Sketch Anatomy: Matt Besser on His Favorite Andy Kaufman Late Night Appearances

Andy Kaufman in Chicago, 1978. Photo: Paul Natkin/WireImage

Welcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite comedy writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.

For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with Matt Besser, co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade and host of the Earwolf podcast improv4humans who most recently appeared on Drunk History, The Birthday Boys, Comedy Bang! Bang! and the Adult Swim infomercial “In Search of Miracle Man.” Besser chose to take a look back at some of the early ‘80s late night appearances of Andy Kaufman, including a 1980 guest spot on The David Letterman Show, his public apology during a 1981 episode of Fridays, and the 1982 episode of SNL that called on viewers to vote Kaufman off the show forever.

What made you want to discuss Andy Kaufman? Do you remember how you first discovered him?

When you asked what my favorite or most influential sketch was, I mean, Kids in the Hall were probably, as far as just sketch, the most influential group to me. But I think more specifically Andy Kaufman as an individual has inspired my comedy in general. He finds a mix between standup and sketch, and even though he started on a standup stage he was essentially playing characters and doing sketches where the audience was the straight man. I can’t remember what the first thing I saw of his was, but looking back on it, he did something on the show Fridays and he also did a similar thing on Saturday Night Live – I’m not sure which one I saw first – but the one on SNL was where they gave the TV audience a chance to vote him off or keep him on the show. I remember seeing that as a kid and it fooled me. I just did not understand what was going on, I couldn’t believe it. I think I thought “What assholes SNL are for even putting this up for a vote! They should just support him and the comedy he does!” I can’t remember how exactly I was fooled, but I definitely was, and I also can’t remember what my opinion on Andy Kaufman was at the time. I probably knew him from Taxi, because at that point I don’t know if I was aware of his post-modern comedy – I probably wasn’t. But I had never seen anything like this – which was very meta and post-modern and it probably didn’t fool most adults, but it definitely fooled me as a kid and I’m sure it fooled other kids and probably stupid people in general who called in to vote him off the show.

I’m sure a lot of people got it, and that described his comedy and what I think he enjoyed about it whether it was on the standup stage or on TV: he liked alienating a certain percentage of the crowd, and to me, that’s what made his stuff especially funny. So I look at that and I look at this clip online of a similar thing he did on Fridays where he was doing a sketch, and in the sketch he breaks and says he refuses to do the line because he doesn’t know how to play high – which is hilarious – and then he and Michael Richards get in a fight and then I guess that caused an uproar because some of the actors didn’t know. That came off a little more real, and I can see people being fooled by that. It was funny, but to me what was even more funny was the apology the next week where the producer John Moffit comes on and says it was staged, and here’s Andy to come on and apologize.

What I love about the apology, and what I love most about Andy Kaufman… You know, the Mighty Mouse and Elvis Presley stuff was kind of silly, and Latka was kind of silly Andy Kaufman, but to me this was Andy Kaufman where he wants to alienate, he wants to fool as many people as possible, and he does the same kind of thing in that Letterman clip we chose too, which is at one point he says “I don’t know why you’re laughing.” I’m paraphrasing, but he pretty much says “I don’t know why you’re laughing because what I’m saying is serious,” and you can hear the laughter drop out and nervous and uncomfortable tittering, and he does it on both the Letterman clip and that Fridays clip of trying to go into this personal story and it’s all bullshit. I think he talks about his wife in both of them and he doesn’t even have a wife. He’s talking about getting a wife and getting a divorce and on the Letterman bit he’s pretending to be sick, he comes out and he just wants people to believe it, and to me that’s such a weird specific kind of comedy, and part of why you should enjoy this is knowing that other people are not enjoying this. And in the clip that I can’t find online – the one I definitely remember blowing me away as a teenager – was the Catch a Rising Star 10th Anniversary special. And at this point he’s pretty popular and known for Latka and his Elvis Presley impression, and it’s the tenth anniversary and he’s playing it up like he’s a big star and he starts doing some of his bits everybody knows and Bob Zmuda’s in the audience in the front and starts doing the bits along with him. He starts mimicking the bits, saying them word for word, and then Andy Kaufman stops and he’s like “Uh excuse me, can you not talk during my act?” and Bob’s acting like “Well I’m a big fan!” “Well yeah but you’re wrecking my act” and Bob kind of turns on him and is like “Well why don’t you do something new? Don’t you have anything new? We’ve seen all this,” and then Andy gets really offensive and he’s like “You don’t think I have new stuff? I’ve got new stuff, I can do new stuff!” and then he just starts making these jibberish noises. [laughs] Of course these are all just in my memories, I haven’t seen this in 20 years, but that’s my best memory of it, of him making these silly noises and it completely bombing with the audience. It’s this New York moment that was taped where every other comedian is just killing, and then there’s him doing this really post-modern bit where it bombs and barely anyone seems – in my memory at least – it didn’t seem like the audience got it at all, which made it even more hilarious for whoever is watching it on the VHS – me. It just blew me away. I just remember thinking “Wow, no one’s doing anything like this.”

