| drew davidson |
 

 

 

Kaufman Lives:
Performing Andy Kaufman

 

by

Drew Davidson

                                                                                                           

 

 

            Performing Andy Kaufman has raised some very interesting and problematic issues for me.  He is a figure who never really admitted much about himself and told even less.  He never wrote an autobiography per se, and the comments he made concerning himself were particularly oblique.  Basically, he never dropped the mask(s) that he continually wore throughout his public career.  He was a performer who never quit performing and whose entire performance(s) revolved around his apparent inability to perform.   Concurrently, very little has been written about Kaufman, so there is this interesting hole that could be filled.  I say could, because I believe it was Kaufman's intention to leave a hole, so maybe it is not my place to attempt to fill it.  Becuase of this, the source materials I have been left with are videotapes of various and sundry performances by Kaufman, and a review of his work as well as a chapter by Philip Auslander in his book, Presence and Resistance.  From these texts, I have been developing and exploring metaperformance ideas in much the same manner as Kaufman. 

            While Kaufman explored through the context of comedy and its audience, I have been exploring him through the context of our performance class and my peers.  Now, to organize for a second.  With this paper, I plan to first, describe several of Kaufman's performances that have influenced my interpretation of him.  Second, I will explore the issues raised in a review of Kaufman and in Auslander's chapter on him, interpreting and critiquing Kaufman's performance(s).   And third, I will discuss the implications of my interpretations and how they have shaped and problematized my performances of him.

            For the purposes of this paper I am going to describe briefly several performances by Kaufman; "A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall," his Saturday Night Live debut, Foreign Man (Latka on "Taxi"), Tony Clifton, "Andy's Fun House," and his InterGender wrestling matches with women.  Throughout his career, Kaufman would frequently get in front of a comedy club audience and sing "A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall" from start to finish.  He commented that once an audience got hooked on the song, they wouldn't let him not finish it (Auslander 141).  A similar non-comedic moment occurred in his debut on Saturday Night Live.   Kaufman stood by himself in front of a black background with the theme from the old "Mighty Mouse" cartoon playing.  When the chorus came, he would break into a simulation of flight, arms stretched out, and lip-synch to the lyrics (140).

            In another example of ths non-comedy, Kaufman would appear on stage as Foreign Man and he would tell non-jokes, like, "One thing about LA is too much traffic, it took me an hour and a half to get here . . . My wife's cooking is so bad, it's terrible" (142).  Inevitably, the audience wouldn't laugh and Foreign Man would panic, saying, "thank you very much" again and again.  Eventually, he bombs so badly that he loses it and tries to start his routine all over again.  Within this bumbling Foreign Man would suddenly do an excellent Elvis impersonation.  Throughout the performance, Kaufman never stepped out of the Foreign Man persona. 

            Another persona he never let up was Tony Clifton.  Clifton was a horrible, obnoxious singer who refused to leave a stage once he got on it, even over jeers and peltings.  He often performed behind a protective scrim and in riot gear (143).  At first, Clifton appeared as an opening act for Kaufman and other performers.  Kaufman always stated that he and Clifton were separate persons, saying he had impersonated Clifton before and had even hired him.  Meanwhile, Clifton would appear with his own wife and kids and agent (144).  Kaufman and Clifton made demeaning statements about each other and their feud attracted media attention (144).  Kaufman refused to admit that he was Clifton and it went so far as to have Clifton hired to appear on "Taxi" with him (144).  Unfortunately, Clifton was fired because of his unprofessional behavior, having to be bodily dragged off the set after being fired. 

            Another of Kaufman's forays into television was also unseen by the public.  "Andy's Fun House," was a special he filmed for ABC that was never aired (it is now on video).  The format of the show slid from genre to genre with Kaufman's persona changing with each slide.  Part way into the program, Kaufman addresses the camera and says, "Ladies and gentlemen, everything I've done for you, really I was only fooling. This is really me, and we'll be right back" (150-151).  Then instead of a commercial we see an "off-camera" Kaufman, a supposedly more "real" Kaufman, behave quite nasty with the studio audience.  The levels of simulation become endless, Kaufman fakes this and fakes that and that and that.  Ironically, the program was never aired because ABC couldn't tell who the real Kaufman was (151).  During this unaired show, Kaufman did several interviews.  In one, he talks with Howdy Doody and tells him (Howdy) that he is "just as real as anyone else who's on the show" (151).  He does another interview in a segment called "The Has-Been Corner" with Gail Slobodkin, who Kaufman claims, appeared in The Sound of Music, and has since had her career fizzle (152).  Kaufman ends the segment saying that he hopes she makes it in her attempt to renew her career, but that he doesn't think she will.  He immediately is booed and apologizes. 

