Creative Director - Los Angeles Arts Society
Like many angsty, alienated teens, I spent a good deal of high school finding solace and inspiration in stand-up comedy. I eagerly devoured the material and philosophy of the obvious greats like George Carlin and Bill Hicks, but it was the madcap antics of Andy Kaufman, prodigious in their planning and calculated in their cringeworthiness, that spoke most immediately to me. So in thrall to the mad genius of the reluctant Taxi star and self-proclaimed Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World was I that I kept a picture of him taped to the inside of my binder, a little touch that earned me a compliment from a substitute teacher on one occasion. Having established all this, it gives me a certain nostalgic pleasure to have read Bill Zehme’s Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman. I’d been meaning to get to it for some time, all the while asking myself, “How did anybody write a run-of-the-mill, ink-on-paper biography about someone as strange and full of life as Andy Kaufman?” The answer, as Funhouse demonstrates, is they didn’t.
Zehme adopts an unconventional narrative voice that, rather than clinically recounting and commenting on the moments and happenings that made up his subject’s life, reflects the childlike whimsy that Kaufman himself embodied. The first few pages of the book, for instance, refer to his parents Janice and Stanley Kaufman simply as “Mommy” and “Daddy”, while his maternal grandparents Cy and Pearl Bernstein are “Papu Cy” and “Grandma Pearl” respectively. Although this voice becomes less pronounced as Andy grows older (“Mommy” and “Daddy” give way to “Janice” and “Stanley" early on, for example), the book retains an experimental and emotional quality that adds a strong sense of drama to the material and further invests the reader in it.
Another unusual technique that the author makes superb use of is two motifs repeated over the course of the book. The first is his bookending of certain sentences with variants of “and that was, um, fine”, a phrase that captures the awkwardly-amusing ambiguity that Kaufman’s work provoked in audiences. The second motif, used to chillingly great effect, is his seemingly random interjecting of passages describing a cough that the comedian was just never quite able to shake, ominously hinting at his eventual succumbing to cancer. These recurring elements not only heighten the aforementioned sense of drama but give it a certain musicality as well, something that Kaufman, an avowed “song and dance man”, would likely have appreciated.
Regarding the research that Zehme conducted for Funhouse, it’s almost staggering to learn that he spent six years conducting interviews and gathering material. At a little over 350 pages long, one might find this hard to believe but, nevertheless, should respect that so much time and thought went into it. Indeed, Zehme’s studies of his subject (including stints as a producer for a Taxi retrospective and A Comedy Salute for Andy Kaufman) bore considerable fruit in the form of interviews with key figures from Kaufman’s life as well as observers and admirers of his work. The presence of the main players like Kaufman’s parents and siblings, his manager George Shapiro, and comedy partner Bob Zmuda are all givens, but Zehme also includes comments and stories by such notable others as Dustin Hoffman, Chevy Chase, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rodney Dangerfield, and Carl Reiner (who is shown to have had the distinction of introducing Shapiro to Kaufman.)
One appearance that might take readers particularly by surprise is John Gray, who, before taking the self-help world by storm with Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, acted as a counselor to Kaufman and his loved ones after his fatal diagnosis. Some might be also surprised by how little Kaufman’s partner Lynne Marguiles (memorably portrayed by Courtney Love in the Jim Carrey-starring biopic Man on the Moon) figures into the story, but in hindsight it shouldn’t be since they were only together a year before his death (a fact that the movie plays loose with.) Still, as his significant other, she undoubtedly had a unique view of the funhouse that very few others probably got to see, so it’s not unreasonable to wish more attention had been devoted to Marguiles and her memories of Andy.
In this terribly hip age of Adult Swim humor and contrived quirkiness, it’s both startling and satisfying to see that Andy was, at least as Funhouse tells it, a genuinely strange person. The skeptical may assume that his off-stage weirdness was just another put-on by the master prankster, but the evidence from his childhood suggests that he was out there from the very beginning. His habit of happily gibbering to himself in class, his penchant for staring off into space with those big blue eyes of his, and a twin brother visible only to himself indicate an experience and understanding of reality that was possibly situated somewhere on the autistic spectrum, leading one to wonder how differently Kaufman’s life and craft might have turned out had a diagnosis for autism existed then.
One might take it as a criticism of the book that the picture it draws of its subject is murky and vague, but it shouldn’t be construed as such since Kaufman was himself murky and vague. We get significant glimmers of insight into what was going on in his mind or what he was trying for like when we read the abrasive voice he used for Tony Clifton sounded suspiciously like his father’s when he got mad or that the Uncle Andy’s Funhouse production crew felt he acted and sounded just a little too heartfelt during his talk with Howdy Doody, but there is no moment where the reader suddenly goes “bingo!” and understands Kaufman on a fundamental level. Of course, it’s hard to imagine any explanation given for Kaufman’s behavior and personality (or, perhaps more aptly, personalities) being satisfying in any meaningful sense, so perhaps that question is one we’re better off leaving, like many others surrounding him, unanswered.
But chances are anyone reading an Andy Kaufman biography isn’t expecting answers to such “who, what, why” questions. The real metric for such an endeavor is how much of Andy’s spirit the title is able to capture and replicate on each page. Judging by this standard, Lost in the Funhouse, with its well-executed eccentricities and its unexpected tenderness, is an astonishing success that is unlikely to be equaled any time soon.
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