While there are many styles of comedy, the contract between comedian and audience is a fairly standard one. The comedian endeavors to get laughs. The audience understands that sort of currency, and is eager to lavish it on deserving candidates.
The late Andy Kaufman wasn’t much interested in that sort of exchange.
His comedy was experimental to the point of performance art, and often felt experimental in a scientific sense as well. When he read long passages from The Great Gatsby to comedy club audiences, went after professional wrestlers twice his size, or insisted he’d found Jesus and gotten engaged to a Lawrence Welk Show singer, it was as if he was conducting a stress test. How much disorientation would an audience put up with?
He was a genuine weirdo. The genius kid who seems hellbent on winning the animosity of his classmates with his cryptic remarks and odd behavior.
Knowing young comedy fans who idolize prankster Sacha Baron Cohen’s shapeshifting stunts may find it hard to appreciate just how unsettling the off-kilter Kaufman could be.
Witness his 1981 guest spot on Fridays, a rival network’s short-lived attempt to duplicate Saturday Night Live’s success.
In the sketch above, Kaufman wanders pretty egregiously afield of expected conduct. In an era where guest stars appeared not infrequently bombed out of their gourds, it wasn’t entirely surprising that one might appear confused, or have trouble reading cue cards. But Kaufman seemed to be making a deliberate choice to scupper his career, or at the very least, the goodwill of Fridays’ cast and crew, by refusing to play along in a sketch about restaurant patrons sneaking off to the bathroom to get high.
“I can’t play stoned,” he breaks character to announce, mid-scene. Hmm. Seems like the kind of thing one might bring up during the table read. An a-hole would wait till dress rehearsal, when such a move would for sure inspire the enmity of cast and crew. Kaufman waited till the sketch was being taped in front of a live studio audience.
But then, Kaufman’s experiments needed an audience to succeed.
As with Sacha Baron Cohen’s elaborate ruses, it helped to limit the number of people who were in on the joke.
Actor Melanie Chartoff recalled how she and Kaufman’s other two scene partners, Mary Edith Burrell and Seinfeld’s Michael Richards, were tipped off fairly late in the process by producer/announcer Jack Burns, who was thrilled to snap up the live wire whose antics had permanently burned his bridges with Saturday Night Live:
Andy's gonna bust out of the show tonight," he gleamed. "He's gonna mess up and break the fourth wall from the top of the monologue. It's gonna be great. It's gonna kick our ratings through the ROOF!
And so it did, abetted by benighted crew members who sprang to provide back up, when a furious-seeming Burns stormed the set as if to kick the ornery guest star’s ass.
But the piece de resistance came the following week, when producer John Moffitt went on air to satisfy the public’s need to know, confessing that the stunt was indeed a fake and piously suggesting they should take it as a reminder of the “spontaneity of live television, something that rarely happens in this basically passive medium today.”
Then Kaufman—who genuinely hated that his sleight of hand had been revealed—turned on Moffitt for the halting, miserable, and seemingly forced 4 minute apology below.
When the live audience laughed delightedly, he lashed out, insisting that his previous week’s actions were about to cost him his gig on the hit sitcom Taxi, all future roles, a number of friendships, and his marriage.
Never mind that he was unmarried.
This comedian played a long game, and easy laughs were never the goal.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her in NYC this December for the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the next monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.