• John McGary, Woodford Sun Staff

Here's Johnny - Andy Kaufman: an appreciation

Every year, at the end of the year, we are presented with a long list of influential people who have died. The year just passed seemed to have more than its share of such deaths - in music alone, David Bowie (a personal favorite), Prince, Leonard Cohen, Greg Lake and George Michael left this sphere. As for me, I begin 2017 with a case of good-old fashioned writer's block. All I am capable of, on this third day of January, is a book review of sorts about a man who died more than three decades ago: Andy Kaufman, whose partner in comedic crime, Bob Zmuda, did not have writer's block when he wrote about his friend. The book, "Andy Kaufman Revealed!" was co-written by Matthew Scott Hansen and presented to me by The Hatchling. It tells the story of how Kaufman, occasionally with Zmuda's assistance, conspired to pull the wool over the eyes of millions of people who, initially, had trouble understanding a comedian who never really told a joke. Kaufman, in fact, didn't consider himself a comedian, and many descriptions of the Great Neck, N.Y., native use the phrases "performance artist" or "Dadaist comedian." Call him what you will, Andy Kaufman was one of the funniest people in the world during his all-too short life. Much of America first saw him in 1975, on the first Saturday Night Live. He stood on stage next to a record player, put the needle on the vinyl, and stood silently while the theme to the "Mighty Mouse" cartoon rang out. Only when the song came to the refrain ("Here I come to save the day .") did Kaufman open his mouth to lip-sync, and he stopped when the refrain ended. In another bit, he announced, in a pompous faux-British accent, that he would read "The Great Gatsby." Not read from - read. He began at the beginning, and after several minutes, when a few members of the audience began to shift about uneasily, threatened to start all over again. In an alternate version, he asked whether they'd rather listen to a record he brought on stage. When they shrieked, "Please God, yes!" Kaufman set the needle to the vinyl - and a recording of him reading "The Great Gatsby" began. There was his Foreign Man (later brought to life as Latka on the sitcom "Taxi"), who attempted to tell jokes, bombed, attempted to do imitations, bombed again, then pulled off a brilliant Elvis Presley (reportedly the real Elvis's favorite imitation). He would lead the crowd through children's songs, like "The Cow Goes Moo," and somehow persuade them to perform the animal noises. During his first television special, he interviewed the co-star of "Laverne and Shirley" so badly that the audience suffered for both of them. When Kaufman was on stage, or being interviewed on television, or just walking down the street, you never knew what might happen - and you never saw him break character. He was fully committed to his task, however strange, and however much it put him at risk of being mauled by angry people. He came up with a character called Tony Clifton who terrorized Diana Shore and the cast members of "Taxi." Billed as an international singing sensation, Clifton sang badly, smoked and drank on stage (Kaufman did neither) and was one of the most obnoxious creatures ever to walk the face of the earth. Kaufman billed himself as the Intergender Wrestling Champion of the World, and as Zmuda tells it, never lost to the 300-plus women he wrestled on stage or in wrestling rings. Before, during and after the bouts, Kaufman behaved like the world's biggest sexist. Wrestling fans may recall his feud with Jerry Lawler, which featured a pile driver during a match with Lawler that broke Kaufman's neck and led to an encounter on the "David Letterman Show" in which Lawler slapped a still neck-braced Kaufman. Kaufman responded by unleashing a string of obscenities that simply weren't allowed in the early 1980s. It was all for play. Andy Kaufman was a lonely child who grew up and somehow convinced millions of people to take part in the children's shows he had once held in his basement. He wasn't out to tell a joke, or make people laugh, though he did plenty of the latter. He was out to . shift perceptions. So much of today's music, movies and television is aimed at the lowest common denominator. I experienced this in television news, where one station I worked for used focus groups to tell us what to cover (crime/crashes/fires/weather) and not cover (politics - for instance, an entire governor's race). I think Andy Kaufman was a genius, and I thank his good friend for writing about him, and The Hatchling for reminding me of him, and you, Dear Readers, for sticking by me during my first bout with writer's block in the near year. Umm . Hey - you're still there, aren't you?

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