Monday, November 27, 2006

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Friday, November 24, 2006

Lost in the Funhouse by Bill Zehme

Lorne Michaels put him on camera and taped an obligatory audition, not that it mattered, because he was firmly understood to be part of the birth-march of Saturday Night, but everyone else had to do it as well, so he recited "MacArthur Park" not as an old Jew but as himself, which wasn't really very funny which he never tried to be anyway. He sat with a forearm propped on a desktop at 30 Rockefeller Center and spoke the lyrics twice, pouring it on just a tad in the second rendering (with dramatic closing-of-eyes in anguished places), and Lorne thanked him and said, "You want to do something else?" And he said, "Um, okay," then looked down, then looked up and became dew-dripping mushmouthed hillbilly and drawled, "Fasterna-speedn-bullet-mo-pahrfulna-loc'motive-abletuh-leap-tawl-buildnsna-sanglebown?Look upna sky, it'sa birrrd, it'sa playyyun, nope, it's Suprmayn, yeeppppp, Suuuprmayn-strayunge-vizzter-frum-enuthr-planet-who-cameta-Earth-withpahrsnabiltiesfarbeeyon'thoza-mortal-meyen?" And when he was finished a smattering applause echoed in the room and he smiled shyly and got up and left.

He became a fixture around the show's seventeenth-floor production offices in the weeks before the October premiere. He did not fraternize as much as lurk. Relatively few staff or cast members knew who he was or what he was or what he was supposed to do -- although John Belushi had become an early true believer after having seen the conga-crying in clubs. Anne Beatts, a newly-recruited writer, first encountered him slumping in Lorne's antechamber -- "I thought, Oh, man, is this the kind of person they're hiring? I don't know if I want to be a part of this! He was so twitchy and weird and had bad skin. He looked very nerdy and geeky. I had severe doubts about the show from the beginning and my initial impression of Andy was the first of them." Very late on the Friday night before the broadcast, however, her opinion changed when she saw him rehearse, which he almost didn't because the rehearsals dragged on interminably and he had yet to perform a run-through of Mighty Mouse for the crew and finally he said he had to leave. "And it was like--'Wait, you can't leave!'" Beatts would recall. "And he said, 'No, I have to go if I'm going to make the last train back to Great Neck.' Lorne told him, 'No, Andy, we need you here.' So he said, 'Well, I guess I could get my mother to come pick me up . . .'"

On October 11th, he meditated twice, locking himself in the office of head writer Herb Sargent -- once before dress rehearsal and again before the live broadcast. Both times he taped a note on the door -- Please do not disturb me while I meditate, Andy Kaufman. All around him, panic and mayhem swirled as would become customary Saturday Night crucible. Then all panic escalated after the dress rehearsal which went desperately over the ninety-minute limit. "There was a lot of weeping and wailing and fierce argument," Michaels would recall. "We had to make cuts and one of the choices was to cut Andy. And that was the one thing I wasn't going to do. Andy was sacrosanct. More than any one thing in that first show, he represented the spirit of what we were trying to do. Not only was it -- in the language of the time -- a hip act, but the very hippest aspect was that he only lip-synched the part of Mighty Mouse. That was the essence of avant-garde." Said Ebersol, "We put him on in the first half-hour because we felt it was a killer. And it killed. The audience went nuts. When the show was over, the commercial parodies and Andy were the only things that people talked about. And he knew at that moment that that was it for the piece. Mighty Mouse had killed night after night for years in the clubs -- but now television had eaten it up and it wasn't going to be a surprise anymore." Nevertheless, he was pleased enough with himself that night to consume as much ice cream as could be found in midtown Manhattan.