One of the things I like about these performances is how you can get fooled the first time then have a completely different experience when you go back and watch them again.

Right. The whole bit of Elvis and Latka was first called Foreign Man when he did it in standup, and the Foreign Man would do the Mighty Mouse thing. And I think his goal – I wasn’t there, obviously – but from what I understand, his goal was to fool the audience into thinking this was a foreign man doing jokes and a performance; that this really was a foreign man doing an impression of Elvis that was ultimately really bad. We’re not laughing at the impression because it’s a great impression – we’re laughing at the fact that the guy doing the impression thinks that it’s good. That’s what I think the original joke was – and to have the audience buy into that. But once that was on SNL you’re not really fooling the audience with the impression anymore, I don’t think, like with the Mighty Mouse bit. So for me those bits didn’t play as strong on TV as they probably did in the clubs, but what did were the bits of him getting voted off and doing fake fights, and of course all the stuff that came later like the wrestling where he really was fooling, in my mind, stupid people. I mean I don’t know what he considered people who didn’t get the bits… [laughs] …but the stupid people of America hated him, and it’s because they didn’t fucking get it. I think that’s hilarious, and I think he reveled in that.

The Letterman clip in particular really shows how much late night has changed. These days celebrity interviews feel so rehearsed, especially if you go back and watch old Letterman or Carson interviews.

Yeah, on that note, in that clip he probably doesn’t say one single word for like the first two minutes he’s out there. You’re just taking in that he has fuckin’ snot under his nose. And he’s playing it so real – he’s not playing it like a ham, he’s just committing to it, and I think even though everyone’s laughing I bet some people at home watching it were going “Look at this idiot with snot on his nose” like they didn’t get that he was doing it on purpose, and I think he reveled in that. And you know, Letterman is playing a great straight man, but he’s only going to go so far. He’s gonna laugh every once in a while, he’s gonna break, but Andy’s gonna commit to it the whole way. He really doesn’t become sketchy until he starts asking for money at the very end, and I wonder if people even bought into that at home like “Oh my God this crazy Hollywood actor is so bad-off he’s asking for change.”

There’s sort of an inverse reaction going on between what the audience laughs at – Kaufman just sitting there awkwardly – and what they don’t laugh at, which is the whole made-up story about his recent divorce and everything. Usually with bits like that there’s a buildup to a big laugh, but it seems more like the opposite with him.

It’s great. My favorite moment maybe out of all these clips is the one where, I think it’s the Letterman one, but it’s the one where he’s talking about getting a divorce and then he turns to the audience and goes “I don’t know where you guys are coming from,” and he’s incredulous like “What’s wrong with you people? I’m telling you about my divorce and you’re laughing at me?” It goes against every comic instinct to tell an audience to stop laughing, and that’s just fucking hilarious.

In the beginning of the Fridays clip, the producer mentions that live TV has become a “passive medium.”

Uh huh. I think that was a shot at SNL.

Do you think that’s the case these days? Do you think live television still has the capability to make truly weird, uncomfortable moments like these?

