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Funny in Life, They Kill in Death

Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

On the day John Belushi was found dead of a drug overdose, Andy Kaufman went to see George Shapiro, his manager. As Shapiro recalls it, Kaufman came bounding into his office and said, as apparently serious as he was about anything: “John Belushi faked his death! I can’t believe it. I can’t believe he’s stealing my bit!”

Even as yet another piece of Kaufman lore, the anecdote fits. Belushi’s body was discovered on March 5, 1982. A year later, Kaufman was facing his own kind of mortality. There was no more “Taxi” or “Saturday Night Live” to use as a platform; he had appeared in a Broadway play that opened and closed on the same day; and his wrestling fixation had alienated even some of the die-hard fans. And so, in the fall of 1983, Andy Kaufman prepared to embark on a college lecture tour.

As recounted in Bill Zehme’s comprehensive new book, “Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman,” postcards were sent to universities across the country, featuring snapshots of Kaufman in famous and infamous guises--as the “Taxi” auto mechanic Latka Gravas, as Elvis Presley, as a snarling wrestler.

And then, not long after the postcards went out, Kaufman, who didn’t smoke, was suddenly found to have an aggressive form of lung cancer.

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And then, not long after that, at age 35, he died.

And dying, it turns out, was the most sensible thing Kaufman ever did for his career. Dying brought out the love. Dying made him a symbol of artistic purity. Dying turned the many elaborate hoaxes and subterfuges, the stunts he loved to pull, into instant genius. Dying turned those in the entertainment industry who’d written him off into champions of his art, true believers who--of course--had always gotten the joke, had always thought Kaufman ahead of his time, never mind that they may have treated him, in life, as a curiosity or a pariah or an arrogant jerk.

To comedians, a traditionally needy lot, Kaufman was one of those rare brave souls who disregarded the rules of engagement. Their reverence for him is well-deserved. As a child, Kaufman was thrilled by things like Coney Island and professional wrestling and Hubert’s Museum & Live Flea Circus. He debuted on “Saturday Night Live” with his famous “Mighty Mouse” bit, but the piece, during which he would play the “Mighty Mouse” theme song and lip-sync only the brief part, “Here I come to save the day!” had been thought up years before, intended for children’s parties in his hometown of Great Neck, Long Island, writes Zehme. Astonishingly, Kaufman imbued this same sense of kid-like magic into the jaded world of club comedy, and became a legend for doing so.

But only in his death do we arrive at the Andy Kaufman comeback, the resurgence he is experiencing today, with a Hollywood movie, “Man on the Moon,” starring Jim Carrey, due Dec. 22, and two books--Zehme’s “Lost in the Funhouse” and “Andy Kaufman Revealed! Best Friend Tells All,” from Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s writer, friend and partner in comedic crime. They all offer variations on Kaufman, stories that can reveal more about the teller than the subject, stories repeated as gospel, never mind that Kaufman continually created fictions about himself. Indeed, in all the spin being spun about him these days, Kaufman the human being is noticeably absent.

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To the public, however, particularly those for whom “Man on the Moon” will serve as a Kaufman introduction, another kind of mystery endures: Was he a visionary, derelict comedian-performance artist? Or is death reinventing his value as an artist and our appreciation of his work?

Kaufman, it is said, lived his art and wanted to rip viewers out of their complacency. From this impulse came true invention, an ineffable, and human, comedic presence. He played the conga drums and cried. He stood awkwardly in front of the microphone as Foreign Man, doing bad impressions of “dee Elveece” and “dee Archie Bunker” (“to embarrass the audience,” he later said), making like a foreigner who’d just arrived in New York. Then, when he had them, he morphed into a startlingly accurate impersonation of the King.

He read from “The Great Gatsby” in a British accent--and chastised the audience when they groaned at him. As the Laughing Man, he laughed convulsively. Performing a late-night show called Midnight Snacks at the Improv, he did a talk show onstage, sitting at a desk that was elevated above his guest. Onstage and off, he inhabited Tony Clifton, the irascible, tin-eared, never-was lounge singer. He liked that people hated Clifton, because he thought this was funny.