            Kaufman was also booed during his controversial wrestling matches with women. although he never apologized in this context.  He would appear anywhere, a comedy club, a wresting arena, on television, etc., and offer money to any women who could beat him (145-146).  He would then insult his audiences, saying that he had proven that women were only good for cooking, because not one woman had beaten him yet.  Inevitably, some woman would take him on and be beaten by him.  He then crowned himself the undefeated InterGender Wrestling Champion (146).

            Throughout all of the performance(s) described above, Kaufman remained steadfastly in character, even when the "performance" was over.  Kaufman never let the mask slip.   Auslander sees Kaufman as a stand-up comic who "found ways of mounting a critical discourse from within the terms of postmodern mediatized culture" (139).  Kaufman is probably the only version of stand-up comedy that can be called "conceptual comedy."  His comedy was ultimately about comedy, similar to how conceptual art was about art (139).  Kaufman radically put his "presence and authority as a performer radically at risk" (140).  Auslander points out that Kaufman tried to deconstruct presence and discover strategies of resistance from with mass-cultural contexts more than any other performer working in the context of popular entertainment and more even than most avant-garde artists (140).  He pursued a negative strategy "by refusing to fill the content of popular entertainment with the expected content" (140).  His performance(s) consisted of activities that had private meanings incomprehensible in the context of comedy entertainment (140). 

            Like other performances of Kaufman's, his performance of "A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall" was structured as a repetitive test of endurance -his and the audience's" (140).  Auslander states that Kaufman's comment about "hooking" an audience with the song illustrates how an audience is hooked on the presence of the performer more than the quality or significance of their performance (141).  This is reflected in Kaufman's SNL debut, which shows a simplicity in his performances that rejected an acting skill.  Kaufman did things that anyone could feasibly do (141).  Auslander believes that Kaufman was showing that what a performer does is far less important that the fact the s/he requires a "privileged presence" simply by being in the "controlling position of the social dynamic of performance" (141). Kaufman continually explored the performer-audience relationship.  He pushed the context of popular entertainment to its limits by presenting performances that raised questions of what expectations are created by the context and what meanings are imposed on things within that context (141).  

            When he performed as Foreign Man, he was incompetent except for the impersonation of Elvis, which was kept in the context of the Foreign Man persona.  Auslander notes that this impersonation makes the performance "self-reflexive, pointing out and undermining the illusion" (143).  Kaufman may have never stepped out of the Foreign Man persona but he did something that was beyond Foreign Man's skill, implying that Foreign Man was not what he seemed to be (143).  And yet, once the audience figured it out the ruse, Kaufman moved on to keep himself and the audience vulnerable. 

            With Tony Clifton, Kaufman did not give the audiences any opening to his ruse.  By constantly denying that he was Clifton and by staging such elaborate performances to prove he wasn't, Kaufman manipulated the media to help support his ruse.  His refusal to own up to Clifton went as far as Clifton being hired and fired by "Taxi."  This event was a "private" performance that received media attention (144).  It was a performance known only through documentation.  Auslander believes that Clifton actually became a "media-produced simulacrum" (144).  Unlike Foreign Man, Clifton was never assimilated by the audience.  Kaufman kept Clifton on the edge of reality and fiction.  He was causing his audience's discomfort in that he never let the mask slip.  It wasn't conventionally funny, Kaufman never let the audience know that it was an act.  He never let them in on the joke.  He didn't give the audience a conventional way to respond (144-145). 

            Kaufman again doesn't give his audience a conventional way to respond in his wrestling matches with women.  Arguably his most disturbing performance gambit, it also defies expectations and resists classification as real or fictional (146).   Auslander sees Kaufman's use of professional wrestling to be filled with connotations of falsity and cultural trends; i.e. the bad guy are Russians, Arabs, etc. (146).  Auslander notes that these performances raise several questions.  Was Andy using this wrestling persona to satire misogyny, or was he serious?  In a wrestling context, he would have been seen as a "bad guy," but what about his various contexts (in a comedy club, is he still a wrestler?)? Does the comedy club recontextualize the wrestling, or vice-versa?  Is Kaufman doing a parody of a parody (147)?  In these wrestling matches, the gap between reality and representation is even more problematic than Foreign Man or Clifton, because it is impossible to place Kaufman (147).  He never stepped out of character to help us contextualize his role in the performance.  He would perform wrestler-style interviews, yelling and proclaiming himself number one.  And, apparently, all of his opponents were spontaneous volunteers with a genuine chance to win the offered cash prize (148). 

