Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Man-Crush Hall of Fame: Andy Kaufman

Thirty years ago today, Andy Kaufman made his eleventh appearance on Saturday Night Live. He wrestled women, as he was prone to do at the time. I also wrestled a woman that day. I was being born.

Exactly twenty years later, on my twentieth birthday (go figure), several of my closest friends from high school and I went to see Jim Carrey portray Andy Kaufman in the biopic Man on the Moon, and my life changed. Yes, Jim Carrey's performance was just that good, but he had phenomenal material to work with, namely the life and antics of one of comedy's most influential, cutting edge voices . . . ever. My exposure to Andy Kaufman's work shaped my opinions of (and attempted participation in) entertainment and news media. He was a force to be reckoned with then, and in light of theories that he faked his death as the ultimate put-on, he's a force to be reckoned with now.

According to Bob Zmuda's biography of Kaufman (pictured here on my desk next to fellow man-crush Les Stroud), Andy didn't perform his stand-up comedy and variety acts to entertain others; he simply sought to entertain himself. While his humor seemed to be at others' expense, Bob was often a plant with whom the audience could sympathize, making Andy (or his counterpart Tony Clifton) the villain -- and Andy understood that the bad guy is often the most compelling character of all. His love of this old vaudevillian rapport with the house didn't jive with audiences then, and I don't think audiences would get it now, but knowing just that much about the man behind the curtain only makes his work that much more impressive.

In 2004, I had the chance to attend the 20th anniversary "celebration" of Andy's death at the House of Blues in Hollywood. Comedians like Jim Norton performed, Tony Clifton made an honorable appearance, and afterward hangers-on were treated to a Mexican wrestling show at the Comedy Store across the street. (Actually, true believers that stayed until the wee hours were treated to more than that, but I was foolish enough to go home and miss out.) Just this year, on December 3, I had the chance to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Andy's death with a special screening of Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts! at the Silent Movie Theater, a montage of rare Kaufman clips hosted by his girlfriend Lynne Margulies. Tony Clifton made a substantially hilarious appearance (you can find it on YouTube), as did Andy Dick and Zmuda, who shared in fans' speculation about Andy's death. Lynne (and Bob) was kind enough to sign my copy of her latest book, a compilation of angry letters Andy received while wrestling women in the '70s. I actually found out about this event when The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson e-mailed me an offer to see another taping and I sought other events in the area to make the drive to Hollywood worthwhile. Obviously, like when I saw Man on the Moon ten years ago, it was meant to be.

So what makes Andy Kaufman a worthy man-crush, not to mention a place in my man-crush hall of fame? Simply put, Andy developed a conscious philosophy about entertainment and pop culture that fueled his career, and more so than any genre of comedy or performance art, he upheld that philosophy until his controversial dying day -- to the point where some folks don't believe he died! He transcended traditional stand-up, was more than any sitcom or sketch show could bare, and blazed a trail so daring few others have walked it as successfully since.

As much as I love pop culture entertainment, this mentality -- the philosophy turned lifestyle -- applies to all things: for me personally, my life has been an attempt to preserve the sanctity, innocence, and wonder of childhood, firstly by maintaining the same likes and hobbies I had as a kid, and secondly by finding a job that helps me inspire others to this philosophy. Today, on my thirtieth birthday, the first day of the rest of my life, I'm faced with the challenge of finding other ways to do that. Andy Kaufman showed us that the sky's the limit -- you can go beyond the sky, in fact. You can be the man on the moon.

In the meantime, Merry Russmas, and enjoy this gift, which may or may not be related to that fateful day I met Andy.

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