I Hate Andy Kaufman

February 2nd, 2007

Well, “hate” is kind of the wrong word. Maybe “loathe”. No, that’s wrong, too. I despise Andy Kaufman with a scarlet passion which fills me with impotent rage every time I’m confronted with the merest atom of evidence that he ever existed. That sense of “hate”. The sense of “hate” where you actively wish the person was dead. There are actually only three people in the world I’ve ever felt this way about, all performers: Andy Kaufman (about which more in a moment, of course); Glenn Gould (for his “Bach should be played by robots” meme) and Adam Sandler (duh). (Note: two of the three people on this list are already dead. Don’t cross me.) And of those three, Andy Kaufman is by far the most odious.

Now, most of you will know Andy Kaufman as the mouse-voiced foil to the delightful Carol Kane on the long-running sitcom “Taxi”. I’m not talking about that Andy Kaufman. I’m talking about the Andy Kaufman about whom the Straight Dope recently wrote:

“Kaufman was more of a performance artist than anything else. He wanted the audience to react to him, and was as satisfied with a hostile reaction as with a laugh, as long as the emotion was genuine and strongly felt. … He would take out a sleeping bag and take a nap on stage. He would invite people come up on stage and touch the pimple on his neck. He would set up a portable phonograph on a stool and play records. He was determined to shatter any routine expectation an audience might have. He’d continue in this vein until people were furious, throwing their dinner rolls at him on-stage – and then he’d break into tears and let the audience feel uncomfortable again.”

Kaufman had an alter ego, a foul-mouthed, talentless lounge lizard named Tony Clifton, which he maintained as a completely separate persona. On “Taxi”, his deal guaranteed that “Tony” got four guest appearances per year, and separate dressing room, publicist, and parking space. “Tony” was fired after his first appearance, and as “Tony”, Kaufman raised such a scene that he actually came to blows on the set with Judd Hirsch. Kaufman’s manager quoted him as saying immediately afterward, “George, this was one of the greatest days of my life! This was the theater of the street!”

Well, no, Andy. Actually, it’s a giant, honking, steaming pile of self-indulgent crap.

A while back, I wrote a tirade called “The Upside of Vanity”, in which I elaborated on my view of the classic deal between performer and audience. The deal, like any deal, has obligations and expectations on both sides. The audience makes a commitment of money, attention and time; in return, it expects to be entertained. The performer makes his or her own investment, of practice and preparation; in return, he or she expects the appropriate recognition and praise. The deal isn’t always satisfied, of course: sometimes the audience isn’t paying attention, or the performer is having a bad night. But the intentions and the boundaries of the deal are clear.

Andy Kaufman queered the deal. Intentionally. He wasn’t on stage to entertain. He was happy to infuriate as much as he was to please, and he was perfectly happy even to mislead his coworkers, and force them to be part of an unpleasant show they didn’t even ask to be part of. Now, I’m not completely crazy about people who fail to respect my choice about whether to be an audience or not; but once you’ve got the audience, you had damn well live up to your end of the bargain. The Straight Dope article describes Andy Kaufman as a performance artist. But it’s important to recognize that Kaufman was a very special kind of performance artist: his act couldn’t possibly have worked without abusing the expectations of the audience. That is, Andy Kaufman failed if he attempted to infuriate you and, because you knew that’s what he was up to, you weren’t infuriated. The audience’s fury needed to be genuine. This is why he was so very, very evil: his act didn’t work unless he failed to be an entertainer.

It doesn’t get any more offensively meta than this, folks.

Now, there are any one of a number of ways you could be thinking of me as an entertainment Luddite at the moment, and I’m pretty sure I’ve thought of all of them. None of them are fair, and none of them truly acknowledge the hideous contempt that Kaufman had for his profession. Let’s take them one by one.

Post-modernism, for instance, isn’t entirely the culprit here. Don’t get me wrong; post-modernism has so much to answer for. This nudge-nudge, wink-wink, this-is-art-because-I-found-it-and-I’m-an-artist, let’s-put-a-soup-can-on-a-pedestal abuse of the public sphere has gone on far, far too long. But Andy Kaufman’s offense isn’t that he’s self-referential; the crime of pointlessness isn’t worth this level of wrath. If his act were an advertised parody of comedy, or a sly reference to some talentless third-rate stage hound whom the intelligentsia happened to pick as its flavor of the week, that would be fine. You find your audience, the audience (Lord knows why) expects to be entertained and is entertained, and life goes on. The performer and the audience still agree about what art is (and they’re welcome to it, shallow poseurs that they are).

Nor is the rise of the academy really the issue. (This is worth an essay in itself, frankly.) Over the last fifty years, for various reasons, the practice of art has become academicized in a way which defies rational thought, and, frequently, the notion of art itself. Modern classical music is by far the worst example. Because the university position has become such a sinecure, and the volume (not the quality) of academic publication is what mostly counts, the value and reward system has been so perverted that some of the art produced is more like a dissertation than a creation; there’s no bibliography, but there probably ought to be – at least you could entertain yourself by mispronouncing the names. It’s the creative process, trussed, gagged, and strangled in an alley by a poorly-paid (but at least paid) intellectual mafia. You can interpret Andy Kaufman’s act in this light, but while it certainly doesn’t credit the abomination any further, it also doesn’t merit my level of wrath. Like post-modernism, at least there’s a deal, in this case among the members of the academy. The performer and the audience still agree about what art is.

Nor is this about my failure to recognize Kaufman’s “genius” at expanding what counts as entertainment. After all, the argument might go, if art can make you laugh, or cry, what’s wrong with art that makes you furious? Well, absolutely nothing, except you have to specify what you’re furious about. A one-man show featuring a young Adolf Hitler, expounding on his ideas which would lead to the Third Reich, would certainly make me mad – but I’d be mad at Adolf Hitler, not the person playing him. After all, I’ve agreed to listen to an enactment of the life of Adolf Hitler. Andy Kaufman, on the other hand, can’t inspire fury, and thus hasn’t succeeded as an artist, unless you’re mad at him, because he’s led you to a point that you didn’t give him permission to lead you to.

And finally, this is oh, so not the “what the hell are those kids listening to” argument. I’ll admit that there’s virtually nothing about modern fads in humor that I actually think are funny; the school of pointless discomfort inspired by “Seinfeld” (the sitcom, not the comedian himself, who’s just pants-pissingly funny, strangely enough) is about as entertaining to me as, well, pointless discomfort. But it’s impossible to deny that these trends have enormous, broad, gigantic audiences. In fact, a primary characteristic of these popular trends, in any art, is that “those kids” were – are – enjoying what they consume. Every jazz riff, every busted rap rhyme, every shocking Elvis-inspired pelvic thrust is a conversation with its audience in a way that Andy Kaufman isn’t even trying.

This, then, is why Andy Kaufman is the foul toad that he is. He keeps the obligations of the audience, and the expectations of the performer; he tosses the expectations of the audience and the obligations of the performer. Under the mask of performance art, he’s doing something utterly selfish, so much more so because the medium requires the unwilling participation of many people. The egotism, the contempt, the self-aggrandizement, simply boggles the mind.

Note that this isn’t about whether you succeed in entertaining. The point is that you’re obligated to try. We all fail, sometimes. Some of us have bad nights; some of us are just in the wrong room; some of us just aren’t good enough yet. If you fall into any of these pots, you’re at least trying to keep your end of the bargain, and that’s good enough for me. But if you don’t have the patience or respect to actually attempt to entertain your audience, get off the goddamn stage.

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