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Many know Andy Kaufman as the comedian who played the squeaky-voiced auto mechanic Latka Gravas on TV's "Taxi." Some believe he redefined comedy with his eccentric, often joke-free performances. His countless media stunts and hoaxes often engendered more confusion than appreciation, and countless many dismissed Kaufman and his intrepid approach to entertainment as simply insane. Some even regarded his bizarre death of lung cancer in 1984 as merely the latest of his many escapades. Fifteen years after the fact, there are still people convinced that Andy Kaufman faked his death to consummate the ultimate deception.
Although considered a genius by many contemporaries, Kaufman's brand of comedy was offbeat, extremely confrontational, and always misunderstood. He was not an easy man to know or even to like on a personal level. Despite the contradictions, the popular fascination with the "Dada of Ha-Ha" persists today. It will peak on Christmas Day with the opening of "Man on the Moon", directed by Academy Award-winning director Milos Forman and starring Jim Carrey (as Andy), Danny DeVito and Courtney Love. Besides the movie, at least two books on Kaufman are coming out this fall and there will no doubt be a resurgence in radio air play for R.E.M.'s song (from which the title of the movie is taken) and several related documentaries on cable.
Bill Zehme, a senior writer at Esquire who has also written for Rolling Stone and Playboy, is renowned for his exceptional flair in authoring stylish celebrity profiles. Zehme's most successful book to date, The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin' and two others he co-authored, one with Jay Leno (Leading With My Chin) and the other with Regis Philbin (I'm Only One Man!), may have served as practice for the challenge ahead, because his biography of Kaufman, Lost in the Funhouse, is distinguished in every respect.
In writing this superb biography, Zehme effortlessly overcomes what many biographers would consider a major obstacle: sorting out the fact and fiction in Andy's life, much of which was cloaked in illusion, misdirection and lunacy. It was hard to really know what actually occurred behind the scenes as Andy cooked up his most provocative and controversial performances. But as Zehme amply documents in Lost in the Funhouse, Andy manipulated the media constantly, whether raising high-octane hatred from the city of Memphis as a bad guy "rassler," or calling in phony tips to the National Enquirer ("I'm fighting with Bernadette Peters while we film Heartbeeps"). His televised brawl on "Fridays" was as orchestrated as the slap to his face from Jerry Lawler on Letterman's ""Late Night." Sometimes (many would argue most of the time) his hoaxes backfired to his detriment. The last two chapters of Zehme's book sadly portray the extent of that damage.
Zehme succeeds in shedding new light on Kaufman's short and peculiar life to produce a dynamic portrait of a misunderstood artist. After several years of exhaustive research, Zehme has crafted a book that succeeds on its own terms. It's not a conventional narrator-driven biography, but one that cleverly paints images and events in ways that are entertaining unto themselves. The book's roller-coaster narrative has all the thrill of an amusement-park ride. Despite the adventurous method, Zehme provides the reader with great historical clarity and unmasks many of the myths and legends that have become associated with Kaufman's time in the spotlight.
Zehme uses parcels of Kaufman's voluminous writings and candid interviews with Kaufman's family and closest friends to frame key episodes in his life. The book avoids much of the speculation and romanticism of others who have penned articles, websites, and books on Kaufman. In Lost in the Funhouse Zehme reveals that Kaufman's bag of tricks and illusions was fully developed in his teenage years -- so much for claims by others who have been taking credit for many of Kaufman's signature achievements. Andy's nightclub performances, his Carnegie Hall show, and both TV specials (for ABC and PBS) were adult variations of the birthday-party shows he gave for small neighborhood children when he was in his early teens, in which he showed movies on the wall, lip-synched to songs, performed magic tricks and led sing-alongs of "The Cow Goes Moo" and other favorites. (Even his milk-and-cookies idea was something Kaufman thought of in college.) This is fine writing unfettered by sentiment. Zehme has channeled Kaufman in a way Jim Carrey could only dream of attaining. He illuminates the mysteries behind a recognized genius and performer extraordinaire who was also proud, difficult, arrogant, highly intellectual and consumed by self-obsession.
Bill Zehme has accomplished what no one else could. He has found an uncanny ability to enter Kaufman's mind and leave us with a compelling impression of the complexities and frailties of a Boy Wonder mincing in a world of disbelieving adults. This epic biography takes us on an unforgettable journey through the funhouse inside of Andyland.
B.K. Momchilov is the creator and keeper of The Andy Kaufman Home Page (http://andykaufman.jvlnet.com). He's kept the Kaufman legacy alive on the World Wide Web since October 3, 1995.