But Josh Wolk says he was no comedy groundbreaker, just a pain in the neck

By Josh Wolk
Updated December 31, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Andy Kaufman inspires a movie and several books

In an early scene in the movie ”The Man on the Moon,” Andy Kaufman’s new manager George Shapiro (played by Danny DeVito) politely tells his client that he has something hanging out of his nose. After Kaufman reveals that it is fake snot, Shapiro laughs and says, ”You’re insane…but you may just be brilliant!”

Brilliance comes in many forms, but I am reasonably sure that this is not one of them. When I was in third grade madly rolling pseudo-boogers out of rubber cement, I received no admiring glances from my teachers followed by a ”You, sir, are ahead of your time!” But this movie scene’s adulation is typical of today’s Andy Kaufman renaissance (which has spawned a movie, two bios, and countless magazine articles), where it is sacrilege not to look at every one of Kaufman’s antics as groundbreaking and visionary, as well as ”meta,” ”postmodern,” and other high-minded words that don’t necessarily mean ”funny.”

Frankly, Kaufman wasn’t a comic genius. Sure, he died young, which can help give the illusion of genius. (Sam Kinison as pungent-social-critic reevaluations have been bubbling for years, so Milos Forman better nab those movie rights soon!) But while many of Kaufman’s bits were admittedly hilarious — I’ll give you the “Mighty Mouse” lip-synch and the Foreign-Man-does-Elvis routine — the audience-antagonizing antics that he is lauded for now, like napping onstage in a sleeping bag to the bewilderment of his paying crowd, aren’t so much the work of an innovator as that of a professional pest.

When I go to a comedy club, I want to be surprised, yes, but I want to be surprised in a way that ultimately makes me laugh. If I were at the Improv the night that Andy did one of his stunts engineered to give audiences the opposite of what they expected — like reading ”The Great Gatsby” until everyone left — I would be a little angry about what my comedy dollar had bought me. When he contrived to have the audience writhe uncomfortably, he was using them as his own entertainment, and he didn’t even pay to watch.

The Kaufman-as-genius myth is given more credence since it’s touted by so many other comedians: ”Andy Kaufman Revealed!”, the bio written by his longtime writer, Bob Zmuda, begins each chapter with a one-line adulatory quote by a different comic, from Garry Shandling to Jay Leno to Robin Williams. But it’s no wonder they love him, since Andy lived out every comic’s fantasy: Instead of an audience messing with his head by not laughing at him, he messed with theirs. Comics love him for the same reason you idolize the co-worker who tells your boss to screw himself. But that doesn’t make your rebel cubicle-mate an ”employee genius” as soon as he’s fired.

That’s not to say you can’t be a comic and be too smart for the room. Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, and Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (”Mr. Show”), for example, all played with the expectations of comedy in their respective days — and in the process probably received more than their share of blank stares from crowds who just wanted more dirty jokes for their dirty-joke dollar. But they were comic visionaries, since they had visions of a day when people would get their humor and appreciate it. Kaufman’s vision seemed to be of a day when the entire world would throw a punch at him. What’s laughable is that he’s the one getting all the applause now.

Man on the Moon (Movie - 1999)

  • Movie
  • R
  • 118 minutes
  • Milos Forman