Kaufman on Kaufman: An Interview with Andy's Brother
When I was a kid I used to love Taxi. It had been cancelled for a number of years by the time I got into it, but I watched the syndicated episodes whenever they came on Nick at Nite. Thinking back on it now, most of the characters—even the ones who went on to be megastars—are blurry and ill-defined in my memory. Andy Kaufman’s portrayal of the bizarre immigrant cab mechanic Latka, however, is crystal clear. That’s not surprising. As with everything Kaufman did, Latka was memorable because he was so damn unique. He was miles away from any other character on television—on Taxi, he sometimes seemed to be on a different, more surreal show—and Kaufman was just as far away from any other human in real life. Whether he was standing alone on stage nervously playing the Mighty Mouse theme song and lip-syncing only the chorus, or wrestling women and declaring himself the World Intergender Wrestling Champion, or fucking with Letterman decades before Joaquin Phoenix, he was one of a kind, which is why he is still so widely respected today. Oh, and he was also Elvis’s favorite Elvis impersonator.
On Saturday, an exhibition presented by Jonathan Berger, titled On Creating Reality, opens at Maccarone gallery in the West Village. The show will feature a boatload of Andy’s personal effects, as well as a rotating cast of his close friends and family members, at least one of whom will be at the gallery at all times. These people—who are part of the exhibition themselves—will be available to chat with visitors and offer a unique look into the life of one of contemporary culture’s most enigmatic figures. In preparation of the show, and because I am a gigantic Kaufman fanboy, I called up Michael Kaufman, Andy’s brother, to talk about the show and his brother’s life.
VICE: Hi, Michael. I just wanted to ask a little bit about the show. Do you know what sort of artifacts are going to be there?
Michael Kaufman:I know some of them. His most recognized Elvis jacket will be there, as well as his famous pink Foreign Man jacket that he would take off to become Elvis, and also the mock shirt he tore away. Andy was an author and we published three books for him after he died. Not only will the books be there—that's not a big deal—but you'll be able to see handwriting of Andy's. The World Intergender Wrestling Belt will be there. His 11th grade report card, which has a lot of red on it.
How did he do?
One of his 11th grade teachers said to my mother, “The only reason I'm passing your son is I don't want to take a gamble at having him in my class again next year.” Also in the collection is a wonderful series of communications where Andy went to visit a girl who was dying. She was a fan of his, and when his plane was delayed in Chicago on its way to Washington, he drove out to Demotte, Indiana, to visit her. Word got out at the hospital and Andy wrestled three people. I have pictures. They were supposedly nurses and maybe one patient's mother. It's the only time he ever lost a match. He let them beat him. And then there's a letter from the mother, thanking Andy for doing that. Seven weeks after his visit, she died. That whole correspondence will be there. Andy never told anyone about that. I only knew about it because I went through the stuff.
What was it like being Andy's brother? Were there times when you saw a bit he was doing on TV and didn't know if it was real or not?
Yes. One time I told him not to let me know what was really going on, because when people asked me questions I didn't want to lie to them.
Can you tell me about one of his gags that duped you?
A couple of months after I told him not to tell me anything anymore, he was on the TV show Fridays.
This is going to be about the infamous marijuana sketch, isn’t it?
It is. I was living in California at the time and was actually there that night. Andy may have smoked marijuana in high school, but when he got to college he started meditating and gave up everything. No cigarettes, no alcohol… totally clean. I could see him not wanting to be part of the marijuana scene. It was cheap humor and Fridays specialized in that, so I could see Andy saying “no” to it. So I'm sitting in my chair in the audience, thinking, Andy, I can't believe you picked nowto make a statement. You just ruined your whole career! Then, when the show was over, I went backstage to see how he was doing. I approached his dressing room with trepidation because I thought he was going to be very angry. I had to open a door to a bigger room before getting to his dressing room, and when I did there was music and a great mood going on. I thought, This is in poor taste. Andy's in there packing up like he's got no career and you guys are having a great time. That feeling lasted about four seconds, because I looked up and saw that Andy was one of the people celebrating. He was high-fiving people and dancing around. You didn't see Andy dancing on television too much, but he was that night. I'm embarrassed to say that he got me that night. It was phenomenal.
Andy was very particular about defining what he did, and he hated it when people called him a comedian. Why do you think that was?
