His goal, I think, was never to make the crowd laugh. He insisted he wasn’t a comic and didn’t tell jokes — unless it was to show how flawed conventional humor was.
“I’m not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads,” he told The New York Times.
Every Kaufman bit forced the audience through the gears and far past the confines of conventional humor. He made them squirm. He pushed discomfort to an art. He was a study in negative space and his audience’s reaction to it.
In that way, he was a masterful deconstructionist. He wanted to turn the entire idea on its head. He wanted to try reverse-reverse-reverse-reverse psychology. He wanted to piss people off, and he never made a secret of it — especially in his staged inter-gender wrestling stunts and legendary appearance on Fridays later in his career.
But angering people wasn’t the end goal — it was just a necessary transitional state. He always aimed to show people how to peel through the fake veneer of life and find the elusive truth underneath.
“What’s real? What’s not? That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality,” he said.
It was a concept that few people understood, especially the network executives he asked to back him. But he bludgeoned his way through show business anyway, pummeling the American public with a do-you-believe-everything-you-see solipsism that was infectious to an entire generation. He flippant attitudes toward what could be done or said on television changed the perspective of the multitudes, even if they didn’t realize it at the time.
It was like Kaufman was trying to be unpopular, just to prove how silly the entire notion of culture is.
“There’s a little voice that says, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that, that’s breaking all the rules,'” he said. “That’s the voice of show business. Then this other little voice says, ‘Try it.'”
Watch how he breaks the crowd in this 1977 HBO Young Comedians special. The audience members don’t know whether to take him seriously. They don’t know up front whether Andy’s stuttering, hesitant, self-effacing front is real. Andy keeps pushing and pushing the limits of their credulity, then slaps them a little in face to let them know it’s all an act.
Once he had disabused the confused masses of their expectations, he would show them his own home-brewed physical comedy.
It was so tangential to their expectations that they would be just excited and confused enough to fall prey to his abusive alter-egos. Here, Tony Clifton launches a raunchy assault born in the night clubs of both Reno and Tahoe.
Note that Mel Sherer is a plant — he helped Kaufman put together his “Andy’s Playhouse” special that (I think) never aired on ABC. Bob Zmuda was his obvious sidekick, though it’s unlikely the audience had any idea, and Larry Feinberg and Luther Adler were both Jewish comedic actors.
Many mass media outlets that clamored to interview and review the hot new “comedian” didn’t know that he and Clifton were one and the same. Sometimes, in fact, they weren’t — he would give his brother, Michael, and good friend Bob Zmuda turns depicting Clifton — again, just to mess with peoples’ minds.
After he added makeup, shades, and a little bit of weight to the Clifton costume, the gag was so convincing that it continues to baffle fans. Continued Clifton appearances post-Kaufman’s death of cancer in 1984 have even added fuel to the popular theories that Andy may have faked his own death.
Before his death, he was working on a script about a man who fakes his own death. He told others he wanted to actually do it as a type of performance art. Zmuda even said Andy was obsessed with the idea. But Kaufman did not rise from the dead to revel in the success of his hoax in 2004, as he bragged he would.
But that’s not the point. Kaufman still succeeded by doing what any good absurdist or mentalist does — he convinced us that it was possible that he wasn’t dead, and he kept us talking about it for 23 years. That’s a bigger trick than most men can ever hope to spring, and it’s what made Kaufman’s anti-comedic outlook on life so revolutionary.