Andy Kaufman was a lot of things, but he always insisted that he was not a comedian. Quoting his lifelong friend and business confidant, Bob Zmuda,
“The only reason he was called a comedian was because he worked in comedy clubs. That label meant he was supposed to get laughs all of the time. Andy did get laughs a lot of the time, but many other times he got the audience to get angry, to throw things at him, to walk out. To him it was all the same. He just wanted a real reaction. Nowadays a lot of people like to call him the first performance artist. I like to call him a behavioral scientist. He was really into exploring human behavior and the dynamic between the audience and the performer. He was the first ‘ punk comedian’.”
But why should anyone care? Being popular throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the newer generations today may know his name, and maybe his role on the hit television show, “Taxi,” or his Elvis impersonation–but likely know nothing of the real Andy Kaufman. Unless someone has an ace hiding up their sleeve in the “Andy Kaufman Death Hoax” theory (which is certainly a possibility even still), there isn’t a great deal of material that is left to be said about Kaufman.
True to these statements, instead of some biography or exclusive material released, this article will serve as one of the last pieces of Kaufman’s legacy that has not received its due credit. A comedian or not, Andy was definitely a philosopher (although he always kept this mainly to himself) and his entire career–more so than anyone else in history–was a sole and acknowledged testament to the utter fallacy and complete veil of illusion that today’s cultural Media Paradigm represents. Indeed, trying to unravel the true life of the real Andy Kaufman, is an entire rabbit-hole to fall down in and of itself, and serves as a benign yet poignant example as to how unreliable information from the media can be.
From staging fights on comedy skit shows, doing outrageous things like sleeping during his performances onstage or reading The Great Gatsby from cover to cover, to claiming himself as the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World” and wrestling women on television, and even taking his entire audience out to milk and cookies after one performance, using over 20 buses for the entire commute, Bob Zmuda’s quote really dose encapsulate Andy Kaufman so well. While audiences today may remember Joaquin Phoenix quitting his acting career to rap for many years, and later releasing a documentary about all of this as a staged hoax, or Sacha Baron Cohen for his joker roles like Borat, performing characters on unwitting pedestrians to get outrageous reactions, few people care to recall that Andy Kaufman has already beaten this horse dead. (Still, hats off to Cohen and Phoenix for these stunts)
For years, Kaufman thrived on the shear confusion that he created in audiences with his misinformation and unexplained practical jokes, lying about all sorts of erroneous information of himself, like his birthday, religion, marital status and whether or not he had children, all on television for all the happy-go-lucky audiences. What’s more, Kaufman even seemed to strive to deliberately change his own misinformation at any given time, just to simply confuse people further. For a great deal of time, it was unclear to many people that Kaufman’s lounge-singer performance act, Tony Clifton, was not a real person–and this was largely perpetuated by Kaufman slandering his own name of “Andy Kaufman,” while conducting interviews as Clifton, saying that Kaufman was trying to steal his good name and reputation.
Another important note was Kaufman’s dedication to transcendental meditation. More commonly understood today for its practical therapeutic uses, the America that Kaufman catered to was still reeling from the incoherent display of social activism that was attempted by the drugged-out hippies of the 1960s (activism that was needed due to the Vietnam War, but was executed quite poorly). The Hippie Generations, ultimately, left a bad taste of the esoteric sciences in the mouths of the common public. However, this misconception is something that Andy Kaufman saw right through, and used to his advantage in more ways than one.
Firstly, Kaufman was known as an avid meditator, and was reported to practice a variety of yoga and meditation twice a day, for a total of three hours a day. Secondly, the performer very much seemed to enjoy and capitalize on the confusion and distaste that the general public held about occult principles like meditation, and used this to help cultivate his image as outlandish and even somewhat ignorant. In fact, Kaufman often primarily seemed to oscillate between being incredibly arrogant and chauvinistic with audiences, to meek, helpless, and downright embarrassing. Both were part of his performances, and it was outright acknowledged by Kaufman that meditation was a deeply instrumental part of his performances.
Today, if a person has not heard about Andy Kaufman through his performances, he is usually known for the persistent, grandiose, and still possible theory that as his final performance piece, he faked his own death. A free link to the documentary, “Death of Andy Kaufman,” released in 2008, can be seen here. It is both informative and entertaining.
Spoiler Alert: The film, by Christopher Maloney, ultimately proposes the idea that Andy Kaufman had not faked his own death, although it should again be said that this was the filmmaker’s perspective, and there still remain a variety of threads open for discussion on this topic–something that Maloney admits, being a fan of the theory himself.
