Friday, May 21, 2004

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 Zmuda.

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 stage.

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.


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12:07 AM  

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