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.