Andy Kaufman Revealed!: Best Friend Tells All , by Bob Zmuda with Matthew Scott Hansen. Little, Brown & Company, 306 pages, $24.
What tender regard we’ve learned to show for the sensitivities of the dead, whom we treat so much more thoughtfully than we do the living. How solicitously we debate the deceased’s preferences concerning public image and literary reputation. Would Ernest Hemingway have wanted us to read his unfinished novel? Would Ralph Ellison have approved the current edition of Juneteenth ?
And all the time we’re projecting like mad, assuming that we can imagine what we (or anyone) will desire once we’ve departed this world for the next.
Most of us, for example, might assume that it would be perfectly heavenly to look down–or up–from wherever we’re spending eternity and find that our closest, dearest friend has written our life story. Not if we had read Bob Zmuda’s Andy Kaufman Revealed!: Best Friend Tells All , a chatty account of the late comic, a 70’s version of Lenny Bruce known for his over-the-top, on-stage explorations of the line between outrageousness and insult, for doing impersonations with an authenticity that stopped just short of full-blown multiple personality disorder, and for his wrestling matches with attractive female fans. Mr. Zmuda’s digressive book–which offers simultaneously way more and way less information than we need–suggests that one might actually prefer the unkind fate of most biographical subjects: the chance to have your secrets exposed by a total stranger who despises you for no particular personal reason.
Randomly mingling biography and memoir, Mr. Zmuda–the producer of the Comic Relief benefits–reminds us that eulogy can be the most autobiographical of forms. Filled with grammatical howlers and half-baked cultural pronouncements (“Though the evidence of madras plaids and love beads and patchouli wafting on the air was fading, we had been out of Vietnam more than a year, and the notion that love could conquer hate had made its impression on more than a few”), the book makes you picture Andy Kaufman grabbing for that celestial (or infernal) blue pencil.
And yet, despite its flaws, Mr. Zmuda’s reminiscence makes interesting reading for what it reveals, or reminds us about, the talented, inventive comic who dedicated himself so zealously to pushing buttons and testing limits. Mr. Zmuda’s association with Kaufman extended beyond best-friendship to include intermittent work as Kaufman’s writer, producer, procurer (gifted with a prodigious and rarefied sexual appetite, Kaufman once won a bet that he could sleep, in record time, with the entire staff of a Nevada brothel, a marathon presumably involving his favorite romantic activity: pinning women to wrestling mats for the rubbing and grinding that one lover described as “exhibiting all the earmarks of mild necrophilia”) and other less readily classifiable duties. (“One of my strangest functions was to patrol the hall outside his room … while striking a small saucepan with a mallet.… My task was to check sound levels. If Andy could hear the pan resonating at a certain range we’d immediately change rooms or hotels.”)
Having been more or less present at the creation of Kaufman’s comic personae (Elvis; the befuddled Foreign Man, Latka, on the TV series Taxi ; the obnoxious, audience-abusing lounge singer Tony Clifton) Mr. Zmuda is able to track the rise and fall of Kaufman’s brief, meteoric and bizarre career–the subject of a soon-to-be-released film starring Jim Carrey as the eccentric comedian. Kaufman got his start at the Improv, one of the New York comedy clubs that flourished during the 70’s; his reputation grew after he became a semi-regular on Saturday Night Live during its early (and most inspired) seasons. He was tapped for a Friday-night comedy series, a launch that ran aground after the comic stalked off stage during a live performance; he made a number
of confrontational (and in some cases spectacularly disastrous) guest appearances on various talk and variety shows, appeared in
an awful movie, Heartbeeps , built a devoted audience on college campuses, where he wrestled–and slept with–untold numbers of undergrad Amazons, filmed his own TV special, triumphed at Carnegie Hall … and then watched his success disintegrate after a painful, public betrayal by Saturday Night Live producer Dick Ebersol.
Meanwhile, his biographer argues, all his planned performances were merely warm-up acts for the street theater that Kaufman loved most, the impromptu put-ons and practical jokes that he and Mr. Zmuda (who often served as his straight man and stooge) played on innocent bystanders in airports, restaurants and amusement parks–pranks that, sadly, lose their punch when recounted here. (“When the waiter arrived at our table, he took one look at Andy and was instantly repulsed by the massive ball of snot hanging from his left nostril.”)
What’s most compelling about Kaufman is that he was so clearly less interested in humor than in discomfort and provocation; his idea of a “triumph” was to have his alter ego, Tony Clifton, pelted with bottles, fruits and vegetables during a performance. His “two axioms” were “The audience doesn’t have to like you, and you don’t have to be funny … just interesting.… Failure and perceived mediocrity were concepts Andy toyed with his entire career.” He liked seeing how far and how long a put-on could be sustained. His much-publicized feud with Jerry (The King) Lawler–during a match with the professional wrestler, Kaufman apparently suffered spinal injuries serious enough to necessitate his wearing a neck brace for months–was, Mr. Zmuda reveals, an elaborately staged hoax. Fascinated by the concept and the process of “bombing,” Kaufman used his own family (gathered at a Catskills resort to celebrate Thanksgiving) as guinea pigs in his continuing experiments with public humiliation: “When it was show time, 600 paying customers sat back and watched Andy Kaufman introduce his family one by one, who then crossed to center stage and performed. It was exactly what the Kaufman tribe had been doing around the dinner table for 25 years.… But for paying strangers
it was worse than watching paint dry. After the first few ‘acts’ the crowd started rustling around in their chairs and within a few minutes quietly chatting among themselves. Their buzzing drowned out the real Grandma Pearl as she carefully related the tale of the rabbi and his dog. At any second, Andy could have come to the rescue … but he chose not to, rather he let his family quietly die one at a time. Since Andy was mesmerized by failure, he wanted his loved ones to experience it, to flop in front of a big crowd–a big crowd of strangers .”
Well, you can’t help wondering: What kind of guy would do that to his grandmother? And it’s a shame that Mr. Zmuda can’t tell us. The closest he comes to an insight into Andy’s rage and outrageousness–Kaufman never got over the death of his beloved grandfather–seems partial at best; it’s finally no more convincing than the theory espoused by some of the comic’s friends–that his fatal illness (he died of lung cancer in 1984 at age 35) was caused by Dick Ebersol’s betrayal. It’s too bad that Mr. Zmuda isn’t a sharper writer, a deeper thinker, capable of helping us see how Kaufman’s humor was inspired by, and reflected, the times in which he lived. Mr. Zmuda’s loving, heartfelt attempt at resurrection fails to bring his friend to life on the page, and leaves us with a familiar disappointed feeling. As people say of jokes that don’t translate: I guess you had to be there.