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You shouldn't believe Michael Kaufman, brother of late comedian/self-proclaimed "song-and-dance man" Andy Kaufman, when he says he was taken in by last week's Andy-faked-his-own-death hoax. Michael is simultaneously a great and highly unreliable guardian of his brother's legacy. So it's not surprising that Michael was at the center of the performance put on by New York-based actress Alexandra Tatarsky at this year's Andy Kaufman Awards, a competition that Michael co-founded and judges every year. There, Tatarsky claimed to be Andy's daughter.
Even if he wasn't in on the gag, Michael was still practicing his brother's style of happening-based comedy. The Voice talked to Michael about the recent passing of Stanley Kaufman, Andy and Michael's father, and why the Andy Kaufman Awards matter.
A lot of people treat Andy's performances as a kind of comedy of confusion and uncertainty when it seems more about spontaneity and acting out. If he really were alive, wouldn't his return be a singular event rather than something we would discover in dribs and drabs? Don't you think that many of these conspiracy theorists, like the Puzzlementary people, are missing the point? These cryptic clues and ephemera don't seem to get Andy's style.
Andy's unpredictable. Before [this year's Awards ceremony] I was feeling pretty good -- not very good, but somewhat good -- about the possibility that he might be around. Things have happened since then that have...I still have a glimmer of hope, but not as much as before [the Awards]. But my thoughts even back then was that I could see him parachuting into the middle of the Superbowl half-time show this year rather than have somebody else show up, and talk about him. Is that where you're going?
One of Andy's ideas was to come back when he was 75, or even older. And nobody would know who he was. He would get a big kick out of doing that. Or wouldn't it be something if he planned on coming back at 75, and died at 71? Then it would have all been for nothing! So Andy's unpredictability would poke holes in your question because while I was thinking the same thing you were thinking, he could just as easily go for something very undramatic.
I want to ask about the letter you presented [at this year's Andy Kaufman Awards], and the actress that posed as Andy's daughter. Is it just that the Hollywood Reporter, Defamer, and the Smoking Gun took a joke too far, or were you taken in, too?
I was certainly taken in. But anyone there that night knows that I never said that Andy was alive. Twenty minutes, 24 minutes -- that's how long the whole thing took. I've seen a two-and-a-half minute version of it on YouTube. But I asked the audience, "How do you feel about this? Do you think she's for real?" I gave them three choices: Is she legit, is she definitely not legit, or are you somewhere in the middle? Most of the people were somewhere in the middle. And I said, "I'm pretty much where you guys are."
I wanted to believe it, but I'm also tired of keeping secrets. When we were children, Andy and I were supposed to remember who we could tell certain things to. We couldn't tell certain relatives this or that. And I wasn't allowed to tell anyone about Andy's act in the beginning. I wasn't allowed to tell anyone that I played Tony Clifton [Andy Kaufman's lounge singer alter ego] at Carnegie Hall -- I was the first other Tony Clifton. I played him out at Huntington Harbor out in L.A. I played a has-been singer with Andy at William Paterson University, and reporters wanted to interview me. I wanted to tell them the truth, but I couldn't. Andy may have been not good at winking, but it's not fun not winking.
I also couldn't even tell my family that [Andy] had cancer. He told me, "Don't tell anyone. Dad's going through too much already with mom right now." Because my mother had quadruple bypass [surgery], a stroke, and cancer all at the same time. So out of love for his father, Andy wanted me to keep it to myself. And then this letter from 1999 -- I was told to tell nobody about that. So when this woman approached me, I was just ready to share whatever was bottled up inside of me. I wanted to believe it's true, and I still want to believe it's true. Even if I do feel a little more foolish for believing, I still will, to some degree.
Like you and Andy, I grew up in Great Neck, so I have to ask: Do you think Andy's sense of humor was a reaction to where he grew up? I can't imagine people in that environment were especially encouraging ...
I think it had nothing to do with where he grew up ... other than the fact that he was a nonconformist? It had more to do with his relatives. Between his father and grandfather – mostly grandfather – was a lot of the inspiration.
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