Andy Kaufman Reads Earnestly from The Great Gatsby and Enrages His Audience

In a 1980 appear­ance on David Let­ter­man, a dead­pan Andy Kauf­man tells a sob sto­ry about his nonex­is­tent fam­i­ly leav­ing him. He then “admon­ish­es the audi­ence for laugh­ing,” writes William Hugh­es at the AV Club, and pan­han­dles for their spare change. “The genius of the bit, as always, is that Kauf­man nev­er blinks. Even as he’s led away by the show’s staff, there’s noth­ing about his unemo­tion­al entreaties that sug­gests that what he’s doing isn’t any­thing but the sober-cold truth.”

He pulled a sim­i­lar stunt the fol­low­ing year, in a guest appear­ance on a short-lived SNL knock­off called Fri­days. After bel­liger­ent­ly break­ing char­ac­ter dur­ing a sketch, he appeared the fol­low­ing week to deliv­er an apol­o­gy, which became a bit­ter, sad sack appeal for sym­pa­thy, while he stared blankly at the cam­era in what his writ­ing part­ner Bob Zmu­da called his “glazed-over hostage look.” Kauf­man was “more of an antag­o­nist of his audi­ence than an ally,” Jake Rossen com­ments at Men­tal Floss.

Rather than punch­ing up or down, he punched out, open­ly exploit­ing our trust and abus­ing our patience. Kauf­man invit­ed us to mock him, only to reroute our respons­es into empa­thy, anger, con­fu­sion, or bore­dom. “Many crowds had streamed into com­e­dy clubs only to endure Kauf­man nap­ping in a sleep­ing bag,” writes Rossen, “or read­ing earnest­ly from The Great Gats­by, threat­en­ing to start all over again if they inter­rupt­ed.” Once giv­en a choice between him read­ing or play­ing a record, a night­club chose the record. “It was the sound of Kauf­man read­ing.”

Just what is the prop­er response to this? The emo­tion­al mis­di­rec­tion works so well because we know we should react a cer­tain way, for exam­ple, to a bro­ken man in great distress—whether he’s ask­ing for spare change or look­ing for all the world like a kid­nap vic­tim. In his Gats­by read­ing, Kauf­man pulls a dif­fer­ent lever—drawing on our innate sense of deco­rum dur­ing a lit­er­ary event, one con­duct­ed by a vague­ly Euro­pean-sound­ing man in a tuxe­do, no less. He incites his audi­ence by mak­ing them laugh at a sit­u­a­tion they would, in its prop­er con­text, try to take seri­ous­ly.

In the clip of Kauf­man read­ing Gats­by at the top, he begins with a cou­ple rus­es and feints: play­ing a snip­pet of a record that makes us think we might be in for a Mighty Mouse-like rou­tine, intro­duc­ing him­self as an actor who plays a screw­ball Amer­i­can com­ic named Andy Kauf­man. Once he launch­es into Gats­by, how­ev­er, and it becomes clear he isn’t going to stop, that the read­ing is the act, the audi­ence becomes incensed, express­ing a pal­pa­ble sense of betray­al.

You came for com­e­dy, he tells them in his Let­ter­man and Fri­days bits; I’m going to give you human­i­ty. You came for com­e­dy, he announces in the Gats­by read­ing; I’m going to give you cul­ture, whether you want it or not. But it’s not me who’s mis­be­hav­ing, he says (in dia­bol­i­cal ver­sions of “stop hit­ting your­self”), it’s you. In the clip above from Man on the Moon, Jim Car­rey draws out the pas­sive aggres­sive impuls­es inher­ent in these maneu­vers, show­ing Andy break­ing out Gats­by as an act of retal­i­a­tion against a crowd who demands that he enter­tain them on their terms.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Andy Kauf­man Cre­ates May­hem on Late Night TV: When Com­e­dy Becomes Per­for­mance Art (1981)

The Improb­a­ble Time When Orson Welles Inter­viewed Andy Kauf­man (1982)

A Look Back at Andy Kauf­man: Absurd Com­ic Per­for­mance Artist and Endear­ing Weirdo

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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