It’s hard to describe the experience of talking to your dead brother through Jim Carrey’s body.
Carol Kaufman-Kerman tries anyway. It was 1998 or ’99. She had flown to Los Angeles, where the filmmaker Milos Forman was shooting a biopic about her famous big brother. The movie was Man on the Moon. The deceased brother was Andy Kaufman, the enigmatic performance artist who had died from cancer in 1984. And the star who greeted her was Carrey—or was it Andy? His ghost?
Those lines seemed blurred: Carrey was spending the entire film shoot in character. Or in characters, rather, since he vacillated between Kaufman and Kaufman’s favorite alter ego, the obnoxious lounge singer known as Tony Clifton. When he spotted the star’s real-life sister, he greeted her jovially, the way Kaufman might have: “Hey, Carol! Over here!” Carrey-as-Kaufman asked if she wanted a milkshake. It was eerie. This was her brother.
“I think that Jim Carrey was a vessel,” Kaufman-Kerman says, discussing the experience in a Brooklyn café two decades later. “This may sound a little wooo-hooo”—she mimics a cuckoo bird—“but I do believe he allowed Andy to come through him. I also chose to believe that Andy was coming through him. When he looked at me, I’m not kidding. [It was like] speaking to Andy from the great beyond. I felt like he was coming through as the evolved, astral Andy.”
Kaufman, with his childlike grin and surrealistic repertoire of impressions and oddball characters (including Foreign Man, who morphed into Latka on the hit sitcom Taxi), specialized in the rare art of pushing every gag to the limit. He chafed at the term comedian: Kaufman did not tell jokes or occupy any pre-existing category of entertainer. He did impressions, bombed on purpose, lip-synced to the Mighty Mouse theme, found ways to prank his crowds (he once had an elderly woman feign a heart attack onstage, then “revived” her with a Native American–style dance). Sometimes he howled gibberish at his audience while pounding conga drums. The man was more concerned with challenging and confounding his audience than provoking mere laughter, and a generation of eccentrics eagerly joined his cult. Among them was Canadian teenager Jim Carrey, gifted with his own brand of comic lunacy.
Carrey, by 1999 one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars, seems to have borrowed Kaufman’s extreme method for disappearing into character. He remained “Andy” throughout the filming of Man on the Moon, despite Forman’s occasional exasperation. (When the director referred to Andy in the third person, Carrey would gripe, “You talk like I’m not even here.”) A film crew captured Carrey’s behind-the-scenes madness, and the long-unseen footage forms the basis of the new Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond—Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton.
Early in Jim & Andy, Judd Hirsch, Kaufman’s Taxi co-star, marvels at Carrey’s transformation. “Let’s say he’s here, right now, looking down,” Hirsch says, referring to Kaufman. “And he sees this guy playing him, that well. Creepy!”
For Andy’s brother, Michael Kaufman, and Carol (both of whom spent time on set), it was like that. Creepy. “Let’s say you love somebody and they die,” Carol says. "And then Hollywood came along and said, ‘We’re going to recreate your sister, mother, whatever it is.’ And you miss them so much, you so badly want to play along. And the person that was willing to do it wasn’t so bad—they were trying their hardest, so they had their heart in it.” Why not embrace that?
But when Man on the Moon came out in late 1999, Andy’s siblings were crushed. Mention the film’s name, and they let out a noise like a balloon deflating. “You didn't find out who Andy was,” Michael says. “They copped out, saying there is no Andy Kaufman.” For Carol, the movie betrayed her brother’s affectionate spirit, making him seem erratic and unhinged, as though his wacky stage behavior was all he ever was. “It was about his career, and there wasn't anything that was warm and nurturing and anchoring. The things that keep meaning in our lives, keep us going.”
Andy’s siblings have stumbled upon a frustrating paradox: They resent that their brother is remembered as bewildering and inexplicable, but to paraphrase the film critic Roger Ebert, if he had been explicable, he would not be worth remembering.
