Saturday, August 12, 2006

An interview with Bill Zehme

Andy Kaufman's performances sang with the generous bravado of Mighty Mouse, the uncanny snarl of the true Elvis, the boorish antagonism of Tony Clifton and the illiterative syncopation of Foreign Man. Clearly, editor and author have spent some time with these characters. Tank you veddy much and enjoy the show.

Jacob Hoye: Bill Zehme, author of LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, (Pause--laughter) W-D-E-L-L, 1540 Broadway. Welcome to the show, Bill.

Bill Zehme: Hey you're Jay [Leno] now.


Were not gonna kid anybody here are we?

JH: No

You edited the book.

JH: That's true

Pulled it outta me.

JH: I was tempted to put on a crazy British accent, pretend to be a journalist and harass you.

That's good. No, I'm very vulnerable right now.

JH: I know.

Give me a couple weeks and we'll try that.

JH: What I've never asked you is what drew you to Andy Kaufman in the first place?

A guy I got to be friends with while I was living in Los Angeles, Richard Sakai, was a gopher on Taxi. This was 1993. I went out to dinner with him and he was telling me about his years there. He was the guy who had to go fetch Andy when he was meditating in his car a lot and just keep tabs on him because obviously he was a little less than diligent in the attentions he gave to being Latka Gravas. He told me the story of Tony Clifton wreaking havoc on the Taxi cast, which is covered in the book. This guy had invested such time and effort to pull this peculiar prank with his alter ego. Richard told me the lengths that Andy went to maintaining the secret identity of Clifton and just what had happened, all the way through the havoc and the firing of Clifton and being thrown off the lot. I'd never heard this story. This is one of those show business stories that not too many people really knew at the time, but it was the one thing Andy was always proudest of having done.

JH: It's definitely a priceless showbiz moment.

Because it was for an audience of...who? There was no public involved. It was a very private piece of life-theater. Right then, I got all juiced. I thought this is an amazing guy. I had seen him perform live in Chicago and had always watched his career with great interest, but I then thought, man, there's a whole other layer to this guy that nobody knows about. I became sort of obsessed with the idea of tracking it down and putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

JH: I remember that when this book surfaced for the first time, I saw the Lynn Margulies video I'm From Hollywood. I didn't know what to make of it. I thought it was astonishingly bizarre but I didn't know if it was real or fake and not fake so much as just theater.


JH: The mystery of Andy's work is the beauty of his art. I wonder if you ever had any apprehension about revealing "the truth."

I always feared the truth with regard to him because (a) it would be so hard to figure out and (b) that's the way he wanted it when he was alive. However, I thought the put-ons were becoming useless in retrospect unless you understood what he did to achieve them, what went into the making of a grandiose Andy Kaufman put-on, that what played as mayhem to the naked eye was in fact orchestrated and choreographed. If you don't know that you can't fully appreciate the genius of the guy, the genius of what he was trying to do, which was to perpetrate insurrection wherever he went and do it in the most innocent and childish way. He played for an audience of one. He made himself happy. Getting away with all that stuff was a tremendous conquest for him. On the other hand I thought he started not mattering enough anymore and when I took the temperature of his marketability six years ago, nobody really gave a damn. It's amazing that it's all shifted. I think being dead long enough helped. I think secretly people were waiting for him to come back and I think at some point people gave up.

JH: Was Andy insane?

I don't think he was crazy. I think he behaved in a crazy manner. Everything was so well thought out including what he was trying to achieve. He was the little boy who played games until he died. He never stopped being a little boy--there were probably reasons for that--that he wanted to remain innocent. He was always obsessed with innocence, and maintaining his innocence while feeding his darker urges. That became a real mano a mano inside of him. Dark Andy versus light Andy and the real guy was a light guy who happened to be possessed of a fairly brutal temper and a quicksilver ability to swing moods. He was the product of a father who had a temper. He knew temper. I think he didn't like it and kept it inside and I think he wanted everything always to be happy and innocent instead.