            Auslander sees the undecidability of Kaufman's performance(s) as a critique of a media society and our complicity in it (148).  He raises the following questions. Why would a woman participate with Kaufman?  Was Kaufman's point that, like "A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall," audiences can be hooked by anything?  Why did audiences watch him?  Would audiences watch anything (148)?  Kaufman was giving audiences a reality that had little or nothing to do with himself.  Regardless of the "reality" of his characters,  Auslander notes that the audiences frustration with them is real (149).  Kaufman wanted the audience to react.  The only catharsis he left to audiences was to empathize for his bad performance (Foreign Man), shout at his offensiveness (Clifton), and/or cheer for women to beat him up (InterGender Champion Wrestler) (148).  Throughout all of these performances, Kaufman foregrounded the audience and the reasons for their investment in the performance(s) (148).  He blurred the definition of performance so successfully that as he lay dying in the hospital and reports of his condition began to surface in the media, many assumed it was another of his performance gambits, which pleased Kaufman immensely (145).

            Kaufman's media-manipulating work was prime for using the medium of television, which he did in his conceptual television special, "Andy's Fun House" (150).  His endless sliding between characters added up to endless levels of simulation.  The audience could not latch on to a real Kaufman because there wasn't one.  Auslander states that Kaufman defines the concept of a reality of television when he proclaims that Howdy Doody is as real as anyone else on the show (151).  The simulacrum of Howdy and of Kaufman are equally real on television.  Throughout his performance(s), Kaufman never contextualized any of his work, providing no explicit commentary (154).  Auslander notes that Kaufman's full intentions are impossible to read, raising the following questions.  Does Kaufman think he's being funny?  Or is he critiquing the media culture and our acceptance of it (155)?  For Auslander, this "undecidability enhances rather than negates" the impact of Kaufman's work (155).  Kaufman forces the audience to examine its expectations very closely.  By never standing apart from his material and letting the audience in on the joke, he directs attention to the larger process of social representation and his and the audience's part in it (155).

            Auslander delineates Kaufman from performance art based on the context; i.e. performance art was avant-garde and its audience was open to these works, whereas, Kaufman performed in comedy clubs (141).  A typical comment about Kaufman's work, was not that he was redefining comedy, but that he was intentionally trying to fail by refusing to be funny (142).  This was an interpretation endorsed by Kaufman who claimed never to have told a joke in his life (142).  Auslander sees an audacity in Kaufman's demands that his work be read conventionally, by which standard it was bad (142).  In the end, Kaufman never gave us anything.  He refused to fulfill the demands of a stand-up comic and also denied that he was doing anything conceptual, putting his own authority as a performer, and his career, at risk by letting his work be seen as incompetent (142).  In the end, we are left asking questions that have no answers, as quoted in this review put in this reivew of the video, "I'm from Hollywood,"  what we saw with Kaufman "was either the shrewdest put-on in comedy history, or a brilliant performer's mental breakdown.  Your call."  (Time 73).  In the end, Kaufman's refusal to take the mask(s) off leaves the decision in the audience's hands. 

            Auslander's interpretation of Kaufman's extreme performance(s) was quite an inspiration for me in terms of this class.  It immediately turned my thoughts to metaperformance issues and to our performance expectations of each other in this class.  I was disinterested in ideas of trying to capture an "essence" or a "reality" of Kaufman, but I wondered if he could be (re)presented in a performance that echoed his own form, and performance concepts.  In other words, could I directly address issues of performance in an autobiographical performance about Kaufman that would also question our expectations of just what an autobiographical performance should be?  And, wouldn't this type of questioning best (re)present Kaufman? 

            These thoughts and questions led me to attempt a "bad" performance about Kaufman in the same vein as Kaufman's attempts.  Like Kaufman, I would be placing the audience in a position to emotionally react to my lack of fulfilling the expectations of our assignment.  This was further developed by the climate of our class which is so supportive and helpful of each other.  We, as a class, are all in the same boat so to speak.  Each of us has to perform and we all wish the best for each other.  The one thing that frustrated me from the beginning of this process was the issue of purity.  To take the risks that Auslander perceived Kaufman did, I would have to not drop the mask of my performance(s) for the entire semester, even keeping it on in meeting with the professor and denying that I was doing anything conceptual.  Then, and only then, would I be taking a risk somewhat comparable to Kaufman.  I would not only be risking a bad grade with bad work, but I would be risking the perception that I wasn't a good student in general.  Needless to say, I found this type of purity frightening and problematic.  Because, if the professor had no prior knowledge of my intentions, than it would seem like a great ruse to say that I meant to be bad on purpose. 

