Last month, when the fortieth-anniversary special for SNL aired, speculation grew on Twitter that Andy Kaufman would make his big comeback during the live program, possibly by crashing it—an unlikely proposition given that Kaufman died, in 1984. Undaunted, Kaufmanheads allowed themselves a beautiful moment to imagine that their man was, at any instant, about to stumble into Studio 8H, probably looking as bloated and careworn and ornery as Tony Clifton, his Vegas lounge-lizard alter ego. Kaufman, after all, was the guy who used to go onstage and recite the entire text of The Great Gatsby, from “younger and more vulnerable years” until “boats against the current,” merrily shooing away most of his audience. Could that experiment in slow-cooked comic timing have been a practice run for a thirty-year act? Alas, Kaufman was a no-show, again.
Kaufman’s posthumous reputation has grown in tandem with the rise of a cult that venerates him as a culture god, the harbinger of our comedy verité sensibility. One of the central tenets of this cult is that Andy Kaufman is really and truly alive, possibly in New Mexico and probably as a monk, waiting for the perfect moment to reveal himself. Whether this story is supported by facts is immaterial. This itself is another tenet. With Kaufman, the key was always to inhabit a character all the way—whether or not cameras were rolling—and to operate under the principle that passionate, persistent fictions are indistinguishable from fact. Faith, performed perfectly, becomes fact. That was Kaufman’s act. Now, in his long and ever-growing absence, it is his fans’ turn to inhabit that role and sustain the perfect performance of faith.
When he died, of cancer, at the age of thirty-five, even some of Kaufman’s closest friends and family members were convinced that it was a show. These rumors were helped along by Kaufman’s friends—unreliable narrators all—who claimed that Kaufman often spoke about faking his own death. As Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s close pal and collaborator, has written in a recent book, it cannot be a coincidence that Kaufman, famous for his ambivalence about fame, disappeared so suddenly. It seems just too perfectly scripted.
In his odd and rambling book, The Truth, Finally, Zmuda lays out his argument that Kaufman faked his own death. He examines Kaufman’s every motive for playing dead, some of which are entirely plausible: Who can dispute that Kaufman’s parents probably erred in telling a particularly sensitive young Andy that his recently deceased and beloved grandfather, Papu, had merely gone away on a long trip? Toward the end of The Truth, Finally, though, Zmuda concedes that his belief in Kaufman’s Big Secret may well be his own way of sidestepping another Big Secret: that Kaufman was gay and that he may have died of an undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or covered-up case of first-wave AIDS. Kaufman’s friends were long sworn to public silence about his sexuality, until Stanley Kaufman, the family patriarch, died, in 2013.
In the new book, the AIDS theory belongs to Lynne Margulies, whom Zmuda identifies as “the love of Andy’s life.” She was also the filmmaker behind I’m From Hollywood, an excellent documentary-style art film detailing Kaufman’s wrestling exploits. She is a close witness and source, and the new book is full of her takes, spliced into Zmuda’s text in italicized glosses like a running commentary. Zmuda concedes that Kaufman came out to him, and that he was aware that his friend haunted San Francisco’s Castro district in the early eighties. This made for an awkward conversation for Zmuda, an admitted homophobe, but his account of the conversation is also touching for how much he, despite his limitations, deeply loved and accepted Kaufman as a person.
Still, Zmuda doesn’t agree with the AIDS theory, or any theory that would have Kaufman as dead. He insists that the man is alive and that Kaufman had set thirty years—which is to say, right about now—as the end-date for his return. He claims that Kaufman told him all about it. In the book, Zmuda switches among freewheeling reminiscences, flattery, boasts, quibbles, and theories, finally settling on direct appeals to Kaufman, circa 2015. “Andy, I know you’re reading this,” Zmuda writes. “Please come back. Do it for me.”
As a performance piece, The Truth, Finally is a welcome addition to the Kaufman canon. It’s part of a script that Zmuda has helped shape almost since the beginning. The book also helps document the more down-to-earth legacy of Kaufman as a performer-renegade—in one intriguing passage, Zmuda claims that Dave Chappelle told him, over a joint, that Kaufman’s sensibility was an inspiration for his own departure from show business. But most of the book is preoccupied with making the argument for Kaufman’s death act. Zmuda, for the record, isn’t the only insider who continues to talk like this. Kaufman’s brother, Michael Kaufman, said in public that he had received a letter from Andy as late as 1999. (He later recanted.)