Granted, it is incredibly far-fetched, to say the least, and remains highly unlikely just as a matter of statistical probability, but in regards to Andy Kaufman, it could not be a more plausible scenario. To quote Bob Zmuda again,
“I know he faked his death! I worked with him on it for three years! Working for Andy was like working for Houdini. You guarded these illusions of the mind with your life. I couldn’t tell my wife, couldn’t tell my mother. When you went to see Andy Kaufman, you would leave his shows wondering if what you saw was real or not. That was the benchmark that we strived for… There is a simple way to figure that out [whether or not he died]: Get a court order and get a backhoe out to Bethel Cemetery in Great Neck, New York. It would take about 20 minutes to dig up the casket, pop it open, and take some hair and bones samples. Within two weeks the world will know if that is Andy Kaufman in the grave or not.”
Obviously, no one is rushing to dig up Andy Kaufman’s casket, especially since his family does not believe that he faked his own death, but these are quite confident words from Zmuda. Furthermore, the Kaufman family has never been opposed to the idea of Andy’s possible hoax, but consider it as an amusing possibility rather than a literal reality. Of course, there are some people who would argue that Kaufman’s family would be in on the hoax from the very beginning, and that this would all be a cover for him. This line of reasoning cannot be disproven. Some could even argue that Zmuda’s claims that Kaufman is alive somewhere are in and of themselves part of Kaufman’s grand act, in the sense that maybe Andy did die, but he continues to perform through the liveliness of these theories and urban legends. This can’t be disproven either. Nor is it far-fetched to consider that if Kaufman was alive, he would let some meddling filmmakers expose his life’s greatest work. For brevity, suffice it to say that there is a great deal of information that gives credence to all sorts of speculation as to why Kaufman is not dead, and it is all quite interesting.
The overall point is that Andy Kaufman’s legacy is timeless, and essentially impossible to unravel from a media standpoint. Systematically, Kaufman dirtied his information trails so thoroughly and continuously, that it is still astoundingly difficult to find out just who Andy Kaufman really was. It seems unlikely that anyone actually knew him for who he really was in his own mind, and the real experiment here is what this exposes about simple information translation in the media to the public. While Kaufman of course had his own personal life that has been elaborated on since his death, his public persona was the only piece of himself that the public was ever able to document–and since this public persona of his was based on misinformation and pranks, Andy Kaufman has literally immortalized himself as an urban-legend of a needle in the haystack of media public relations.
More than this, however, is what Kaufman’s legacy represents within the entire consideration of mainstream media. The reality is that any person popularized in the media, whether they be a Rihanna, a Walt Disney, a Jim Morrison or a Timothy Leary, or even a Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton for that matter, are to one degree or another manipulating the perception of their image. The only difference between Kaufman and anyone else is that Kaufman planted the seeds of his image as confusion–the ultimate red herring. Others’ herrings are much more subtle. Every person’s own Facebook profile page is their own literal veil within this allegory; and in a deeper, Jungian sense, a person can very much be considered to psychologically veil themselves from the world, from the inside out.
So the next time someone seems personable, easy to relate to, comforting, friendly, benign, or anything else for that matter–ask yourself: “Do I really know them, or are they presented to me on a screen?” If they are presented to you on a screen, and you still feel as if you have a personal connection with that person, then just remember to consider the Legacy of Andy Kaufman, and realize that you are lost in the funhouse. Wake up from the daze of the media maya, and listen to the strange, eccentric, and outrageous words of the great Kaufman! For all anyone really knows, he could’ve been a horrendous human being, (and with the heavy CIA ties since Hollywood’s inception, and the pedophilia that is rampant in the industry, it’s increasingly hard to put merit into these “stars”) but for all accounts and purposes, he was a genuinely caring and loving person that had a deep respect and consideration for the world around him, and–who knows, he could still be alive to this day, in observation of his legacy. And while Andy Kaufman may not give any sort of peek behind any curtains of conspiracy, doesn’t it make the information presented in the Media all the less credible?
Sources: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/dec/28/bob-zmuda-tells-truth-about-andy-kaufmans-death, http://andykaufman.jvlnet.com/final.htm, http://andykaufman.jvlnet.com/kaufchro.htm, http://andykaufman.jvlnet.com/aktime.htm, http://www.ew.com/article/2013/08/05/fridays-dvd-andy-kaufman, http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/andy_kaufman_the_death_of_andy_kaufman, http://www.biography.com/people/andy-kaufman-9542253, https://www.amazon.com/Andy-Kaufman-Finally-Bob-Zmuda/dp/1940363055