbow from the different colored cars around you on the road.

Play with the gremlins at home. Name them if you want. Talk to them if you want. Let them know that they cannot beat you. But do not forget that you are playing. You and I both know that Murphy’s Gremlins aren’t really there. They are simply a way of making small problems even smaller. They are a way to overcome frustration with humor. They are a way of reminding yourself not to take life all that seriously.

Murphy’s Gremlins can be beat, especially when you remember that they are not really there.