I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A Comedy Pioneer: Andy Kaufman

by Jake Goldman
Sept. 10, 2016

The passing of Andy Kaufman in 1984 left fans and critics alike with unanswered questions. There are few interviews that exist with Kaufman, and with, it's impossible to tell if Kaufman was using the opportunity to perform in character. What we never understood about Kaufman, though, was his true intent as an artist. Was he chiefly concerned with being a provocateur, constantly probing audiences, taking them to the edge? Or, was there a distinct message behind his comedy, one that hoped to change minds and hearts?

Ultimately, I think it’s best that we don’t fully know the answer. If the main conceit of his comedy was simply to get a rise out of people, we’d view him as an annoying hack, less concerned with the inherent humor in his pieces than the chaos his work created. If it were the other option, that his comedy had a distinct and pointed message, we might view him as an arrogant dude who saw his own art in a category all its own (though, it certainly was and always will be).

The real answer, I think, bleeds through in Kaufman’s one-time television special, Andy Kaufman’s Funhouse. We see his true intent in bold, bright colors. It may seem simplistic but I think it’s true: Andy Kaufman just wanted to have fun. Really, I think that’s what it was. It doesn’t mean there was no thought behind his bits or that he just said “fuck it,” and did whatever the hell he wanted. (though, in a sense, that was exactly what he did). It just means that Kaufman knew what was funny to him and what made him laugh. He didn’t pander or do what was popular or what had worked for other people. Simply, he understood his own gut and instincts so well and followed them wherever they decided to take him.

You can see the joy he experiences in Funhouse. From the opening bit where Kaufman sits in an ornate chair dressed in his trademark turtleneck and sports coat, you can see the curl of his devious, child-like grin bubbling up, telling the television audience that he blew all the cash ABC gave him on a lavish vacation and there would be no show. After this explanation, he looks around confusedly, repeating that it was not a joke and there would be no show and he’d be sitting right there, in that chair for a full ninety minutes. And, that’s where the fun in Kaufman’s comedy lies. In conceptualizing this bit, it’s safe to assume that not once did he second-guess himself or wonder how it might go over. He just unearthed something he found funny and went with it. That grin he sports says it all, that he can’t believe he’s up there, getting away with all this, while the rest of the world is out soaking up Andrew Dice Clay’s dirty nursery rhymes.

Further proof of Kaufman’s want to simply make himself laugh is found in his hilarious-bordering-on-classic interview with Cindy Williams (she of Laverne and Shirley fame) during Funhouse. Kaufman plays an ill-prepared and anxious late-night talk show host. He asks Williams how she’s been, taking long pauses between questions to make his subject increasingly uncomfortable. He then proceeds to ask questions about Williams’s more-famous co-star, Penny Marshall before goading Williams into singing Bobby Darin’s "Mack the Knife." When Williams falters during the song, forgetting the lyrics, Kaufman jumps in, prompting her with the first lines of a verse. The pacing of the bit is perfect, the long silences in which Williams is wondering what might come next creates a hilarious tension that is only heightened by Williams singing, essentially at gunpoint. The entire scene is strikingly similar to Zack Galfinakas’s fantastic webseries, Between Two Ferns. Though it would be hard to say Galifanakas jacked Kaufman’s bit, it becomes clear that Andy Kaufman is a comedic hero of Galifnakas.

It struck me, too, while watching it just how much influence Kaufman had on today’s comedy. Whether or not comedians cite him as direct inspiration, Kaufman blew the doors wide open on what was possible in the world of comedy. He showed us that you don’t have to write traditional set-up, punch-line jokes to be funny. He showed us that comedy can be a little uncomfortable but even in that discomfort, it is possible to win over a crowd.

It would be perhaps a little ridiculous of me to say that shows like The State or Kids in the Hall may not exist if it weren’t for Kaufman. Those shows, of course, have their own, unique and wonderful sensibilities; still, it would be equally hard to believe that the casts of those shows never saw much of Kaufman’s performances. Either way, Kaufman was a pioneer of offbeat, “alternative,” comedy.

Of all the lessons Kaufman taught us, though, one remains the most important: trust your gut. Trust what you think is good and funny and just go with it. Don’t worry about what people might think of you or how they’ll judge you. Just get on with it. Not everything will be a hit--not everything of Kaufman’s went over smoothly or without a hitch--but you’ll be far better off just trusting your instincts and having fun. In a very big way, Andy Kaufman taught us what comedy should be.  

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.