Maybe thirty years ago, looking for something to do on a dead night,
Bob Zmuda found himself at a club that was showing a comedy act. The
headliner was terrible. Absolutely dreadful. Some guy from... well,
he couldn't place the accent, from maybe Romania, doing one horrid
celebrity impression -- he seemed to call them "ementations" -- after
another, to the point that the hapless audience was, despite
themselves, all laughing at
the guy, not with him.
"And now," he announced, "I will do de Elbis Presley". This one
had a prop -- a guitar. And a spotlight. And the trademark stare,
and the lip curl -- absolutely perfect. And just the right syrupy
Southern Memphis accent on the "Thankyewverymuch." And an animated,
spot-on rendition of -- well, perhaps it was "Hound Dog." And then in
a flash, the guitar was gone, and back was the Eastern European
nebbish -- a character sometimes known as "Foreign Man" -- stammering
his way off the stage. "Tenk you veddy much."
The performer was Andy Kaufman. Zmuda was hooked, and wound up
becoming Kaufman's constant collaborator. Not just on stage --
Kaufman would frequently think up some bit, set on, say, an airliner
or in a convenience store, and then just walk into a real convenience
store (or onto an airliner) and start doing it; the people around
generally took him for just some jerk, having no idea that they were
actually looking at a performance. I've heard tell that Kaufman's
"Tony Clifton" character -- a talent-free lounge singer who taunted
the audiences that spurned his butchery of songs that weren't that
great in the first place -- actually premeired at some unsuspecting
couple's wedding recpetion. Clifton grew to be a very big deal.
Kaufman actually acted as if they were different people, but
eventually, most people knew the score -- that a "Tony Clifton"
performance was actually Kaufman. And so, Clifton was once booked in
a week in Nevada, for crowds cheering "Kaufman" on -- not realizing
the guy in the suit and the makeup, insisting on being called "Tony
Clifton" on and off stage, eating as Clifton, sleeping as Clifton,
making passes at female tourists as Clifton, having signed all of the
contracts in the name "Tony Clifton", wasn't Kaufman at all, but
The guy even joked about faking his own death.
Kaufman is sometimes regarded as a talented performer with a taste
for offstage pranks. It might be better to see him as a talented
prankster who did good work -- though probably not his best -- on
And so it was that when he was dying of cancer, going through a
desperate search through faith healers and quacks of every description
looking for a possible cure, rumors were flying around that he was
faking it -- which, of course, continued on after Kaufman's
death... was announced. For his part, Zmuda has consistently insisted
that Kaufman was genuinely sick, and is genuinely dead. But he would
say that. Wouldn't he?
And now, somebody is posting a blog in character
as Kaufman, claiming to have been hiding out for twenty years, just to
make it a nice, round number (the statute of limitations on associated
crimes, he is quick to point out, runs out after only seven). He has
even announced a new national tour -- of Starbucks
and Wal-Mart locations. In entirely new characters, in
performances that will, no doubt, be completely unannounced.
Is it true? Who demands such certainty? Might it not be better,
instead, to say that like Tyrone Slothrop at the end of Gravity's
Rainbow, Kaufman's characters have split up and dispersed, growing
into consistent personae of their own? The next time someone at
Starbucks is a little too public with that cell phone conversation
about his girlfriend's collection of toilet seats, and the various
problems associated therewith -- or, for that matter, just a little
more inquisitive about what language "venti" is a word in than common
courtesy might otherwise suggest -- treat it as Kaufman, putting on a
show. Your life will be the richer for it.