            Regardless, with the professor's blessing, I began to develop a bad performance.  I wanted it to appear weak on many levels.  For instance, I wanted my "bad" concept to be that of a lecturer, not very creative in the context of this class.  Also, my performance extended beyond and before the performance date for the class, my strategy being that the week preceding the date I would tell my classmates that I hadn't begun work on my performance and that I was worried that I might have to wing it.  Interestingly enough, this was very hard to do, because I felt as if I were lying to them, which made me feel rather manipulative.  Ironically, I became quite worried about giving a good, bad performance, and I also wondered how one would do a bad, bad performance.  An issue I still haven't resolved for myself on a theoretical level, but practically, I think of a good, bad performance as one that meets me goals ( I guess). Also, by giving a bad performance, I wouldn't be conventionally (re)presenting Kaufman, no essence would be captured, although the form would be a direct echo of him.  

            Nevertheless, I worried over my ability to act genuinely bad, and decided to try to structure moments of me messing up, and also have Lynn cut my off at the time limit, so she became part of the performance.  The rest of the performance was ad-libbed off of a general outline of information, that being my way to be honestly bad about speaking.  The result of this was mixed, in my ad-libbing I explained Kaufman well enough that several people caught on to what I was doing, although several people laughed throughout the performance, a reaction I totally did not expect.  Post-performance conversations with my peers, showed that even though they thought I was bombing, they thought that I assumed a "what the hell" attitude and just kept blustering on. 

            This performance raised some interesting performative issues for me.  First, there is the issue of ad-libbing.  I found it interesting because I cannot remember exactly what I said and did during the performance.  It was truly a performance that lived and died in the present, for both audience and performer.  Althought, this is rather problematic from the perspective of reproducing it as I have no way to do the same performance again.  Also, there is the issue of good explanation in a bad performance.  I wonder if I could tightly script a bunch of bad explanations so to speak, so that it sounds as if I'm explaining my ideas, even though I'm speaking nonsense and non sequitur.  This would be a way to mock my earlier performance concept of a lecturer and also add levels to my performance similar to the levels Kaufman added in "Andy's Fun House."  Finally, there is the issue of my self-performance.  My performance of myself in this class has a direct effect on the class' expectations and interpretations of my performances for the class.  So, there is a sort of continued performance throughout the class that I believe is especially pertinent to autobiographical performance.  Your performance of yourself in class, influences your performances of others.  Which begs the question, can you do a non-performance?  A performance that is not performative (probably not).

            These issues lead me in directions I'd like to further explore in my following performances of Kaufman.  First of all, it is obvious that I could not do another intentionally bad performance, the class would not "fall" for it.  Which leads me directly into thinking about their expectations for my next performance. In the manner of Kaufman, I want to directly address and possibly subvert these expectations.  I also want to think about the possibilities of denial in my performance.  I could use Kaufman's strategy of never admitting anything to further undermine my performance.  This could be done outside of, and within, the performance. 

            So, as of now, I am interested in pursuing several issues:  those of audience expectations and potential subversions of them, of what constitutes "bad" performance and/or non-performance, of the non-truth of (re)presenting Kaufman, of presenting questions with no answers given, of the ephemerality of ad-libbed performances, of the possibility of misexplanation and non sequitur, of self-performance and its effects on autobiographical performance, of why we are doing these performances, and of performing in a performance class.  All of these issues were similarly explored by Kaufman in his comedic context.  I believe that by echoing his form and his performance contexts, while simultaneously using him as the source material for my performances, I am (re)presenting Kaufman in a fitting manner that does echo his style, but doesn't peg his essence per se.  As I said before, Kaufman never dropped the mask of his performance(s), leaving us with questions about the man and the myth.

            With this paper, I illustrated how I could explore Kaufman through the context of our performance class and my peers, which was similar to how Kaufman explored through the context of comedy and its audience. I described several of Kaufman's performances that have influenced my interpretation of him.  I then looked at issues that were raised in a review of Kaufman and in Auslander's chapter on him, interpreting and critiquing Kaufman's performance(s).   Finally, I discussed the implications of my interpretations and how they have shaped and problematized my performances of him.  In the end, my exploration and performance of Andy Kaufman have raised some very interesting and problematic issues for me and, like his performance(s), have left me with more questions than answers when thinking about autobiographical performance.  Which, I believe, would have made Andy happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Auslander, Philip.  Presence and Resistance:  Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in             Contemporary American Performance.  Ann Arbor:  U of Michigan P, 1992.

 

???? (no author given).  "Review of Andy Kaufman:  'I'm from Hollywood (video)" Time v140, n26, 12/28/92: 73.

 

 

 


 

| drew davidson |