"Andy never bombed—there was no such thing as bombing. He wasn't on that plane."
The above quote was delivered on Sunday night by Andy Kaufman's former partner, Elayne Boosler, at the 2015 Andy Kaufman Award show in Manhattan. It does a nice job of summing up Kaufman's genius and the way his act—which wasn't designed to accommodate bombing—functioned. If a bit seemed to fall flat, piss the audience off, or simply go over their heads, it's safe to assume that that's exactly what Kaufman intended. To him, comedy was less a vocation and more a vehicle through which he could highlight the absurdity of the human condition.
For the past 11 years, the Andy Kaufman Awards have been trying to boost the profile of comedians who aim to do just that—previous recipients include Kristen Schaal and Reggie Watts, two people who know a thing or two about shredding convention. Sunday's event featured performances from eight comics from around the country whose efforts ranged from the vaguely conventional (Ben Kronberg argued with his cell phone, while Alison Rich did impressions of a girl "who gets really reasonable when she's drunk" and "the inventor of Tetris hearing the Tetris theme song for the first time") to the totally and completely out there.
"We've been creating a safe haven for performers who don't quite fit in the round hole," Andy's younger brother, Michael, told the sold-out crowd at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre East, which was so packed that some audience members were forced to stand for two-and-a-half hours. In addition to his brother and former partner, Andy's sister Carol Kaufman Kerman and his daughter Maria Bellu-Colonna were also in attendance.
The event followed on the heels of the premiere of Saturday Night Live's 41st season. Kaufman famously appeared on the comedy institution's first episode, lip-syncing the chorus of the Mighty Mouse theme song while taking unnecessary water breaks with the ostensible intent of soothing his vocal cords. (Attendees at the Andy Kaufman Award were offered the opportunity to purchase Mighty Mouse shirts featuring Kaufman's head on the character's body.)
Denver's Jim Hickox performed a set that seemed to interpret Kaufman's comedic impulses through the lens of modern technology—after reciting President Whitmore's monologue from Independence Day, he took a seat perpendicular to spectators and delivered the rest of his offering to a laptop camera on stage left. Hickox's face was projected on a screen behind him alongside his typed setlist, where he graded his jokes in real-time. He seemed to get the most laughs of the night, especially with his closer, where he pointed out the unfortunate acronym for "The War Against Terror."
Halfway through the show, Boosler led Carol Kaufman Kerman and Maria Bellu-Colonna in a Mighty Mouse theme song sing-along. Bellu-Colonna was born in 1969 to Kaufman's former girlfriend, and placed up for adoption. She did not learn who her father was until eight years after his death.
"It warms my heart, and it's very touching to me because I didn't know him," Bellu-Colonna told VICE about seeing this collection of performers carrying on her father's legacy. "I know him through his family. I know him through people who met him and told me about him. And that's about it. So to see all this love for him makes me very proud."
New York's own Brett Davis took the stage as a nightmarish 600-year-old sex god named the Grand Inquisitor, dressed in a black cloak, white puffy shirt, head coverings, and a mask that resembled a bird's beak. Wielding laser pointers, the Grand Inquisitor's Dementor-esque henchman sought "the one that is pure of body and of soul" to kickstart an onstage orgy. A heavy-set man planted in the audience was brought up alongside a Kaufman cousin and another guest. The man was stripped to his underwear and force-fed Perrier, grapes, and a Whole Foods rotisserie chicken. But the Grand Inquisitor—A.K.A. "Allen"—was distracted from the proceedings by the appearance of his ex, Amy, of whom we learned little except that she adores the band the Fray.
After the ceremony, judge Dan Pasternack, head of Big Beach TV, praised Davis's performance. "I think what Brett did felt so in the moment, like he created something specifically for the evening, and the way he kept building it and ratcheting it up felt very much like what Andy would do. As soon as you thought, OK, so this is the piece, it got weirder and darker and took more turns. I thought what he did was incredibly inventive, incredibly ambitious, really surprising, and really funny even though maybe it didn't necessarily elicit the most laughter. When was Andy about getting the most laughs?"
Davis, who hosts the MNN cable-access show called The Special Without Brett Davis, later told VICE that his character came together by "watching Eyes Wide Shut and seeing the guy that runs their weird tribunal" and spending "lots of time at Halloween Adventure."
Playing a peg-legged though extremely agile self-defense instructor, Boston comic Nathan Barnatt proved to be the most athletic competitor. With a wooden appendage duct-taped to his knee and his foot tucked into the seat of his camouflaged fatigues, Barnatt somehow managed to maintain his balance while climbing ladders, jumping out and scaring people, and twirling the peg like a pistol.
Ultimately, the three judges—Pasternack, Comedy Central director of original programming and development Ari Pearce, and Splitsider deputy editor Megh Wright—awarded the prize to Davis.
As time goes on, there's a danger that people might only remember Kaufman's specific bits—wrestling women, giving out food to the audience, Tony Clifton—rather than the greater ideas behind them. But Kaufman's legacy is much greater than the sum of its parts. It's much more than simply being funny.
"There was tremendous diversity in their voices and what they did, but it's all about people who are expanding what the definition of comedy is," Pasternack told VICE. "And subverting the audience's expectations to me is the spirit of Andy."
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