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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.
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?
Like, how could anyone pigeonhole anything to do with Andy, let alone make an award out of it?
There might be something to that. But we are a safe haven for alternative comedians. The Andy Kaufman Award is also known as the Alternative Komedian Award. So it’s AKA AKA AKA, pronounced, “Akakaka?” Andy put the “K” in comedy. People love participating in this award. We don’t charge a fee to enter, but we do pay the winner. When people don’t make it to the semifinals, they get the most beautiful letter from us, the most encouraging letter from us. Nick Vatterott, who was the winner in 2011, was previously rejected twice; he didn’t even get to be a semifinalist. And when he made semifinals the first time, I don’t believe he won. The awards are designed] to encourage people to keep on trying.
I don’t know if you know, but Andy had a reputation for bombing, and he still stuck with it. We used to tell comedians for years about Andy’s tunnel analogy, but then we put that analogy on the awards’ program so that everyone could read it. It tells you: You’re in a dark tunnel. You go on-stage every night, and every night you’re onstage, you’re making progress in the tunnel. You’re getting closer, and closer to the end of the tunnel, even if it seems like you’re not, like you had a bad night. Keep going, and you’ll get closer to the end of the tunnel.
You know some of the previous winners here, like Kristen Schaal and Reggie Watts? The first time Kristen Schaal was a semifinalist in 2004, I went up to her and said, “Andy would love you.” I just knew from the first time I saw her perform at the Skirball Center. She was a comic version of Andy, but even more likable.
At this year’s awards ceremony, we played a recording of my father speaking to the audience at the 2009 Awards. And he spoke about Kristen Schaal as if she were a daughter to him. And that’s the other thing about the Andy Kaufman Awards: Reggie Watts came up with the term “The Andy Kaufman Awards Family.” If you get into the semifinals, you’re part of The Andy Kaufman Awards Family. My father was so proud of this award. It started for selfish reasons, for Andy’s legacy? But it’s turned into something so much bigger. I’m there for the comedians more so than being there for Andy. I can see it in their faces, I can see that they’re so grateful to me that this award exists.