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KAUFMANESQUE, CIRCA 2009: NOTES ON A CULTURAL OUTBREAK

Baron Sacha Cohen as Borat as 
Andy Kaufman as Borat and Baron Sacha Cohen?

By Bill Zehme, author of Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman

This word-Kaufmanesque-that keeps popping up all these many years later...um... ummmmm...oh!

Oh, I do think he would've liked it, although he usually winced inside when he was called Kaufman-it seemed to him to have such an unfriendly bite. That was opposite of the way he preferred things in his private/public friendly-friendly-world where everyone was invited to play or, per beautiful females, to be playfully pinned on a wrestling mat while writhing back against his heated advances-very exciting!-all just-fooling-in-fun, of course. No, really. If you think about it, the only person to ever call him Kaufman with any regularity was that brilliant braying lounge pig Tony Clifton (who'd pronounce it Koff-man-all snarly bilious-like-instead of the familial proper Kowf-man). He did that on purpose, of course. Clifton-who's still working (lately in renegade theaters with a New Orleans pick-up band of musical Katrina refugees who happen to be way too good for him, let me tell you)-was mostly put on this earth to hate sweet wily Andy, who was, after all, just Andy, then and forever. You know: vis a vis, the way people who loved him would shrug whenever he did something nuts and then sigh and say: "Oh, well, you know, that's Andy."

Except..."Andyesque"?

No, really-um, no.

Thus, in this sacrosanct realm of his own madcap design, this Extreme Public Performance Art of Merry Discomfort (and/or multimedia kamikaze comedy, even though he swore that he never tried to be, um, funny), the term Kaufmanesque does stand quite nicely as the legacy brand. (And, please, let's not even bring the great comic playwright George S. Kaufman into this, since he wouldn't much approve and also since he's been dead much longer than Andy, if Andy is actually dead, which he is, but maybe not, but really he is, or so it would still seem...perhaps?)

Nevertheless, as his suitably disoriented but careful biographer (still recovering ten years aft), I do manage to see a lot of him lately. (Two years ago, I apparently even heard from him by way of a winsome channeler who tracked me down and recited secret messages Andy had forced onto her notepads; he seemed vaguely worried about me, and I remain touched by his concern; also, it seemed he wanted to get an understandably long-dormant film project off the ground and needed some of my contacts. No, really.) But then, we've all seen a lot of him, inhabiting eager souls of new tricksters-and/or reverentially irreverent emulators-who have made hay of their own shaking things up for no perceivable reasons. (No reasons? Very exciting!) For certain, a decidedly recognizable strain of pranksterism has increasingly been sweeping through the culture with broad, unapologetic force-all of it owing greatly to our dearly departed (maybe?) forefather's trailblazing. Really, there's evidence kind of everywhere-from those pesky foreign men called Borat and Bruno and Sacha Baron Cohen to that odd long-bearded cipher answering to the name Joaquin Phoenix who earlier this year, like someone we knew had done decades before, foisted much exasperation onto Mr. David Letterman over late-night airwaves. (Somebody who pays attention to these things figured out that the Kaufmanesque word was used in more than 200 resulting news stories about the Phoenix insurrection.) Indeed, wherever there is sly-as-fox veneer or provocative fooling-in-fun being served to innocent/annoyed bystanders, Andy is there, somewhere. Wherever crazy-intense reaction seems to be the primary goal of any random instigator, Andy is especially there. (In the political blogosphere, the rightwing rabble-rouser Glenn Beck of Fox News has been drawing the comparison a lot lately.) And, of course, wherever the World Wide Wrestling Federation pitches its noisy tent (under which the carny extravagance has merely soared since a certain Intergender Champion left the circuit), Andy is there, in spades.

All of which is to say, the influence remains rampant, if also more thunderous than ever. What people seem to overlook, however, is exactly where all this emulation truly kicked in, and that is the most poetic part of all. Twenty-five years ago, the initial (and everlasting) consensus about Andy's demise was that he had falsified the whole thing, all fooling-in-fun, so as to happily watch his legend expand eternally. His hero Elvis Aron Presley, meanwhile, had Left the Building seven years ahead of Andy-but then, obviously impressed by the success of his favorite impersonator's death scheme, suddenly began turning up, fleetingly in 1988, in and around the state of Michigan, making fast-food runs and stocking up on peanut butter in local supermarkets. Since then, in 2002, the King even notched another number one hit record called "A Little Less Conversation", although he didn't seem to get out on the promotional hustings to do much plugging. Still, the point couldn't have been made more clearly: If Elvis was now goofing on Andy, the field was officially open to all comers. Nowadays, it's gotten to be a remarkably crowded place. Without question, veddy much tenks are due.