Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Wizards of Wit : Andy Kaufman - Going Mainstream - By Arie Kaplan

Uncle Andy's Nuthouse
- Andy Kaufman

"It wasn't an act; it was a happening." --Carl Reiner, about Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman was one of the first comedy stars whose genesis was wholly the comedy club circuit. Considered by some as the father of modern performance art, Kaufman both amazed and baffled audiences with his defiantly postmodern routines, which often consisted of singing corny children's songs or reading aloud from The Great Gatsby for 15 minutes straight in a snooty British accent, then scolding the audience for booing.

"People like Andy Kaufman took comedy in a different direction in the '70s," says Robert Smigel, whose children's show parody TV Funhouse was inspired by Kaufman's Uncle Andy's Funhouse (both spoofing Eisenhower-era programs such as Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and Howdy Doody).
Carl Reiner discovered Andy Kaufman in 1971 at Catch A Rising Star. "He was doing Elvis, he was doing the Foreign Man, he was reading The Great Gatsby, he was doing it all," Reiner recalls. "And then he got mad at the audience. And you couldn't tell if he was really mad or not, because he told bad jokes, and they booed him and he ran off. I told Dick Van Dyke about Kaufman. Dick was doing a special at the time. He put Andy on the show, and that was his first paid job, 1,500 bucks!"
Through Kaufman's constant riffs on identity--the just-off-the-boat immigrant Foreign Man, the washed-up showbiz hedonist Tony Clifton, and the "Uncle Miltie"-style TV host Uncle Andy--he toyed with the masks Jews often wear in everyday life. It's no coincidence that Tony Clifton resembled Borscht Belt insult comics such as Don Rickles and Jack E. Leonard, and that Foreign Man--a variation of which appeared in his character Latka (named after the Jewish potato pancake) on the hit TV series Taxi--mimicked the kind of European immigrants Kaufman no doubt knew as a child growing up in Great Neck, New York.
When Kaufman died of cancer in 1984, his fans thought he had faked his own demise as the ultimate performance piece, a variation on the "Elvis lives" theme. Considered the king of '70s comedy, he influenced a generation of comedians, including Bill Murray, Robin Williams, Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens, and David Letterman.

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