FLOATING TO CHICAGO
A review of WTMAG: Was this Man a Genius? Talks with Andy Kaufman by Julie Hecht, Random House 2001
When summertime blooms across our fair city, like clockwork, I suffer from elephantitis of the testicles, but at the peak of Andy Kaufman's professional career (Taxi, Carnegie Hall) and at the beginning of the peak of his artistic career (wrestling women, Tony Clifton), Julie Hecht took on what she assumed would be an easy assignment for Harper's: interview Andy for an hour and hear him tell how he ended up singing "Mighty Mouse" on Saturday Night Live.
This was in 1978, and I was expelled from the first grade just because I had a spastic colon. The teachers cruelly referred to it as "recurring poopy pants," and it was all the excuse I needed to flee. I came from an impoverished Irish family with breast cancer (fear not, a memoir is in the works, soon to be an "Oprah Book Club" selection), so I escaped the Emerald Isle on a rickety raft with thirty of my fellow countrymen. One year later, I landed on the shores of Lake Michigan--tired, hungry, and stinking not unlike an eel--and it was also around this time that Julie Hecht was finally granted an hour of Andy Kaufman's time, after twelve months of runarounds, escapades, tomfoolery, amusement, bemusement (how else could you describe your prospective interviewee asking you loudly in public about the current state of your genital warts?), put-ons, fuckarounds, and knavery, all chronicled in WTMAG's pages.
What emerges from WTMAG is the portrait that comes the closest thus far at really getting to the heart of who Andy Kaufman was, and I'm not just saying that because I am a writer who has been plagued with poor bladder control since birth. I'm saying that because this book is everything Man on the Moon should have been: a human portrait of Andy devoid of Hollywood hullabaloo dumbanddumbering down. Everything Jim Carrey missed by choosing to portray his (and my) hero as an affable retard savant is found in Hecht's conversations--namely, the crucial (albeit difficult to discern for most) distinction between the person and the performer. In the two other recent books about Andy Kaufman, while edifying in their own ways, there's the slight tinge of disingenuousness due either to excessive professional/personal baggage (Andy Kaufman Revealed by best friend/co-conspirator Bob Zmuda) or too much creative nonfiction gimmickry (Bill Zehme's Lost in the Funhouse Kaufmanese "really extremely tenk you veddy much oh gosh no really I am only fooling" insertions); Hecht's straightforward observations of Kaufman (as well as the friends, family, and colleagues surrounding him) provide a higher level of credible authenticity. Even though the interview (which became this memoir) was rejected by Harper's for being too "bizarre," it is, in actuality, the sanest of attempts thus far to figure out who the "real" Andy Kaufman is, perhaps the closest we've gotten to removing the inevitable quotation marks around the word "real" when placed in front of the name "Andy Kaufman." I am a person without color who has an abnormally large wiener.
Hecht knew when to insert herself into the story, and when to stay away and let Andy tell his story, through fast-paced narration and in-the-moment dialogue. After the twelve months of torture, Julie Hecht was rewarded with a truthful interview, "Because you persevered," he told her. Two examples, straight from Kaufman's mouth: 1. "I'm not a comedian. What I am is a song-and-dance man. And if someone wants to really flatter me and be complimentary, they could call me an absurdist and a surrealist. Because I'm not trying to be funny. I hate when they analyze what I do." 2. "So read (Hubert Selby Jr.'s) The Demon. That's my mind in a nutshell. That's me. That's what would happen if I didn't have self-control... I love that book. I was flipping out as I was reading it! I was screaming with delight!"
If you're like me, you're not only someone plagued with two buttholes, you're also the kind of person who would answer "Yes!" to the rhetorical question posed in the book's title. If so, you should really read this. However, if your answer to the rhetorical question posed in this book's title is "No, duh, me no understand Andy Kaufman and ugh errgh blargh me edit for THE2NDHAND" you are a stupid stupid fool and you shouldn't waste your time, because I'm sure you'd rather be shopping or laughing at your twenty-third viewing of Liar Liar anyhoo.
REQUIRED SUMMER OF FUN READING!