I mean how much is live? There’s not even that much to point to. I don’t know, I’ve never experienced that in my lifetime. I’ve been on shows that are live taped like Conan but you don’t really feel like you’re in true danger when it’s live-to-tape I don’t think, and besides SNL, what is truly live? I don’t know, there’s not enough of it to even point at. I mean more what I notice, which you can point to in movies in general, is all the dead air Andy has – how long he takes to explain things is hilarious and all the moments of just saying “umm” in between words. You can’t speak that slowly on talk shows, you know? [laughs] You gotta move on, but he’s taking so much time, he’s just milking it and making a moment, and I just think that’s fucking hilarious. But you can take that and you can watch a movie from the ‘70s and you’re like oh my God, they would never take this long to set up a scene these days in a movie, they’d just be getting right to it.

That whole idea of trying to get laughs out of not saying anything is almost a cliché now – I’d imagine any new comic who tried to just stand onstage with snot under their nose would not be seen as a comedic genius.

What was awesome about him was he was fooling you on some level, and to me that’s what makes Andy Kaufman Andy Kaufman. So I don’t see much of that. Because it’s difficult. I mean, when we first started the UCB we would always have a prank element in our show, and what we realized was to really prank the audience we had to get them outside the theatre because they would expect anything in the theatre to be under our control. So we’d find reasons to bring them out into the streets – like we’d pretend we were gonna do this scene on the street corner that we had planned called “Thanksgiving Dinner” and then we go to the scene and Horatio [Sanz] is crossing the street and a car comes by and hits him, and we’re like “Oh my God he got hit by a car!” because why wouldn’t they believe that? And then we have this whole scene about him getting hit by a car, but the key is that we were making them buy into it for a while, and that’s hopefully what’s entertaining about it. But when you’re watching TV it seems very controlled – like how could you not have that unless you’re fooling extras or something? Rich Fulcher and I just did a thing for Adult Swim and we were like “Let’s not tell the extras that this infomercial is a parody” just so we get the best reactions out of them. Because otherwise they’ll potentially ham it up and we don’t want that to be the tone of it.

How does that “buying into it” idea change the way you approach or feel about your audience? On one hand you have to use them, but on the other hand it seems like an interesting way to weed out who “gets it” from who doesn’t.

Yeah, that’s probably my detriment as a performer if anything, even on my improv show improv4humans. I feel like I’ll take a strong opinion on something which to me is more of a persona I’m taking on – like in real life I don’t really have that strong of an opinion, but it’s going to make it more interesting to take a strong stance and be hyperbolic about it and animated about it in a way I wouldn’t necessarily be in real life. It’s the same with Howard Stern. When he gets upset with the people in the studio I know he’s not really upset, that’s just kind of the schtick of the show, so I don’t think like “Wow, Howard’s an asshole, he’s always yelling at his staff” because I know that’s just part of the show, that’s part of the persona; when he’s off mic he’s not gonna be that same way with them, he’s not going to be insulting them or giving them shit like he does on air.

Here’s just a specific example: I was on Who Charted? when Howard wasn’t there and Kulap had Armen Weitzman guest hosting, and she had me on to dress him down because that’s the dynamic we have when we do comedy, Armen and I. And to me he’s the dope and I’m the angry straight man, and I just dressed him down for an hour. And to me it was funny and I think we both had a good time, but afterwards some people were Twittering me going “That’s great that you gave him shit, he really deserves that!” or “Hey you were a little harsh on him blah blah blah” and to both those people I just feel like Do you not get that I’m playing a character and so is he? Half of what I was saying to him was “You didn’t take your improv classes seriously” – I don’t care if he took his improv classes seriously. He doesn’t need improv classes, he’s got his comedic voice, he knows what he does in comedy. It’s just where we went with it, and I can’t even remember the stuff we talked about, but none of it do I really care about in the real world, it was all there just for fodder for me to have something to yell out to Armen. So people who don’t get that tone – I find that interesting, and like you said, it’s a weeding out process, because some people hear that and go “Well that’s mean!” or they’ll listen to Armen and go “He’s dumb!” or “He’s dopey!” and it’s like he’s not dopey, he’s doing a character! He’s playing that up, that’s what we want for him. He’s playing up being a dope so I can play up being the angry straight man, and it’s a funny dynamic, and if you choose to take it as real life, that’s on you.

Matt Besser’s Favorite Andy Kaufman Late Night Appearances