And yet, despite Andy’s abrasive stunts and predilection for wrestling women onstage, those who knew him say he had a sweet, gentle-hearted nature. “Anyone who saw Andy live knows that he considered himself a children’s entertainer above all,” the performer’s close friend and ex-girlfriend, Elayne Boosler, told me in 2016. “At the end of every show, the audience was indeed let in on it all, and left feeling happy and satisfied that the up-and-down ride was all in fun and they were ‘safe’ the whole time.”
Carol tried rewatching Man on the Moon with friends last August. She had to leave midway through. “I found it to be the most, ugh, sappy…” she trails off. “I mean, so sad.”
“Sad, meaningless life,” Michael adds. The siblings had shared family stories with the screenwriters, but their contributions didn’t make it into the film. “When I first read the script, and Andy dies, I said, ‘Who cares?' He was a jerk, based on what I read in the script.”
* * *
I was surprised when Andy Kaufman’s brother agreed to travel 1,400 miles to New York City from Louisiana to spend an hour and a half watching a movie with me. Then his sister, who lives in Chicago, decided to fly in too. Was this real life?
I interviewed Michael by telephone in 2016 for an article about his brother, but we had never met. He is a retired accountant who has Andy’s blue eyes and an excitable energy when he speaks. With his purple V-neck sweater and patches of grey hair, he even looks a bit like Andy might have looked at 66. Carol is younger by five years. She describes her occupation as storyteller—she delivers folktales to schools and community centers—and has a warm, animated manner.
In early November, I pitched Michael my idea: Let’s watch Jim & Andy together; I’ll record your reactions in real time. He agreed—and quickly booked a flight. “There's an Andy spirit to this whole thing,” Michael exclaims when we meet (a neat compliment—like Yoko Ono describing your music as “Lennon-esque”). “Plus,” Carol adds, “Michael and I don't get to see each other often. So this is really nice.”
That, too, reflected Andy’s spirit: Both siblings insist he loved family. Kaufman didn’t wear a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “I Love Grandma” onstage as a goof. He did it so his grandmother would flip on the TV and see.
Michael is fiercely protective of his brother’s legacy—particularly from those who might exploit Andy’s name for personal gain. The biggest offender: Andy’s close collaborator Bob Zmuda, who published a book several years ago, claiming, with minimal evidence, that Andy’s death was a prank, and he’d be revealing himself any day now. ("I’m just disappointed in his behavior.")
And Michael was leery of Jim & Andy. He did not like the trailer, which showed Carrey’s hyped-up Tony Clifton ramming his car into a wall (more a Carrey move than a Kaufman move, he felt). He did not like that he was denied permission to see a screener of the film before being asked to approve some archival clips. And he was not thrilled to see on IMDb that “The Kaufman Family” was thanked in the end credits. What if The Kaufman Family hated the movie?
The Kaufman Family was about to find out.
* * *
Andy was a day shy of his seventh birthday when Carol was born in 1956. Within a few years, she proved to be the best birthday present he could have imagined: a live audience.
Carol describes Andy as an odd kid (no surprises there). “He was holed up in his room, putting on shows to an imaginary camera,” Carol says of their home in Long Island, New York. “My parents were very concerned. They would come in and say, ‘Andy, go outside and play like the other kids.’ And my brother’s response would be, ‘Wait, I’ve got hours and hours of programming! I’ve got action shows, and I’ve got silent movies.” (Andy would mime silent films by darting around his room really fast.) Eventually, says Carol, Andy’s parents, Janice and Stanley Kaufman, a jewelry salesman, gave him an ultimatum: “That’s it—you cannot perform in your room alone anymore, unless you have a real audience.”
Young Carol became Andy’s first audience, and then his first fan. During her teen years, she and Andy would perform together in the family's den, developing some of his earliest routines. Then she left for college and Andy for Hollywood. His career took off. Carol felt displaced. "Now, he had agents. He had managers. He even had a friend he would introduce onstage as his little sister." Michael, on the other hand, got closer with Andy during his career ascent, trading advice and sometimes joining in his performances.
