On this day in 1949, the great comedian Andy Kaufman was born. Oh, how I miss him! I’m all for people like Jon Stewart or Louis CK or even Dylan Moran — all very funny men. But Kaufman was a genius — the first truly postmodern comedian. Last year, I compared him to Albert Brooks. And indeed, there really is a lot about Brooks that is postmodern — for example, his ventriloquist act. Kaufman was the the whole thing. He was that rarest of things in stand-up comedy: an artist.
Sadly, most people didn’t get his act while he was alive. I think they just thought that he was silly and cute — especially as the foreign man character. But people never really got Tony Clifton or the Hollywood elitist wrestling villain. I don’t know if Kaufman just didn’t care or was simply too much of an artist to tip his hand. But it still seems strange to me that everyone would know that professional wrestling was “fake” and yet think that he was really having a feud with Jerry Lawler. It was all straight out of Roland Barthes’s essay, The World of Wrestling.
Check out this clip. It is from the documentary, I’m from Hollywood. It shows one of Kaufman’s taunting videos — unfortunately, intercut with reactions of people. What’s so brilliant about it is that it is simultaneously offensive and hilarious. And it isn’t clear exactly what level the comedy is on. It can be seen as lampooning what northerners and westerners think of the south. Just the same, it can be seen as lampooning what southerners think northerners and westerners think of them. It’s brilliant:
Given the extremely varied nature of his work, his Carnegie Hall performance stands as the ultimate tribute to him, because it shows how he was able to pull it all together. This is not the greatest copy of it, but it is still worth watching:
Happy birthday Andy Kaufman!