JH: He certainly didn't have an extraordinarily dysfunctional childhood.


JH: He had a fairly standard fifties upbringing.

Completely standard and he only began to act out in rebellion when he was in his teens. Even so, sort of a controlled rebellion. He never went all the way. Most of his acts of wild abandon happened in his den when he was alone. I guess there's always an urge to consider him to be psychotic. But I don't believe that that's true.

JH: There's no evidence that anything he did was malicious.

No, not really. Unless it was yelling at his assistants or something like that and that was of a moment that had more to do with other things but certainly not in his career. He was above all that. He hated show business and show business kind of came to hate him for hating it. You can only tease an institution so long. He didn't do it in a boldfaced way. He always did it in a clever backdoor manner and mocked all of the traditions of show business one way or another. But it was not about maliciousness. He also knew where his bread had to be buttered.

JH: Andy always wanted to be famous.

Fame became of penultimate import to him when he was just a little boy.

JH: Success was its own failure.

It's amazing. He had all these dreams and he achieved them all by the time he played Carnegie Hall in April '79--that was the apex. Ever afterwards he would run out of dreams. He had to come up with new ones fast and they were wild dreams and dark dreams.

JH: More spontaneous.

Spontaneous combustion type dreams.

JH: His previous things were so well considered because he'd been stewing on them his entire life.

The whole precept of his act was deceit; that foreign man was this inept guy who suddenly wasn't foreign anymore; he was Elvis, and then he came back to being the foreign man and for a while people wanted to believe that's who he was but he didn't want people to think that was all he was and, in essence, he ran through most every piece of business by 1977, his second full year in Hollywood. Really, he expended his entire bag of tricks on the show. On Saturday Night Live he was dispensing them over the course of months, but he did van Dyke 13 weeks in a row and pretty much blew 13 of his top bits and that was frustrating for him and it became frustrating for critics. They wanted him to keep coming up with fresh material. That became the on-going complaint. But he had run out of people to fool and didn't know any new ways to do it other than to become bellicose either as the wrestler or as Tony Clifton. That was his only way to act out.

JH: How do you think Andy's wrestling theatrics would have played today?

His wrestling was basically high school on the mat wrestling with no real theatrics other than the bellowing of the bad guy that was him. He really lacked the theater. It would have been great today. Pyrotechnics would have been attendant. It would have been amazing for him to do it now. He was visionary in that regard. Who knew that wrestling would become what it is.

JH: Wrestling seemed to be the place in which he was taking the most satisfaction, maybe the most satisfaction of anything he did.

He was happier wrestling than doing anything else. You know, the Jerry Lawler secret is one that even the family was protective of. His father was nervous about me revealing it was a hoax. He didn't know it was a hoax himself, until later. He wanted to sue Lawler for unsportsman-like behavior. The slap on the Letterman show Andy had to keep to himself. He didn't even want his family to know about that. Which leads us to the other hoax that he had always wanted to pull off which was faking his own death. The one reason he couldn't do it was because he couldn't do that to his family and put them in the position of having to lie about it. But the thrill of wrestling imbued him with new life. Unfortunately, it was unappreciated by the public entirely. No one knew where Andy had gone. He disappeared for the better half of 1983 and he was mostly on the wrestling hustlings, out there screaming at Lawler, offering $5,000 to anybody who could beat Lawler.

JH: We know what Elvis thought of Andy ["Man, this guy's got a weird mind!"], but I have to ask you what Bob Dylan might have thought of Andy.

Dylan loved Andy. Greg Sutton, Andy's childhood friend and bandleader, was on the road in Europe with Dylan when he heard Andy had died. He was playing bass for Dylan. He tells a really touching story about how he was crushed when he heard the news. He knew it was coming but it still devastated him, as it would, but Dylan was so respectful, apparently, of Sutton's mourning that he would sit with him. They'd ride together to and from gigs and he would talk about Andy with him and how much he dug Andy. Andy's rebellion was not lost on any genius.

interview by Jacob Hoye

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