Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Kaufman Isn't Funny

For those of you who were around Monday evening, I think you probably already realize by now just how fascinated and amazed I am by Kaufman and what he does. So, I want to summarize some of my thoughts on Kaufman so far and get them articulated on the blog.

First of all, is Andy Kaufman funny?

No, I don't think so. I think may people approach Kaufman (nowadays) expecting something funny because he is a comedian and it is professional wrestling, though watching and reading about him, I'm not convinced that he wanted to be funny. Perhaps he made it seem like he wanted to be funny sometimes, or he claimed (such as on The Letterman Show) that he was trying to be funny before, but I feel that all of this is only part of what he was actually trying to do... which wasn't to be funny.

I think what Kaufman was trying to do was quite sincerely be the most evil and vicious villain in professional wrestling possible. I don't see it as necessarily a joke, though I think his role as a comedian plays a major role in it.

By being first and foremost a well-known comedian, when Kaufman gets in the ring and suddenly takes on a remarkebly different character, I think it adds a great deal of legitimacy to his wrestling persona. When you see an actor, you know them as their role, yet suspect that there's still some kind of real personality behind there. Further, an actor doesn't reference his acting -- he stays in character. Thus, by having an actor get in the ring and take on a different persona, and then reference his career and his acting, Kaufman becomes far more legitimate and feels far more real than even the best wrestlers.

What's funny about making people believe you're actually insulting them? Not a whole lot, really.

Further, the fact that he continued his television career and even destroyed it eventually because of the wrestling, only makes it even more real. With a wrestling character, everything about their life is entrenched in the wrestling. You don't really come in contact with them via any means other than the wrestlign show. However, with Kaufman, people knew him from television, and saw that he was sinking his career, and so he feels much more like a real person.

However, some of his wrestling promos and acts do seem to quite comedic, and he even references older wrestling performances from time to time as just him trying to be funny.

So what's this about?

First of all, it is believable because Kaufman is a comedian -- a weird one. Maybe he was just trying to be funny? Yet then he gets angry and comes back with even more vitriol! The scenario of someone being a genuine jerk, pretending it was just a joke because he's a comedian, and then getting angry again seems very real.

When he does silly promos or lampooning on television (such as when he "wrestled" the 300 pound woman on television) that seem like jokes, it doesn't make his evil character or act look like a joke, it makes it look meaner -- as though he were making fun of wrestling, the audience. or the people he is lampooning. The fact that he is a comedian and so making jokes is natural to him, only furthers this feeling that he's making jokes at the audience, and not for the audience.

Essentially, he's creating a very believable villain by confusing the audience's sense of reality with many different layers of jokes and characters that all sort of interleave into (what I guess must be) his real life. It is so complex and so layered, that I think while most people must at first see it as an act, I imagine people latch onto some layer in his act and say, "oh that's it, that's the real Kaufman, he's really just a jerk deep down, isn't he!"

That's incredible to me.

As for "Breakfast With Blassie", is it funny?

Yes, I think it is. I think it is clearly made as a comedy. It parodies something obvious. It points out in a funny way the meaner attributes of the characters. It is overall rather funny.

Though, I think it serves a deeper purpose than that by further adding more of these layers of surreality to Kaufman's character that I've been talking about.

At one level, you see Kaufman as this very nice and meek individual in the film, and so you might imagine that perhaps this is the real Kaufman and he's actually just a nice guy. Then, it slowly introduces references to his mysogyny and mean remarks and then you start to think that, well, this is the real Kaufman, and the real Kaufman might be a little calmer, but he's still just as much of a jerk as he is on television.

Even beyond that, if you think about Kaufman as the producer as well you might start to wonder why he made this show. Perhaps the real Kaufman is a jerk, and he's simply trying to portray himself as a nice guy to look better? That would make Kaufman an even bigger jerk!

And so it continues, layer upon layer of confusion, making for an ever deeper and more believable villain.

Yeah, there's a lot of humor in his act. He does some funny things. Though being funny isn't what it is about, and the ultimate goal isn't for the audience to laugh, it is to inspire genuine hatred and anger from the audience -- to be the ultimate professional wrestling heel.


Sam Ford said...

Rob, you make some incredible points here, with an in-depth review of the Andy Kaufman performances we've seen. Because Andy's tenure in wrestling was small enough, we were able to see the vast majority of coverage of his work in the wrestling world, and I think that your take on how he becomes the exemplar for wrestling heels is of particular interest.

Certainly, Andy does not care to be hated, and in fact revels in that fact. As the movie portrays, you get the sense that he wants people to dislike him, to not be able to distinguish which Andy is the real Andy.

We will read an essay I wrote on Mick Foley later this semester that deals with some of these issues, and we will talk about this in relation to McMahon as well. Wrestling puts everything in quotation marks, brings into question the dividing line between "real" and "fake" in more ways than just the performance in the ring, and I think Andy Kaufman provides a great case study into how that works.

I hope your fascination with Kaufman's performance fuels continued scholarly interest for the rest of the course.

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

I feel I'd need to see My Dinner with Andre before I could do any deep analysis of My Breakfast with Blassie, but I think your description of Kaufman's schtick is right on.

As for whether or not it's funny, well, it's certainly funny in retrospect. I'm not sure how I'd feel if it were happening in front of me and I didn't know it was an act, but then, I can't say with any certainty that it was an act when I watch it now, because Kaufman was so thoroughly inscrutable. I suspect the reason he became a cult figure after his death had more to do with his brand of meta-comedy (in which the first audience's reaction to the "joke" becomes the joke itself for later audiences) than the usual "before his time" explanation we apply to the Bill Hickses of the world. (Granted, a lot of people still don't think Bill Hicks is funny...but that's the long tail for you.)

I wonder sometimes if audiences are learning to adapt to this idea or not. Sascha Baron Cohen has done very well with Ali G and Borat, but he's a lot more open about the nature of the joke. Similarly, Stephen Colbert has developed an impressive "heel" persona, but it's still based on rather conventional jokes that are designed to be funny to the audience and serious to the oblivious character he plays.

Say, there's a fun topic. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as face and heel.

At any rate, I read Ann Coulter, whose politics I place somewhere in the vicinity of "insane." I started reading her for educational, opposition/research reasons, but I read it now for comedy, and I suspect that's why her fans do. She's a gifted comedian, and a skilled performance artist. Unless I'm reading it wrong, in which case she's just thoroughly batshit insane. Which we also can't rule out for Kaufman.

katejames said...

Peter, I really like your analysis of Kaufman project as 'meta-comedy'. When I was watching Breakfast with Blassie, I felt much of the time that I was watching a performance art piece more than anything, and I think that's because of the conceptual depth that comes from a fluency in the performance on the meta-level-- over time and the in the use of character layering that Rob discusses so well.

I think Kaufman was brilliant in blurring the line of reality and performance. I think he was most brilliant for the very proposition and design of the Breakfast at Blassie piece- it is truly bizarre as a medium-- skirting the boundaries between documentary, wrestling interview, candid camera and performance art. The progression of Andy through various versions and degrees of performativity seems to lead Blassie through a similar wavering between real self and character, which is really interesting. It seemes as though they relied on eachother to take cues for how to behave, especially when it came to reacting to the escalating circumstances.