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I've read stories about Andy's grandfather, and how he was influenced by his sense of humor. But you don't think that a sense of community outside of the family would have made him someone else?
As opposed to growing up in Miami, or Ames, Iowa? I think you could make a case for that as well as for not. Getting back to grandpa: Did you ever read [Andy's novel] The Huey Williams Story?
Wow, that's a long book … not just long, but hard to navigate through. So do you remember that [in the book] grandpa faked his death a few times, and he only wanted Huey [Andy's surrogate] in the room with him? That's grandpa Paul, and his influence on Andy. Andy's love interest in that was a woman on the side of a hot water bottle from grandpa Paul's house. She was a woman in a bikini; we just thought that was the coolest thing. And I guess Andy turned her into his dream woman in The Huey Williams Story.
In the documentary The Death of Andy Kaufman you mention that your father was especially upset when Andy wasn't allowed back on Saturday Night Live. Before his passing, did you ever talk to your dad about that, or even how he felt about Andy's performances?
I think Bill Zehme, author of [Andy Kaufman biography] Lost in the Funhouse, did a lot of research on that. He interviewed Stanley, because he wanted to get to the bottom of why he was so pissed at [NBC executive] Dick Ebersol. Because it seemed that everything that happened in Andy's career was planned, like any fight he got into was to prove that he wasn't really a bad guy. It was all for the good; any hate mail that he got, he loved getting. But it seemed like being kicked off SNL was one thing that upset him.
Andy and/or Stanley felt like he was double-crossed or misrepresented. But when you hear Dick Ebersol's side of it, he told Andy, "We have to go with how the audience votes. We can't make it a sham, we've got to make it real." So that's what my father was upset about: He didn't see Dick Ebersol's point-of-view. He thought that Andy had helped to promote the show a couple of times], and that's the thanks he got.
You said that [Ebersol mentioned] that "it has to be real, it can't be a sham." Do you see any continuity between the ways audiences reacted in the moment, and how we react now? Is it just a matter of slowly adjusting our expectations?
How do you think they reacted back then?
The uncertainty about whether or not he was putting on an act was prevalent. Today, after the Milos Forman film, after Bob Zmuda's book, after a lot of these discussions and analyze where Andy was coming from – there's still some ambiguity to it. That's part of his legacy, no?
In the moment, when Andy was doing whatever he was doing, he got the results that he wanted. He got people to feel it: He got people to laugh, to get angry, whether it was not wrestling, or not doing the skit on Fridays about not playing stoned. All that stuff raised [the question]: Is this real, or isn't it real? So that was perfect. Andy created the controversy, and whoever was there was immediately involved. The wrestling was -- people just hated him. He loved it! And today, people are giving him the benefit of the doubt, or in hindsight saying, "This guy is a genius." There were no surprises; everything was planned by him.
Speaking of "genius," there's a line in The Andy Kaufman Awards' criteria about "spirit" that says it's "hard to define, but easy to recognize when it's present." What did you see in this year's contestants?
Harry Terjanian, this year's winner, really did stand out. Andy would come up with a different performance each time he was on the David Letterman show, which was unusual, because comedians usually went on that show with their best six to eight minutes of material. Andy would always create a happening where he brings on this adopted teenager, or sing in his diapers. And Harry Terjanian's performance was specifically for the awards. I've got to give him credit for really being fresh. And … you've read The Huey Williams Story. You've seen how [Andy] presented different realities: Am I in a dream or not? You remember that?
Yes, along with shifts in tone.
Right. A hundred years may have passed, but only two minutes had really passed. It could be snowing in the front of the house, you walk out the backdoor, and it's sunny. Harry thought of different realities by creating a video of Harry in the future interacting with Harry onstage. The twists and turns he gave us were tremendous. I really have to hand it to Harry for exemplifying Andy's spirit.
Given that Andy's routines all try to elicit or provoke audience participation, how does the Andy Kaufman Award pay tribute to Andy? I've never attended, but there's something uniquely perverse about making Andy Kaufman an institution or even a standard-bearer, no?
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