The movie Man on the Moon asks its viewers the question, “Was Andy Kaufman crazy or a genius and before his time?” After first watching the movie back in 1999, I felt like I really couldn’t tell. I mean, it seemed like they were implying he was the latter, but witnessing all of his odd ways and perspectives in his life made me think he really was crazy. But then, how did he manage to get on TV if he was?
I knew little about the man before the film came out, only remembering that he was Latka on Taxi, a show I’d only seen a handful of times when I was a child. That and seeing his famous altercation with Jerry Lawler on David Letterman’s Late Night show. It was 15 years ago that I first watched this movie, but since then I’ve thought about it a lot. And I do believe it took me years to come up with my own answer to the film’s question. I do believe he was a genius and before his time. Here’s why:
WHAT SEEMED CRAZY BEFORE: He hated doing Taxi, his most successful stint in show business.
WHAT SEEMS GENIUS NOW: Entertainment, including TV entertainment, is art. Not everyone agrees on what is art and what is not, but one thing is for sure: an artist does the art and the people make up their own minds about it. Andy hated it because it was comedy in a can: a script with set-up jokes, lines that have to be memorized, audience laughter heard to essentially tell the viewers at home what is supposed to be funny, etc. Andy didn’t want that. He wanted to do his art. Whether that was impersonating Elvis or insulting audience members, it must be his and on his terms. We all say we love Van Gogh’s paintings, but you gotta know that back in his time there was no shortage of people who thought his style was just plain weird. Didn’t matter, though. Van Gogh was making his art. Whether or not you approve it beside the point.
WHAT SEEMED CRAZY BEFORE: He would purposely try to anger people and trick them. He would even make a joke or pull a prank on his audience in such a way that only he would find funny.
WHAT SEEMS GENIUS NOW: Everyone loves a villain. Kauffman said this a lot when he was alive, and he was right. It was what he loved so much about professional wrestling. To him, the wrestling business had it figured out. People loved to hate a bad guy, so he would play the bad guy for them. Think of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Lord Voldemort, Cruella DeVil, the Wicked Witch of the West: we don’t just hate them. We love to hate them. They make us love the hero. And Kauffman’s efforts worked like a charm. Whether he was making fun of people’s weight who paid a ticket to see him at a show or refusing to do something everyone was cheering him on to do, he would do anything he could to anger, embarrass, or provoke his viewers. And they (we?) kept coming back for more. Now understand, they weren’t suckers. We all have a desire to explore our emotions through art, and we usually don’t even realize we’re doing it. Your favourite TV show, movie, music, etc. reflect that. (There’s so many parallels with professional wrestling here, but I will hold back…)
WHAT SEEMED CRAZY BEFORE: He played jokes that only he would find funny.
WHAT SEEMS GENIUS NOW: As we mentioned before, artists march to the beat of their own drum. But on top of that, it’s like Kauffman is still making comedy posthumously. We can look back on those jokes now and laugh, even if we didn’t get them then. And the fact that there were rumours about his death being a hoax would be music to his ears. Any artist’s dream is that they’re art outlives them, and maybe Andy Kaufman reached that goal on a deeper level than any other television star.
I don’t believe he faked his own death but I do believe they put a man on the moon and that Andy Kaufman was truly a genius before his time.
Congratulations Man on the Moon. This is your week.
And the Oscar goes to…
Best Actress: Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Best Actor: Besides Jim, I’d say Ed Harris as Christof in The Truman Show.
Best Quote: Well, I think Jim Carrey deserves a top ten for this category…