Carol remains haunted by one dinner she had with Andy at Sarge's Delicatessen. It was 1978. The star was plotting his legendary Carnegie Hall performance—the one with the Native American chant, the one where he famously invited an entire audience out for milk and cookies. "He was saying, 'I want it to be an extravaganza! I want to have the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes! I want to have Santa Claus coming down from the rafters on a sleigh.' Then, as he was telling me about that, he said: 'Carol, what's going on with you?' And at that point, there was nothing going on with me! I'd just completed four years of an 'I don't know what I'm gonna do with the rest of my life' kind of thing. I didn't want to feel that."
Andy’s fame made Carol feel inadequate, inferior. So she plotted an escape: She went to Italy for seven months. She missed the 1979 Carnegie Hall gig. “Why couldn’t I join the party?” she wonders now. "It's sort of like Michael went to the party, and I went the other way.”
When Andy died young, Carol was consumed with guilt for evading his success. "I've never really forgiven myself. I feel terrible."
Fifteen years later after his death, she flew out to be an audience member in the recreation of the Carnegie Hall show in Man on the Moon. "It was electric," she remembers. "Everybody's standing up. They're clapping and going crazy. And there's Jim Carrey. He's Andy at that moment. He's standing center stage, and he's going, 'Here's the Rockettes! There's snow coming down! And there's the sleigh!'" Carol was overcome with emotion. "I'm just standing there, crying, saying: 'Andy, Andy, it's beautiful! I'm sorry, Andy, that I wasn't there the first time. I'm sorry. But I'm here.' It was a real healing."
* * *
We watch Jim & Andy on a projector screen in the private back room of a bar in Brooklyn. The documentary has the feel of a really good DVD bonus feature, the kind that keeps you toggling between menus at 2 a.m. As soon as it starts, with Carrey’s bearded, 55-year-old face filling the screen (the footage from 1999 is interspersed with a probing present-day interview), Andy’s siblings grow quiet. They watch in a pensive sort of trance, scribbling down notes on scraps of paper. Occasionally, when they catch a glimpse of their younger selves or some college footage of Andy that takes them by surprise, they ask me to rewind.
Michael occasionally shouts corrections at the screen; when Carrey mentions that Andy would book shows and not show up, Michael interjects: “He would show up! He just wouldn’t perform.” Michael bristles whenever the real-life Zmuda appears, chatting with Carrey on set, boasting that Andy would have been “creatively bankrupt” without his contributions. (This clip is shrewdly paired with an interview in which Carrey observes that “everybody wants to be the most important person” in Andy’s orbit. “So true,” Carol blurts out.) And Michael pays studious attention to Carrey’s Tony Clifton impression. “Jim is more influenced by Zmuda than Andy in his Tony,” he says—one of those esoteric observations that might only be comprehensible to the diehard Andy disciple. Michael would know, though: On rare occasions, Andy had him play Clifton. It was liberating to become such a belligerent blowhard. “I say every therapist should have in their bag of medicine ‘Be Tony Clifton for a day,’” Michael laughs.
Some of Michael’s discomfort with Jim & Andy seems to stem from Zmuda’s involvement. Zmuda’s eagerness to claim credit for Andy’s routines—and profit from his association—has made him a contentious figure in Kaufman-world. The family was particularly rankled by his 2014 volume, Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally (coauthored with Lynne Margulies), which centered on unsubstantiated claims that Andy had indeed faked his death and planned to return 30 years later.
In the documentary, Carrey tries to describe the freedom he felt while embodying Clifton, and Andy’s siblings recognize the liberating aspect of Andy’s work. There was no fear of bombing when you were with him, Carol says. “When Andy would say, 'Hey, Carol, come up onstage! Hey, Carol, you want to sing?'—whatever it was, when you were under Andy's wing, you felt such a liberation.”
Jim & Andy also explores Andy’s family life. Carrey describes Andy’s father as an insurance guy who “expected the all-American kid” and instead got “some effeminate, kooky, creative insane person.” Accurate? Carol nods cautiously. “Andy was the first born,” she says. “I think he learned a lot through Andy. He learned to be tolerant.” But when Andy’s character is shown bickering with his fictionalized father (Gerry Becker) in a dressing room, Michael says, “Andy wouldn’t have yelled at his father like that.” Carol agrees: “And Dad wouldn’t have walked out.”
We watch Carrey disappear into the role like a rabbit burrowing into a hole. “When the movie was over,” the actor admits, “I couldn’t remember who I was anymore.” Carol even mistakes him for the real Andy when she sees him sparring with wrestler Jerry Lawler on Letterman: “That was Jim?”
She gets choked up watching Carrey, bald and sickly, portraying her brother’s illness and deteriorating health. “That whole cancer scene had no words,” Carol observes. “That's what I liked about it…. Jim was quiet when he was sick. His soul was quiet and pensive.” During the final weeks of his life, Andy traveled to the Philippines in search of psychic treatments. There is a sudden glow of melancholy palpable in our screening room.
“I have to say, I liked it,” Carol says when the credits roll. Did it capture the real Andy? “I think it got closer to the real Jim.” In Moon, the actor was just a vessel for Andy. But in Jim & Andy, Carrey’s manic comic energy vanishes at times, and he is an intriguing character himself, a guy prone to disarmingly philosophical musings on life, fate and celebrity.
We relocate to a nearby café. Both siblings say they favor the documentary over Moon. But Michael nitpicks: Andy didn’t smoke; Andy didn’t say the F-word. “Who was Andy after seeing this?” he asks me. “Well,” I stammer, “he was someone who took joy in messing with people, who was erratic...”
“For that reason, I can’t say I loved the film,” Michael says. Then he concedes his bias: “It’s not their job to set the world straight on what a wonderful human Andy was. So why am I being so harsh?”
“Because you're his brother,” Carol says.
* * *
Losing a sibling is its own weird, misunderstood category of grief. Losing a famous sibling presents new complications. And losing a famous sibling who is constantly theorized to have faked his own death, and whose legacy attracts thousands of internet weirdos eager to tell you that your deceased loved one is still alive and hiding from you? Good luck finding a support group for that.
The persistence of the Andy-is-alive cult stems from his speaking openly of wanting to stage a death prank while he was alive. One theory holds that he traded identities with a terminally ill homeless man, whose body was buried in Andy's place. Would he have ever played such a cruel trick on family? “We don’t think,” Michael says. "Ninety percent sure," Carol says, but, she adds, “there's a part of you that's in denial, so you reach down deep, and Andy gave you every reason to believe in that 10 percent where it could be fake.” Which, she acknowledges, is crazy. She and Michael were in the room when their brother died. “I saw him take his last breaths,” she says.
In 2013, when a young woman materialized, claiming to be Andy’s 24-year-old daughter and professing to know secrets only Andy would know, Michael took the bait. He introduced her at a comedy club, reading a supposed letter from Andy. Days later, he appeared on CNN and said he’d been duped.
Did he believe Andy was back? “I was hoping,” Michael admits. “I don't get sucked in anymore.”
Didn’t Andy want to feign death, though? Carol laughs. “He also wanted to drain the Atlantic Ocean and have a really big amusement park.”
In death, at any rate, Andy's legacy seems stronger than ever. His name has become popular shorthand for anything bewildering and bizarre, and his shadow loomed especially large during the surreal twists of the 2016 election. Andy's legacy sometimes seems a Rorschach test onto which fans can project any meaning they want: Was he a punk icon? A misunderstood genius? A fascinating predecessor to the surrealist humor of the YouTube and meme era? There is no pop culture figure who occupies the same niche, or even the same galaxy.
For Carol, that legacy is mingled with joy and grief. Jim & Andy brought her back to the cathartic moment when she attended the fake Carnegie Hall gig—and the delirious wonder of spending time with Andy through Carrey. “He wasn’t being shticky when he was being Andy with us,” Carol says. She pauses. “He was almost trying to give us a gift. He was giving us a gift.”
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