Let me tell you. We were brothers, so how I feel about something might be very similar to the way he felt… in fact, I think it is. I can't watch much stand-up comedy. I can appreciate a lot of it, I can appreciate the art in how people bring you up and down, but if you go to a comedy club it’s a lot of the same stuff, and too much work for the payoff. Andy didn't go for the laughter. He just wanted you to participate. He didn't care if you were angry, sad, laughing… he just wanted you to feel something as opposed to politely applauding at a Broadway show at the right moments. That might be the answer for why Andy didn't want to be called a comedian. He would have been like everybody else. This way, he could be different. Also, it may have been a protective device, so that if you didn't laugh he could say, “Well, I wasn't trying to make you laugh. I said I wasn't a comedian.”
There's such a gigantic question mark around Andy’s real personality. Do you think this show will paint a better picture of the off-stage Andy for people?
That's a great question. I have an unpublished book on Andy that would shed some light on that. Aside from that, you get a glimpse of his other side in Andy Kaufman's Comedy Salute, and I think when you hear about him visiting the girl who was dying you see another side of Andy. As for the show, I'm going to be at the gallery three or four times. My sister from Chicago is going to be there for two days. Andy's daughter, who he never knew, will be there. Then you have people like Bob Zmuda and Lynn Margulies, who are also going. I don't know what side's going to come out there… I hope Lynn will be able to give all the sides. She saw the creative, but she'll be able to show the part of him that was a caring person as well.
I heard that you occasionally played Andy’s character, “Tony Clifton.” Is that true?
That is correct. I don't mind telling the truth. I was the first one to play Tony Clifton, other than Andy. It was at Huntington Hartford in California, and again at Carnegie Hall in New York. Andy had been talking about franchising Tony Clifton before he died. He was going to have one in every state.
That would have been fantastic. Do you have any insight into how Andy developed his characters?
Oh, gosh. A lot of it came from his upbringing. My sister might know more about Foreign Man, because he did that with her. Andy watched a lot of Spanish TV. He didn't know any Spanish, but he liked listening to it, so that's where Foreign Man came from. In my book I wrote that, to some degree, by being so bad with Foreign Man, I think Andy figured if you didn't like it he could always say, “Well, I wasn't trying.” As courageous as he was by playing Foreign Man, it was a protective device.
He would do impersonations as Foreign Man too, right? And then break into a great Elvis impersonation?
Right. That's where he had to come through. He had to pull through with Elvis. If he didn't, what was the rest of it for? Andy was Elvis's favorite, by the way. He had Andy on video. I think Andy said to me that the reason Elvis liked him the best was because Andy was the only one who did it with a sense of humor.
Yeah, I actually interviewed four Elvis impersonators for our January issue. They take themselves very seriously.
They showed up at Andy's funeral! The Elvis fan club. It wasn't just in the movie—that was in real life.
Do you think what he did paved the way for satirical performance art and comedy? Sacha Baron Cohen, for instance, is obviously inspired by your brother.
A brother may be biased, but I really think he gave permission for a lot of people—whether it be Sacha Baron Cohen, Tom Green, Ashton Kutcher with Punk'd, Johnny Knoxville—to do what they do. I heard Pee Wee Herman asked Andy if it was OK to do the Pee Wee Playhouse. That is hearsay, it was told to me by someone else, but certainly he was an influence there.
It seemed to me that a lot of comedy at that time conformed to a similar structure, while Andy was on his own planet. Who—if anyone—were Andy's influences?
Perhaps Andy's originality was that he wasn't so much influenced. That said, perhaps the greatest influence was his paternal grandfather, Paul. Paul was the ham. As an example, Paul, a successful businessman, arranged for Andy's bar mitzvah reception to be held at Paul's upper-class Fresh Meadows Country Club on January 13, 1962. It was Grandpa Paul, and not Andy's friends, who went into the men's locker room and mixed up all the golf shoes. He unpaired them so there were no matching pairs.
Paul would also buy the latest magic tricks and surprise—or rather infuriate—his wife, Grandma Lillie, by demonstrating the tricks at the dinner table in front of company. Like the moving plates: Grandpa would squeeze one end in his hand, forcing air through the tube leading under the plates, which would move and lift.
Thanks for talking with me, Michael.
Michael Kaufman helps run the Andy Kaufman Award, an annual competition honoring the most creative up-and-coming faces of comedy. For more information go to theandykaufmanaward.com.
On Creating Reality will be on display through February 16th.
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