hey, baby; are we losing touch?

The subject of Andy Kaufman came up in my Livejournal on Friday.

Kaufman frustrates me beyond words, partly because I can’t stand his schtick and partly because I can’t articulate why I can’t stand his schtick. It’s like waterboarding: it’s so obvious to me that it’s evil that it precedes reason. I have a hard time constructing arguments for why waterboarding is torture and torture is wrong, because whenever I’m confronted with someone who sincerely asks, “Why exactly is torture wrong?” my first reaction is mute horror.

Andy Kaufman’s the same way.

But, in the interest of being a good sport, a pop culture pundit and an amateur blogger, I’m going to tackle why exactly I don’t find Andy Kaufman funny. A lot of this stems from my own personal taste, which I can’t pretend is objective. Some of this stems from my theories on humor. Some of this is just common sense. Follow along if you like.

As I’ve said before, humor relies on (among other things) the exposure of the absurd. You point out something that doesn’t make sense and engender a laugh rather than a shriek of horror. A 225-lb man menacing a 125-lb woman isn’t funny; a 125-lb woman menacing a 225-lb man can be.

Of course, social institutions – school, the office, the family, church, politics – enshrine a lot of traditions that are absurd on their face. Humor’s a useful way to attack these absurdities; it’s sometimes the only way. King Philippe VI did not hear of the French defeat at the Battle of Sluys in June 1340 until the court jester made a jibe at the bravery of the French knights. And consider all the mocks that organized religion has taken at the hands of the Monty Python troupe (Life of Brian being the best example).

All I did was say to my wife, “That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah!”

Sadly, each of us finds some cherished tradition sacred and not open to mockery. This means that a lot of this corrective humor is at someone else’s expense. Keith Olbermann gets huffy if you make fun of Democrats and Bill Donohue can’t take a Eucharist joke no matter how you tell it. So a lot of times, even if the joke is really funny, someone’s still going to cross their arms and pout. Not everyone can be in on the joke.

And that’s fine.

But while being offensive doesn’t disqualify a joke from being funny, it’s not a sufficient quality. In other words, while many jokes are offensive, not everything that’s offensive is a joke.

The Daily Show made its bones, years and years ago, by staging faux-serious interviews with ridiculous people. These people no doubt got offended once they discovered they were the butt of a joke. But we didn’t care, because the victims were usually members of a small enough subculture that we had a hard time sympathizing. I’m sure if I grew up in a family of hardcore Lunar Landing hoaxers, the interview with the guy who got punched by Buzz Aldrin might have stung me. But everyone else would have laughed.

More importantly, The Daily Show wasn’t just hurting opportune targets. They were also really funny.

Da Ali G Show also lifted Sacha Baron Cohen to prominence by keeping performers in the dark. When Ali G interviewed Newt Gingrich, Bhoutros Bhoutros Ghali or a DEA agent, they didn’t know that the interview was a spoof. This was part of the humor: watching these normally poised public officials stammer and go off book when confronted by Cohen’s inanity was hilarious. It deflated the mighty.

Cohen pushed that envelope a little with the Borat movie – in my eyes, not always with good cause. Some of the scenes, like his dinner at a Southern estate or his “confession” at a Pentecostal prayer meeting, were hilarious. But I had a harder time with some of his other schticks, like tricking the driving ed instructor into saying offensive things or breaking things by pratfalling in a Texas antique shop. Even if good satire is allowed to be hurtful, I don’t think that everything that’s hurtful can be labeled “satire.” That shop owner didn’t ask to be visited by some clumsy, destructive asshole – but hey! Comedy, right?

And at the saddest end of the spectrum, we have Tom Green.

The Tom Green Show had a lot of great ideas with potential that Green (again, in my eyes) completely failed to execute on. For instance: Undercutters, the pizza restaurant that follows pizza delivery cars to houses and tries to underbid them. I chuckled when I saw the prank starting to unfold. Then I quickly grew bored. Green lacked any ability at manipulating the other people involved, except to get them angry. He could never have played an interview straight-faced for as long as Cohen did. For another thing, Green picked people that no one wanted to see deflated. Making fun of Moon Hoax theorists or Newt Gingrich is comic gold. Making fun of suburban homeowners with their faces blurred out? Who does that appeal to?

I’m probably giving Green too much credit by suggesting that he had a point that his pranks were missing. Green didn’t have a point. He did the first thing that came into his head. If you get hold of the intercom speakers at a department store and the funniest thing you can think of to say is, “Tasty corn, tasty corn, tasty corn,” you have no business marketing yourself as an entertainer. For fuck’s sake, man. At least page Heywood Jablowme or Hugh Jass. Have some dignity.

So then there’s Andy Kaufman.

Kaufman at least had a vaudevillian’s sense of timing:

Kaufman first caught major attention with a character known as “Foreign Man,” who claimed to be from “Caspiar” (a fictional island in the Caspian Sea) and would appear on the stage of comedy clubs to play a recording of the theme from “Mighty Mouse,” lip-synch one line—”Here I come to save the day.” He would proceed to poorly tell a few jokes and perform a number of lackluster impersonations (Archie Bunker, Richard Nixon, et al.). Some variations of this performance were broadcast in the first season of Saturday Night Live; the “Mighty Mouse” number was featured on the premiere October 11, 1975, broadcast, while the joke-telling and Bunker impression were included in the November 8 broadcast that same fall.[5]

He might speak in a fake accent and say, “I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States.” He would continue in the same voice: “Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States. T’ank you veddy much.” The audience would be torn between outrage at seeing such a bad act and empathy for the hapless entertainer, who would cry onstage once heckled enough.

At that point, Foreign Man would announce, “And now I would like to imitate the Elvis Presley,” turn around, take off his jacket, slick his hair back, and launch into an Elvis Presley impersonation so good that Presley himself described it as his favorite. After the wild applause that almost always came after his Elvis impression, he would take a simple bow and say in his “Foreign Man” voice, “T’ank you veddy much!” The audience would realize they had been tricked, which became a trademark of Kaufman’s comedy.

The problem was, as Kaufman grew more successful / sick / deranged / experimental, he forgot that last bit. He forgot to include the audience. And a joke which doesn’t include any of the audience at any point isn’t a joke. For all you know, the man shouting in a lisp in Creole on the subway to no one in particular might be in the middle of a hilarious stand-up act. You want him to host Saturday Night Live?

This post veered (as I suspected it would) from my issues with Andy Kaufman and performance art-comedy to my theories on humor. Again, humor doesn’t need to be clean, or conventional, to appeal to me. But I need to be able to guess whom it might appeal to. And Kaufman’s later schtick, or the entirety of Tom Green’s career, or certain portions of Sacha Baron Cohen’s act, go completely over my head. It’s not that it’s “not funny”; it’s that it’s not funny.

3 Responses

  1. You gave a great example of Kaufman at his best. Can you also give an example of his act after he had become more successful / sick / deranged / experimental?

    I really enjoyed reading this post.

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