Conversely, he went into his role as Latka on “Taxi” already a bit bored. He demanded that he only have to show up to work two days a week, that he appear in only half the episodes the first year, and that the writers give Clifton a recurring role. Because what, after all, does a sitcom want you to do but hit the same comedic beats week after week?

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Sorting out the sublime from the self-indulgent, the real from the fake, gave Kaufman’s act its tension. That tension, however, is mitigated today by the nostalgia with which people are revisiting his life and work. Today, Kaufman is a dead genius, and you are required to decode everything he did--to see the bad material not as bad, but as bad for bad’s sake (and thus good). Not getting with Kaufman’s program is your problem, not his. When he was alive, and more at the mercy of public interest, this wasn’t necessarily the case. (“Lately, it’s become a pretty popular thing to say that Andy Kaufman isn’t funny anymore,” Kaufman complained during one of his mock serious appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman.”) But the elaborately conceived goofs have since been refashioned as legendary material, ready to be appreciated by the masses. This is just the sort of acceptance Kaufman would neither have solicited nor been offered when he was perpetrating his schemes on an uncomprehending public.

“The more astute minds in comedy don’t mythologize him so much as they stand back and admire the hubris it took for him to do certain things,” says Zehme. “He had an edge when he started, and his edge was rooted in innocence. His innocence was alarming.”

Asked by Playboy to list the 10 most significant moments in show business, Zehme rates Kaufman’s death in the top 10. “Because people laughed when he died,” he says. “That hasn’t happened before or since. That, in a nutshell, is why his legend has grown.”

“Andy was very aware when he was dying that this would be a good career move,” says Zmuda, who is crisscrossing the country promoting his book and “Man on the Moon,” on which he served as co-executive producer. “His biggest fear about dying was that he would be remembered as Latka. . . . He knew that a young corpse would probably make him a legend.”

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Shapiro, the manager caught in the unusual position of offering conventional career advice to someone only vaguely interested in conventional career success, isn’t as enthusiastic promoting the idea that Kaufman welcomed death as a means of image enhancement.

“Bob exaggerates sometimes,” Shapiro says of Zmuda. “It sounds like something Andy would say jokingly. He enjoyed living too much.”

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Kaufman is hardly the first comedian to die young and watch as the magic of retrospect reinvents his impact on the culture at large. From Belushi to Lenny Bruce, from Sam Kinison to Chris Farley--all have been immortalized in death while simultaneously spared the indignity of aging--the slow, precarious slide into midlife wherein living comedians take what they can get, becoming talk-show hosts and game show impresarios, or trading on tired renditions of themselves in movies, holding on to their careers but not quite. Such was, for instance, Richard Pryor’s fate: He changed the rules of stand-up comedy, making race an explosive gold mine for countless comedians who followed him. But the other side of Pryor’s career, the one he lived through, is the disappearance of the firebrand into a series of high-concept movies. Ditto Robin Williams. And John Candy.

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“Almost all comedians end up being punk anarchists on some level, in terms of trying to upset some apple cart,” says Larry Karaszewski, who along with Scott Alexander wrote “Man on the Moon.” “And if they become successful, by the time they’re middle-aged they’re putting on weight, they’re living in a big house. They don’t have as much to complain about, and they stop being as funny.”

Belushi and Farley managed to avoid that trap. They flamed out early, before the youth culture could grow bored with them, or they could grow bored with themselves. In death, their legacies are in the hands of those who are only too happy to fill in the blanks, however inaccurately. Alive, Farley was a gifted physical comedian, memorable for his recurring characters on “Saturday Night Live” and for one good movie, 1995’s “Tommy Boy.” He died at 33, of a cocaine and morphine overdose. Since then, he has become other things, including a poster boy for the evils of drug abuse. That was the message delivered several weeks ago at a Comics Come Home tribute to Farley in his hometown of Madison, Wis., by the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Scott McCallum. McCallum, at least, did not speculate about whether Farley would have turned away from high-concept comedies and explored his more dramatic side.

