Monday, December 13, 1999

Losing My Fragility

The first time I saw Andy Kaufman was on an early episode of Saturday Night Live. Out on stage a sheepish man stood wide eyed as he gently placed the arm of a phonograph on to a scratchy sounding record. It was the "Mighty Mouse" theme and the man remained mostly still as he diligently seemed to be counting the beats of the music in his head. He remained totally silent until the refrain of the song played, "Here I am to save the day. Mighty Mouse is on the way." With this he broadly mouthed the words sweeping his hand in the air with a superhero's confidence. He then returned to silence only "singing" every time the chorus played. At the end of the song he gently removed the arm of the phonograph from the record, bashfully smiled at his audience and said in a tiny little voice, "Dank u veddy much." It was peculiar, it was sweet and it was about the funniest thing I'd ever seen.

I followed Andy through his subsequent appearances on SNL and the Tonight Show. Every time I saw him my admiration grew. There was the time he did imitations in his foreign man voice, each imitation from John Wayne to Richard Nixon sounding exactly alike only with the different phrases associated with the subjects. Then he got to his Elvis impersonation and the transformation was startling. From the twitchy lip to the hiccuping vocals Andy did Elvis better than Elvis did Elvis at that point. Another time Andy was telling silly little jokes without remembering their punchlines. The audience politely played along, laughing nervously. With growing trepidation he finally began to break down accusing the audience of laughing at him and not with him. He began to sob, choking on his own breath. As the sobbing became more rhythmic he began to dance as he turned the cry of his voice into a musical instrument.

When it was announced Andy was to be a regular on the new sitcom Taxi, I made sure I had all my schoolwork done so I could watch the new show. His character, Latka Gravas, immediately became my favorite part of a very well cast ensemble. A popular part of my own minor celebrity in junior high school was my ability to imitate Latka's trademark accented thank you.

With his debut as the first inter-gender wrestling champion Andy's sweetness turned to weirdness. His frequent appearances on Late Night with David Letterman showed him not so much a comedian but as a performance artist- a performer who was looking as much to make his audience squirm as much as laugh. He no longer was always funny but that seemed to be the point. Even his Taxi character, Latka, lost his innocence and became the obnoxious alter ego- Vic Ferrari.

Then there was an unforgettable appearance on Letterman following Andy's first wrestling match with a man. His opponent, Jerry Lawler appeared on the show with Andy. Andy was wearing a neck brace compliment of being the victim of a pile driver by Lawler. The two uncomfortably sat next to each other and exchanged their accounts of the match. More and more Lawler became agitated with Andy's demeanor. Just before Dave was going to a commercial Lawler slapped Andy. At this point, and to this day, I'm not sure how much of this was put on and how much was real. Dave didn't seem to know either. It was the most bizarre, and one of the most seemingly dangerous moments of television I ever saw.

When the news came out that Andy had cancer I was among the many who wondered whether maybe it was another of his stunts. When he died I was truly saddened. His death prompted Letterman to, for one of the only times in the history of his show, drop the sarcasm and speak genuinely from the heart- about how Andy had always been such an entertaining guest that would now be greatly missed.

I wasn't aware of how influential Andy was until he remained a much talked about performer years after his death. My favorite REM song remains their affectionate tribute to Andy, "Man on the Moon." I was excited to hear about the movie project of Andy's life starring Jim Carrey. Although I am now officially retired from movie-going I may have to make a temporary exception and go see the movie. I'm not sure anybody can ever make sense of Andy's skewed vision of life, but I think it's safe to say we will always forever enjoy his unique talent.

No comments: