There are artists that only manipulate the audience they are faced with, and then there are those who also manipulate art itself. The ones that manipulate art itself are the ones that stand out in history and whose influence can be felt for generations. What they did in their lifetime took courage. They took an existing art form, gave it twists and turns that may have confused, alienated or even enraged the contemporary audience, and went on to influence those that recognize their genius. Andy Kaufman, the late comedian/actor is a terrific example of the type of artist I am referring to.
Some of Kaufman’s work is difficult to appreciate by many, even today. There was an act he did, where he dressed up as a character of his, “Tony Clifton”. Tony Clifton appears to be a hardened and jagged Vegas performer, one who has great arrogance, little patience and is not afraid of insulting his audience. He keeps this attitude up while singing old fashioned love songs in the style of crooners like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin.
Let’s go over one performance of his. Andy Kaufman is in a small bar, gets introduced as Tony Clifton and a piano player plays music. He’s smoking a cigarette on stage, people in the audience are already laughing. He asks “What’s so funny? No I don’t understand, what’s so funny? I’m not doing this for my health you know.”
He begins singing a sweet love song called “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Ole Oak Tree”. He does a verse, a chorus, as if this is exactly what this audience paid him to do, then as the music continues he tells the piano player: “Wanna slow it down a little bit? I don’t know where you get these piano players from.”
He completes the song and there’s applause. He greets the audience and asks “How ya’ doin’?” He asks that question two more times and then clarifies to the audience that when he asks a question he expects them to answer. He explains that he’s played some of the biggest venues around the country, he usually doesn’t do small bars and he was only there as a favor. He tells the audience if they’re good he’ll do a few more songs, tell some stories and have some fun. If not, he’ll walk right out.
He offers to tell a story about Vegas and asks:
“Do you know the Strip?”
The audience doesn’t immediately respond so he asks more aggressively two more times and almost leaves the stage saying he’s walking out but returns to the microphone stand. He asks the audience once more if they know ‘the Strip’ and gets an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’.
“Good. It BETTER be a yes”.
He starts saying how he was walking down the Strip in Las Vegas and sees “this chick, long blonde hair, nice figure” and asks her:
– “Hey baby where ya’ goin’?”
– “I ain’t no floozy”.
Then ‘Tony Clifton’ takes a drag from his cigarette and says:
– “Right then I knew she had class.” Laughter ensues and after a pause he ends the bit with:
– “I got her”.
This performance went fairly well with the audience but it was not always the case. Kaufman was known to create a lot of awkwardness and a lot of his audience would be offended. It was always an act and a section of the audience becoming angry or confused or simply cringing at the awkwardness, was the goal. Not everyone understood that their reaction was a crucial part of the act. He wanted them to cringe, because if they believed this was real and not an act, then and only then was his act was successful. Those that knew him or his brand of comedy, were in on the joke. The part of the audience that grew mad and offended, were the punchlines themselves.
Kaufman on TV
One of his most famous acts was the bit where he played the theme song from the superhero cartoon Mighty Mouse on a record player. He started the act nodding in a shy way to most of the song except for when the loud operatic singer came on to sing Might Mouse’s line. During those parts, Kaufman would dance and lip sync to the words;
“Here I come to save the day!”
Kaufman appeared on Saturday Night Live and he actually did this. It’s considered classic television by many.
What made Kaufman a household name was his character on the successful TV sitcom ‘Taxi’. He played a character who spoke English with a thick accent of unknown origin. He did it so well that it would be easy to believe that this was really how he spoke.
Perhaps the most controversial of his acts was when he decided to begin wrestling. What made this controversial was that he would only wrestle women. The mass audience found him offensive to the point that there was even episode of Saturday Night Live where the viewers got to decide whether Kaufman would ever be allowed to perform again on SNL. He was never a regular cast member but made multiple appearances up until that point. America voted against him.
Kaufman’s appearances on Late Night with David Letterman were legendary. Yes, they were very awkward. He had appeared without shaving, messy hair and once with what appeared to be snot below his nostrils that remained untouched throughout the interview. He had an on going public feud with a professional male wrestler, Jerry Lawler, with whom he appeared on the talk show. There ended up being a physical altercation on the show, but it was all an act. Kaufman and the Lawler were friends in real life. This was unpredictability on national television, outrageous but planned. Where would reality TV or game shows or day time talk shows be without unpredictability?
Kaufman’s dedication to remain in character was nothing short of sheer bravery. All those people that he offended, played their part unknowingly. Have you seen Sasha Baron Cohen’s work? He played Ali G, who appears as an extremely ignorant man in hip hop style clothes conducting interviews, using urban slang offending the people he would interview, people like serious politicians, for example, who believed that Ali G was actually as dumb as he acted. Cohen also had immense success with other characters like Bruno, or Borat. Conan O’Brien is all about self deprecating humor and awkwardness. Zach Galafianakis’s awkward interviews in “In Between Two Ferns” are hilarious, where he interviews people like President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Bieber, Brad Pitt etc. who appear either annoyed or enraged by the end of the interview (though it’s sometimes obvious that it’s staged). I believe these are examples of what is called ‘cringe-comedy’.
The movie about Kaufman called ‘Man On the Moon’ was brilliant. Jim Carrey plays Kaufman and it shows pivotal parts of his career and personal life until his death and a bit after that (Tony Clifton appeared publicly after Kaufman died in 1984 at age 35 from lung cancer.)
You may or may not appreciate his brand of performance art but what greater effect can an artist aspire to have than to influence those that come after him? Countless artists have manipulated their audiences, but few have gone to manipulate art itself to a great extent. Andy Kaufman is a shining example of such genius.