“The one way a performer can guarantee that they’ll always stay fresh and never fall out of public favor is to die young. A martyred death is all the better,” says filmmaker Robert B. Weide, who has done documentaries on such comic luminaries as the Marx Brothers, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Sahl and Bruce were comic contemporaries from the 1950s and ‘60s--Sahl the edgy, in-depth political comedian, Bruce testing the boundaries of sexual mores. Both were pioneers, but Weide looks at their disparate fates this way: “Mort’s crime is that he survived the ‘60s and came out the other end. I think if Mort had died under mysterious circumstances while he was teamed up with Jim Garrison, investigating the JFK assassination, and if Lenny Bruce had survived his drug demons and legal persecution, I think Mort would be a huge icon today, getting all of his old records reissued on CD, and Lenny would be largely forgotten, getting turned down by Conan O’Brien’s producers.”

Says Sahl, quoting his friend and former antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy: “Jesus had it right. Because he knew to die at 33, and then let people reevaluate what he postulated.”

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Kaufman, to a large degree, trumped the notion of becoming a has-been by calling attention to his own artistic demise. Failure was an ingrained part of his act from the early New York nightclub days. Bombing as theater--it’s what helped him become a sensation on the New York cabaret circuit, which led to growing cult status via the early days of “Saturday Night Live,” and then reluctant sitcom stardom.

But how much Kaufman orchestrated his failures is a contested issue. He would continue to wrestle, alienating even those who were apt to follow Kaufman to the ends of his creative psyche. In 1982, appearing at the 10th anniversary of the New York comedy club Catch a Rising Star, he performed his old standby routines--the Foreign Man character morphing into the dead-on Elvis impersonation--and had Zmuda, his cohort, heckle him viciously, a public denunciation that his act had gone stale and needed to be retired.

Amid this sort of career-suicide-as-comedy, he invented a new character--the Fakir, a mystic who wore a diaper and turban onstage, and did things like swallow swords and move his pectoral muscles to the beat of a conga drum. He figured he’d debut the act to his fans on “Saturday Night Live,” but the producers bumped the segment, the first time Kaufman was ever cut from the show. Shortly thereafter, he put his entire presence as a featured guest on “SNL” up to a viewer vote--and lost.

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“His chief creation, this Foreign Man character, basically was corrupted and unmasked,” says Zehme of Kaufman, post-"Taxi.” “He had to think of some other person to be, and his choices weren’t terrific.”

“Andy manufactured the failure of his career,” counters Zmuda. “That was part of his design. . . . His career didn’t take a dip. You only think it did because he advertised that his career was over.”

But others wonder how much failure, ultimately, Kaufman was courting, and how much was visited upon him by audiences driven to indifference by his refusal to let them into his world.

Even Kaufman realized the fine line between abusing the audience and needing the audience to care enough to take the abuse in the first place. During a phone conversation with friend Kathy Utman, recounted in Zehme’s book, Kaufman complained, with evident seriousness, “that two cable companies don’t want to give Andy Kaufman a show, because Andy Kaufman performs for himself and not the public. And that really bummed me out. . . . But if everybody in this business thinks that way, then I can’t--I mean, if they’re all stupid, I’m the one that suffers.”

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In one of the climactic scenes in “Man on the Moon,” Kaufman gives his triumphant concert at a sold-out Carnegie Hall, the one that ends with him herding the entire audience into buses and taking them out for milk and cookies. The film presents the Carnegie Hall show as a warmhearted career denouement, but in fact that concert took place in 1979, and the ensuing years, as chronicled in Zehme’s book, revealed audience wear-and-tear. Concerts had to be canceled, and media interest waned; meanwhile, Kaufman delved deeper into his bad-guy wrestling persona, into maintaining the fiction that he wasn’t Tony Clifton.