The following week's show was built around the reunion of singers Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, which left little room for much more than cursory sketches. But he was brought back most purposefully for the third and fourth broadcasts to lend presence and continuity. On October 25th, again in the first half-hour, guest host Rob Reiner introduced him (whereas stentorian announcer Don Pardo had done so in voice-over the first time) and he wore exactly what he had worn before -- Foreign Man's checked sportcoat, white jeans, black dickie, pink shirt -- and he stood next to the phonograph again and moved his mouth to "Pop Goes The Weasel", mirthfully evincing the larger vocal role of playful father to antic daughter. But his own voice, once again, was never heard. Then, on November 3rd, Candice Bergen -- who had beheld his act more than once at The Improv -- announced, "Boys and girls, this is a man I love very much. The word genius comes to mind, but I'll let you decide for yourselves." And here was Foreign Man at last, more tentative than ever, as pitch-perfect Bombing began with the cannonball story moving into his eemetation of de Archie Bunker -- Ehh, you stupid you are so stupid everybody ees stupid, ehh, get out of my chair, Meathead, de dingbat get into de kitchen making de food, ehh everybody is so stupid, dank you veddy much -- at which point he lost his place and fell into a chasm of silent squirming, then in feeble effort to cover he offered to dance and sing and did (la-la-laaa!). Next, most historically in the realm of live television, he uttered the words ehh could we stop de tape? Then -- I think we should turn off de T.V. . . . I don't know if you are laughing at me or weeth me. . . but I am trying to do my best but I forgot what I was going to do . . . And so, of course, he blithered and wept, emitting the rhythmic yelping breaths that brought his hands to the conga which he beat into manna which was, um, exquisite.

And within that four-week span of live broadcast reckoning, he had become more dependable than most anything else on the program and he remained a mystery but was also now a mystery of burgeoning fame, which was the plan all along. "I got to know him in the way that I get to know pretty much everyone I worked with on the show," Michaels said. "Because of the pressure, there's a kind of unavoidable intimacy. He had this real enthusiasm for what he was doing and he was very gentle. We never really talked at length -- he'd just sort of tell me what he would do. Even before the show went on the air, we'd gotten to a place of trust. If he was enthusiastic about something he wanted to do, I didn't have to know much more. Within the club of the world I lived in, he was the edge -- probably more than anybody else I can think of in comedy. There were lots of people doing variations on Lenny Bruce or doing what Richard Pryor had done, but here was a guy coming out of a completely original place. And you had to stand back and simply respect that."

And it was during those weeks and then in the months to come (then years thereafter) that he dwelt transparently amongst Saturday Night Live rabble, a separate and benign entity who came and did and scored and left -- without sharing the secret of himself with more than a few of them. "I probably never spoke more than two words to him," said Beatts, and the same was true throughout the ranks. But there was one notable exception toward the beginning and that was Chevy Chase, the first break-out star in the cast, who projected something akin to likable smugness ("I'm Chevy Chase and you're not!") and prep school suavity, which were traits diametrically opposite to any possessed by Andy. But Chase, who also became a head writer, had moved into Herb Sargent's seventeenth floor office, which had a couch, and with the couch came the meditator who had already claimed the room as his deep-silence sanctum. "There were times when I'd walk in and he'd just be lying on the couch or doing some kind of yoga thing, or not," said Chase. "But I was so self-confident and sort of disarming -- basically I just didn't give a shit -- that I had no compunctions about simply facing the obvious with him. And I think the fact that I truly didn't give a shit made him comfortable to just be Andy. He knew there was no foolin' me -- so we were able to talk about things. I remember engaging him in conversations about his method of preparation, his general health and well-being, his sanity, his acne. I asked him if he knew that he was funny and if he took pleasure in the responses he got to his work. Because he never really appeared to enjoy anything. And he said, yes, that he truly enjoyed the responses. He was always testing onstage, searching -- is this funny or is it not funny or is it just odd? And did he care if it was funny? You know what? He did care. I once asked him, 'Do you know how brilliant you are?' And he turned shy again. He said he didn't know if anyone 'got it' -- if they laughed at him or with him. But I think it meant something to him that I asked. I was sort of the cat's pajamas at the time and he respected that. But he also looked at what I was doing as rather pedestrian, I think, considering where he was headed.

"What's interesting is that with those doors closed, we actually chuckled a lot, we had real laughs. Then he would step out of the office and become the quiet wide-eyed guy again. But those eyes were like the eyes of a tiger. They were always looking around for fresh prey."

Excerpted from Lost in the Funhouse by Bill Zehme. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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