Anyone wondering what kind of mischief Andy Kaufman could stir up in the viral age didn't need to Google much two months ago. News spread like wildfire that the late absurdist comedian was indeed alive and lurking around Albuquerque, New Mexico parking lots like a Sasquatch in the woods.
This footage appeared in a cryptic video posted by the fan website Andy Kaufman Lives, which also included a grainy sequence of an old man in a bowling jacket, flipping his hair. Skeptics believed it was Kaufman. Sure, these bits were freaky, but the video's final shot was even spookier, as it displayed a guy's head in a body bag, not to mention the message that read “A Letter to My Parents To Whom It May Concern.” The website's owner, Stephen D. Maddox, claims to be Kaufman's son and uploaded in the video after he was dissed by the mysterious, lurking parking lot figure.
It's a viewing experience guaranteed to keep you up at night, triggering the tossing-'n-turning in bed question: What if Andy Kaufman is really alive? The only tranquil evidence to make one fall back asleep is Kaufman's death certificate, which specifies quite legitimately the circumstances of his death.
On Tuesday, two months after this incident, indie net music site Drag City released a 49 minute album of Kaufman's never-heard-before micro cassette tape recordings, Andy and His Grandmother, culled from 82 hours of tape by alternative comedian Vernon Chatman (Louie producer, South Park writer). It's a rare treasure for the comedian's disciples, as it's his first-ever comedy album. It was released to Drag City by Lynne Margulies, Kaufman's girlfriend and executor of his estate.
Most of the album consists of quick, one-to-two minute bites of Andy ticking people off with his tape recorder, including propositioning prostitutes, starting fights with movie theater ushers and attempting to break the barriers of comedy in a psychedelic track where he tries to make you laugh while you're snoozing. All of the material was recorded between 1977-79, which overlapped with Kaufman's first season on the ABC series Taxi, in which he played the Eastern European immigrant Latka.
Kaufman was a big fan of Steven Allen and Jerry Lewis' prank phone call albums, and Chatman was keen to shape the record per Kaufman's directorial cues in the recordings (i.e. Kaufman specifically says at the top of the album that he's calling it Andy and His Grandmother).
It's clear Kaufman wasn't out to regale us with storytelling, like Woody Allen does in his stand-up routines, or deliver non sequiturs like Emo Philips. Kaufman is mainly messing around with his cassette player. However, his charm always lied in his live or televised comedy, from his inciting fights with female wrestlers to his vaudevillian antics like his Mighty Mouse title song lip-syncing on Saturday Night Live. A majority of the audio experience with Andy and His Grandmother is akin to a Doors fan digesting unheard Jim Morrison warm-up sessions on iTunes: remarkable baritone range, but there isn't a mind blowing, hummable song.
The pinnacle of Kaufman's stunts on the album is the track “Honk vs. Dog A” and “Honk vs. Dog B” in which he positions two of his girlfriends — one verbally abusive, the second serene — to face off against each other. All the while, Kaufman is getting his kicks by stirring the verbally abusive one up, specifically because he's recording her tirades. (The women's identities have been protected. Whenever their names are mentioned, they are blocked out, with the gentler sounding-voice being ID'ed as a horn honking and the more aggressive one a dog's bark).
But after making your way through 17 tracks, it's the finale, “I Want Those Tapes,” that sticks, and could fuel the conspiracy that Kaufman faked his death.
Prior to the track, it's easy to deduce from the album that Kaufman would never fake his own death. Kaufman was a guy who thrived, even in the most private moments, on getting another person's goat. It's as though the huckster required an audience all the time, even if it was just one person, and got off on their reaction. How could such a person go 29 years without pranking somebody and getting a rise?
But Kaufman's conversation with comedy partner Bob Zmuda in “I Want Those Tapes” rouses suspicions, as the comedian embraces Zmuda's suggestion to fake his death. At the top of the track, the “dog girl” is demanding that Kaufman turn over the taped rants. Kaufman and Zmuda fantasize about the woman killing Andy for the tapes and the aftermath. A sample of the conversation is below:
Andy Kaufman: Wouldn't it be great if she killed me, and then you have the tapes?…It would be better if I'm more famous.
Bob Zmuda: He took his own act into his own laugh. He played with people's heads, not only on stage, but off and it cost him in the end.
AK: Wow. That would be great. Except I don't want to be killed. When I'm more famous, we could fake it…Wouldn't people hate me if it turns out I'm alive?
Zmuda goes on to suggest that Kaufman should fake his death every few years and come back as a different act.
BZ: …Then, when you really die, nobody will believe it. Years will go by and they'll go, nah.
AK: Like when Jack Benny was always 39, and he really was 40. They didn't believe him.
BZ: They won't believe your own death, you'll be immortal, you'll go on forever.
AK: That's great.
Chatman says that after sifting through the recordings he isn't ruling out Kaufman's death hoax, despite the fact that the comedian failed to appear at a 20th anniversary star-studded House of Blues event that Zmuda threw in 2004. (Ok, so Kaufman was there in spirit as his alter-lounge lizard ego Tony Clifton performed. Everyone knows that Zmuda doubles as Clifton).
“If there's one American personality who could fake his death in the last 60 years, it would be Andy. The fact that he died of lung cancer at 35 is just crazy,” says Chatman, who believed at one point that Kaufman was definitely going to appear on David Letterman's show during the 1999 release of Man of Moon. To Chatman, it would have been the greatest movie marketing stunt of all time.
It makes sense to Chatman that Kaufman would have the stamina to last 29 years (after his death on May 16, 1984) without getting an audience response. “On the [unreleased] tapes he would talk about going on meditation retreats. He had a level of patience and commitment that he practiced from the age of 20,” Chatman says.
Margulies, who doesn't appear on the tapes, as they were recorded before her relationship, also thinks Kaufman could still be alive and “pranking people, but, just not looking like himself.” She also agrees that the guy in the black and white footage doesn't look anything like an older Andy (arguably, it looks more like Three's Company's Norman Fell is still alive).
As far as Maddox being Andy's illegitimate son, Margulies says, “I don't know the guy. I assume it's a fan out of control, but it's a fan who loves keeping the Andy mystery alive, which is the beauty of Andy.” (Kaufman does in fact have a daughter that he had out of wedlock with a girlfriend before his showbiz career kicked off, as revealed by People magazine in 1995).
Also, Margulies says, Kaufman's Taxi residual are being “sent to his parents' address.”
Still, the truth could still be out there.
Exclaims Margulies, “Andy was a purist and if he was going to fake his own death, he would go all the way with it.”
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