But, to me, what makes the death routine dramatically persuasive is how embedded it was in Kaufman’s act. Death and resurrection were at the heart of his 1979 TV special (which almost didn’t air due to its weirdness), in which he staged a touching interview with Howdy Doody, the puppet. Working in his vulnerable-boy mode, Kaufman became dismayed to learn that Howdy, his hero from childhood, had been confined to a box in storage for nearly two decades. But this disillusionment was only the pretext for an object lesson: if Howdy Doody could molder in a box for decades, he might also be made to reappear under the bright lights of TV. Perhaps Kaufman wanted to put himself into that box in order to reëmerge.
Kaufman put this fantasy into dramatic action with his Elvis impression, which was the denouement of his Foreign Man routine. Foreign Man was the sweetheart of a standup comedian who was so artless that he couldn’t tell a single successful joke or accomplish even the faintest impression. He could, however, do Elvis like a seasoned professional. Kaufman would present this discovery onstage in a poof of magic that used to send a rush of sheer delight—and relief—through the audience. This act drew out anxiety and hostility from people, then immediately cured them of it. Watching Foreign Man bomb miserably onstage had a divisive effect: the audience would often turn against itself, with some booing; others were sympathetic to poor Foreign Man, shushing the booers, while most people just shrunk in their seats, in vicarious mortification. But, when Kaufman brought out the King, audiences would be instantly unified. Sometimes they would begin to dance. Then came the perfect punchline, tied up like a bow: Kaufman would switch back into Foreign Man, offer up a shy curtsy, and say “tank you veddy much.” The crowd would jump for joy.
Kaufman’s Elvis was a performance of the Stations of Cross, with Foreign Man as the cross bearer and Elvis as the resurrected king messiah. The key to the act was in the way that it evoked a full range of truly felt emotions—genuine disdain, genuine shame, genuine unease. What made it comedy was its conclusion: it ended well for everyone. Most of Kaufman’s routines stoked anxiety by going on far longer than felt safe, sometimes for weeks and months, but they almost always found a happy resolution. His taking a Carnegie Hall audience out for milk and cookies was the most famous example.
Behind these satisfying endings was a performance of the ultimate satisfying ending: the annihilation of the need for an ending, the neutralizing of death angst. Not only would Kaufman die so that he could be resurrected, he would have the audience participate in killing him, to grant it the joy of total forgiveness. The goal wasn’t to prank audience members, which would make them mere fools, but to free them from their anxieties and transform them into their best selves. He wanted his audience to feel innocent and included, hopeful and free from fear. (Not that he ever let on in public about these motivations.)
Kaufman was careful in his choice to revive the King (while, on another stage, he undertook an obsessive Freudian quest to slay the wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler). Even in its time, Elvis’s own act was a death drama. The people who watched late-period Elvis in Vegas were, in a sense, already seeing him posthumously. Those events weren’t Elvis Presley shows; they were elaborate public Elvis sightings; Elvis himself was the first Elvis impersonator. The act was clearly disconnected from the person—that disconnect was the act. It was like a comedic version of the theological concept of dualism, the distinction between the body and the soul: the act was the soul, or, as Calvin put it, “an immortal though created essence” that existed as a separate entity from the mortal man. Which is why it was so easy to believe posthumous reports of Elvis sightings at gas stations in east Texas. Even after his body had departed, his soul, the act, remained as strong as ever. Indeed, the death of the man proved the immortality of the act. This, too, was the reason that Kaufman’s Foreign Man, who couldn’t do impressions, could do Elvis: he wasn’t doing an impression of Elvis; he was inviting back Elvis’s true self.
Yes, Kaufman’s death act is going on a bit long. But it must. It wouldn’t be a death act if it didn’t. The longer it goes, the more Andy Kaufman waits for his cue, the deeper the joy when he returns to take his shy bow.
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Read the historical notes on my book blog.