Carl Reiner first saw Kaufman perform Foreign Man and Elvis at Catch a Rising Star in the early 1970s; he was flabbergasted (in a good way), and subsequently introduced the unique young talent to Shapiro, Reiner’s nephew and Kaufman’s future manager. But even a comedy insider like Reiner went from being an unabashed fan to being a tad put off. In a 1981 Rolling Stone article that focused largely on Kaufman’s ability to be/not be Tony Clifton, Reiner said: “Unless you let the audience in on the joke, you are making fools of them, and that’s what he’s doing with this Tony Clifton. The audience would love to be able to say, ‘My God, what a wonderful character that man is playing, you can’t even see him.’ But they have to know it’s really him, really Andy Kaufman. He has to tell them, somehow, ‘I’m going to do the worst act in the world, and the game we’re playing is to see how long you can take it before you bomb me.’ At least then there’s an audience catharsis, even if it’s anger instead of laughter. But they have to know why they’re angry or laughing.”

“Did I say that?” Reiner says today, hearing his words read back to him. His point of view, he suspects, has softened over the years, now that Kaufman is gone. “I guess I was getting upset that he was going in a direction that I hoped wouldn’t destroy him,” he says. Of Kaufman’s audience antagonism, Reiner adds: “I liken it to a concert I saw by [choreographer] Merce Cunningham at UCLA. We were watching a wonderful evening, and then a number comes on with this atonal, cacophonous music, and with the angularity of dancers that was ugly. It was just horrendous, but we sat there. Your skin starts to hurt. People are walking out of the theater. And that was what the piece was. He wanted to see if he had the power to get you out of the theater.”

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Kaufman may have wanted to bait audiences out of the theater, but Hollywood is now telling us that it’s safe to return. Andy, the hype for “Man on the Moon” promises, will behave himself. Screenwriters Alexander and Karaszewski say they tried to write a script Kaufman would have signed off on, which is to say a story that does more to perpetuate his mystery than explain it. This runs counter to the comforting illusion of celebrity bios, which promises to brings the viewer closer to understanding the public figure. But Kaufman had a macabre way of keeping people off-guard. Healthy, he floated the concept of faking his own death, and when he was diagnosed with cancer he was apparently as filled with ideas as dread. He would go on “Letterman” after Christmas, he figured. In the bit, Dave would say, “Andy, what did you get for Christmas?” “Cancer,” Kaufman would reply.

“There was a part of Andy that was thrilled he was dying,” insists Zmuda, who was around for Kaufman’s final days.

But it is difficult to imagine someone going through the horrific physical pain of cancer and feeling anything close to thrilled, however nicely that fits into the Kaufman mystique. Shapiro, speaking with the enthusiasm of a manager, says that Kaufman would have lived to enjoy the fruits of his passions--riding high on the explosion of cable TV and professional wrestling’s emergence as a pop culture juggernaut. Others say he would have turned more seriously to writing (a la Steve Martin), or character acting (a la Bill Murray).

As it turned out, the last arc of Kaufman’s career went this way: Cancer ended his life, death created the need for a tribute, and the tribute is leading people back to Kaufman’s work, which, in the end, is a good thing--maybe the only important thing.

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“If he’d listened to me,” admits Shapiro, “they wouldn’t be making this movie about him.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Andy Relived

TELEVISION

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Andy Kaufman marathon on TV Land, featuring episodes of “Taxi” and the Kaufman special “Andy’s Funhouse,” which aired on ABC as a late-night special in 1979. Marathon runs Dec. 20-22, from 4-7 p.m. and 9 p.m.-midnight.

BOOKS

“Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Art of Andy Kaufman,” Bill Zehme, Delacorte Press.

“Andy Kaufman Revealed! Best Friend Tells All,” Bob Zmuda, Little, Brown.

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VIDEO

Rhino Video has reissued two releases about Kaufman:

“I’m From Hollywood,” documentary on Kaufman and his wrestling.

“My Breakfast With Blassie,” parody of “My Dinner With Andre” featuring Kaufman and pro wrestler Freddie Blassie.

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MUSEUM:

“Andy’s Funhouse: The Andy Kaufman Special,” running through Jan. 30 at the Museum of Television & Radio, Beverly Hills, Fridays-Sundays, 3:30 p.m., and Thursdays, 6 p.m.


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