By Keir Graff
DECEMBER 13, 1999: Andy Kaufman, jester saint of the in-the-know, is, fifteen years after his death, best known for two things: his role as Latka on the TV show "Taxi," and for the persistent belief of many that he faked his own death.
This simplistic entry in the public ledgers would irritate him, for, though he was often accused of running short on new material, there was certainly much more to the Kaufman oeuvre than the perpetually innocent garage mechanic of indeterminate extraction.
Purveyor of an uncategorizable brand of entertainment (calling him a comic wasn't just a slight to his ego, it was an inaccuracy), his work provoked confusion because no one was ever sure if what they were seeing was real or a put-on. And though that was by design, offstage he remained an enigma. His characters emerged from his subconscious and seemed to stay.
And now, as there is rising an untreadable swell of interest in the man, what we might most desire is the "truth" about him. As his friend Bob Zmuda says in his book "Andy Kaufman Revealed!," the question he is most often asked is, "Was he really as weird as he seemed?"
The shorthand answer is yes, but whether Zmudaalso Kaufman's coconspirator, road manager, writer and cronyis faking the written or not is another matter. Firstly, for those given to reading titles literally, it must be said that "Andy Kaufman Revealed!" is also quite a bit about Bob Zmuda. If Zmuda can be taken at his word, much of his life bears directly on Kaufman's, both in their shared passions and Zmuda's influence on Kaufman. And much as Zmuda appears to be writing to uphold the myth, he is also writing to ensure his place in it. "Every time Andy looked at me that night, it was with total admiration, for only he and I knew the truth, that his success that night was the direct result of my writing and producing the show."
If you read between the lines, it's a complex book: the story of Bob, the story of Andy, and the story of Bob's seat on the gravy train. "I feared his ship pulling out of the harbor and never coming back to pluck me off the island of my dismal existence." Zmuda's instincts always seem to have been more focused on the business end of things than his will-o'-the-wisp friend. Tackily, the book ends with a plug for the upcoming Milos Forman movie "Man on the Moon," for which Zmuda served as co-executive producer.
Still, there are enlightening nuggets that are perhaps best heard from someone in the inner sanctum. Kaufman's "bombing" routines came out of an "obsession with studying failure." Regarding "Inter-Gender Wrestling": "Many people thought that the wrestling was just another put-on... in fact, it was just Andy being horny." And the inside scoop on Kaufman's famous match with wrestler Jerry Lawler will leave fans delightedwhether or not Zmuda's kidding.
"Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman," by Bill Zehme, is an entirely different animal. A thoroughly researched, almost exhaustive account of Kaufman's life, the book instantly gives the reader a feeling he's getting more of the story. Childhood gets long shrift here, and justifiably so. Kaufman remained so childlike throughout his life that certain childhood stories engender a shock of recognition: Oh, that's why... He had an imaginary twin named Dhrupick, who he would sometimes pretend to be.
But where Zmuda wants his due as a creative force, Zehme wants his as a wordsmith: "Rarified wind blew west, as it will, because west is where certain sorts of dreams go to flourish or to corrupt themselves or to die. He had been west and knew he would go again but knew not when or how." Zehme's prose can be tinged with purple, and his artful methods for conveying fact, direct quote and imaginings of Andy's thought processes both illuminate and impede the story. As the book progresses, a creeping condescension appears toward Andy, in Zehme's mimicry of his speech patterns, in the authorial asides. But perhaps most flawed in the telling is the headlong rush of the language that creates a feeling of inevitability, as if Kaufman was running headlong toward his myth"Then he returned to Los Angeles to become the franchise," or "There now awaited the imprimatur of legacy-in-shorthand"rather than being, as one assumes is the case, a man, living, making choices that lead to other choices and, ultimately, the narrowing of options that constitutes any life.
Zehme and Zmuda diverge on many small details, though Zehme seems more convincing, given the countless interviews he conducted and the weighing of testimony that that must have entailed. And, given that Zmuda contradicts himself a couple of times, he seems less and less reliable.
Which method gets more at the truth of Kaufman's character? Zmuda's may echo it better, but Zehme has better quotes. "The real real him was the existential puppeteer who decided what would happen whenever people were looking," writes Zehme. Said David Letterman: "Sometimes when you look Andy in the eyes, you get a feeling somebody else is driving." And said Andy Kaufman: "I'm an open book." In the end, it appears only Kaufman knew where the lines were drawn between his personalities and his charactersor maybe he didn't. And unless he goes on the record (which he'd only do in character), the mystery will remain. And so perhaps the "truth" is just everything: the facts, the fibs, the characters, both books, the misremembered gags, the fact that he's still out there somewhere.
It's going to be great, seeing him at the premiere of "Man on the Moon."
"Andy Kaufman Revealed! Best Friend Tells All"
"Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman"
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