When Andy Kaufman passed away in May 1984, it was the final full stop in a life that seemed to be endlessly self-regenerating. Or was it? Rumors that this was another of his bizarre stunts were rife at the time, so much so that one of the mourners at the comedian’s funeral poked the body that lay in the casket to see if it would move.
Premiering this week in Venice Classics, Alex Braverman’s feature-length documentary Thank You Very Much is an attempt to locate the man behind the myth, and though there’s plenty of firsthand testimony and a treasure trove of archive material, it soon becomes achingly clear that the real Andy Kaufman likely never will be unmasked.
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It seems fitting, then, that Kaufman seemed to appear fully formed from nowhere when comedy impresario Budd Friedman, owner of The Improv, booked his first slots in the early ’70s. Kaufman’s act back then was known as The Foreign Man, as he spoke with a high-pitched accent and claimed to come from “an Island in the Caspian Sea.” The Foreign Man struggled to tell actual jokes and tested the audience’s patience with his long-winded patter. People found his nervousness charming and so they indulged him, laughing politely, only to realize they’d been suckered when the stuttering man onstage suddenly transformed into an immaculate Elvis Presley impersonation.
Although he would do bigger and crazier things in the next 10 years, The Foreign Man is the urtext of his comedy career. Nothing fascinated Kaufman more than embarrassment, and he went further into that area than any comedian has before or since, with the possible exception of Neil Hamburger. Hamburger, though, hardly would be likely to headline their own sell-out variety show at New York’s Carnegie Hall or, more significantly, get to appear on a highly successful, family-friendly TV sitcom.
Kaufman did both these things, becoming a regular as Latka Gravas in ABC’s hit show Taxi, but, as Braverman’s film shows, success was not a goal in Kaufman’s life, and when it looked like things were going well, he would self-sabotage. After joining the team of what would become Saturday Night Live in 1975, Kaufman would exploit his newfound celebrity by doing shows where he’d literally stand onstage and read The Great Gatsby from beginning to end, starting all over again if the audience demurred. During the filming of Taxi, he started waiting tables at Jerry’s Deli in Studio City, and the doc finds the news footage to prove it, complete with startled reactions from the clientele.
Such details are interesting but well known by now, largely thanks to the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, which starred Jim Carrey as Kaufman and is never mentioned here. Where Thank You Very Much takes a deeper dive is when it loops back to his childhood; as a little boy in Great Neck, Long Island, he would host imaginary TV shows for an invisible camera, moving on to become a children’s entertainer in the local area (throughout his life, he maintained he had always been “a song-and-dance man”).
It’s here that Braverman’s film begins to shed some serious light on the subject, noting that Kaufman was extraordinarily close to his grandfather, “Papu”, so much so that when the old man died, Kaufman’s parents wouldn’t tell him, claiming that Papu simply had gone away. When Kaufman heard the news, he thought he’d been abandoned, and the boy was distraught. When he found out the truth, the hurt only doubled, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how this affected Kaufman’s performances, which explored the whole of concept of truth and fiction as he walked a tightrope between the two.
Kaufman’s pulled his most famous — or perhaps most notorious — stunts at the height of his fame, first creating an alter ego called Tony Clifton, a foul-mouthed, boozy nightclub singer who always professed a hatred for Andy Kaufman whenever he was quizzed on the subject. Clifton’s ill-fated guest appearance on Taxi, where he turned up with “two hookers from Central Casting,” remains truly bizarre to this day: Clifton was publicly fired and thrown out by security, and Kaufman returned to work the next day.
His next number, however, looks a little darker in retrospect, as Kaufman took up wrestling but would only wrestle women, taking the smackdown theatrics of WWF and turning them into a comedy of insults. This is the point at which Kaufman’s act loses much of its innocence and, in the words of one of his contemporaries, he “began to shit where he slept.” After being kicked off SNL — a rare Kaufman gag that backfired on him — the comedian seemed to lose sight of himself in the funhouse mirrors of his disguises.
Braverman doesn’t spend too much time on the conspiracy theories surrounding Kaufman’s death from lung cancer, though it does make the point that for Kaufman, an early adopter of transcendental meditation, it was “a rug-pull. It never occurred to him that he couldn’t beat it.” But rather than end with the juicy prospect of Kaufman still being alive somewhere, Thank You Very Much leaves us to ponder what might have happened next, had Kaufman lived. A lot of his behavior now looks like mental illness: Was there something more than artistry driving his self-destruction, and how far would he have gone with it?
“You couldn’t do that now,” people often say, and, in the case of Andy Kaufman, they’re right. But should we have let him do it then? It’s a fascinating question.
Title: Thank You Very Much
Festival: Venice (Venice Classics section)
Director: Alex Braverman
Running time: 1 hr, 32 min
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