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Hollywood wants you to believe a folktale about the life of Andy Kaufman. After seeing Milos Forman's fine film, "Man on the Moon" you will no doubt leave the theater believing that there was "no real Andy Kaufman." In fact, after seeing this movie, you may be convinced that Andy was crazy and a man without substance. This couldn't be further from the truth. I know because I've spent many years researching Andy's life. In fact, since October 3, 1995, my Andy Kaufman Home Page has served as the only site on the Internet dedicated to keeping his legacy alive. So believe me when I say that there WAS a "real" Andy Kaufman, and NO he wasn't a crazy, misunderstood man without substance. To understand Andy you really need to know about Andy's childhood. Andy's childhood deeply influenced who he would become, not only as a perfomer, but as a man. The unique manner in which Andy chose to entertain, and the unique way he chose to view the world were deeply ingrained into his psyche by the time he was a teenager. Unfortunately, the movie (and also the book, "Revealed" by Bob Zmuda) skim over Andy's formative years and march right into Andy the adult -- an adult who took his birthday party show for kids and played it to rooms full of people who were no longer kids, but wished they still could be.
If you want to learn the complete truth behind Andy's life read Bill Zehme's biography on Andy titled, "Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman." Bill's ambitious and sometimes risky book clarifies once and for all what motivated Kaufman to do the things he did and sheds light on who he was and why.
Zehme, a writer at large for Esquire magazine, has also written for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Playboy, and is renowned for his exceptional flair in authoring stylish celebrity profiles. His most successful book to date, "The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin'" and two others he coauthored, 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, 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. Not only does Zehme use Kaufman's own words and those of others, but he seemingly goes into the head of Kaufman to expose the unique way he viewed the world. 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 records, 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, and Zehme has channeled Kaufman in a way Jim Carrey would surely admire.
Zehme illuminates the mysteries behind a recognized genius and performer extraordinaire who was also proud, difficult, arrogant, highly intellectual and consumed by self-obsession. Bill has accomplished what no one else could by finding a way 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.
(Variations of this review have appeared at Barnes & Noble's website, Amazon.com and Aaron Barnhart's "TV Barn" website, and in CINEMAYHEM, but this one's the best.)
Um, just fooling, no really!