Andy Kaufman Gets Illustrated in ‘Is This Guy for Real?’

Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Around 2010, I worked at a coffee shop for a man who believed Andy Kaufman was still alive. It had been a generation since Kaufman’s apparent death, in 1984, from lung cancer. My old manager isn’t alone, either; Kaufman’s career onstage included comedy, songs, impersonations, wrestling, sitcom stardom, and elaborate pranks that still have audiences interrogating what was “real” and what wasn’t. Raised on Long Island, Kaufman is perhaps best known today as his character on the sitcom Taxi, Latka, who was taken fairly directly from Kaufman’s onstage persona, a confused immigrant who couldn’t deliver a punchline but had a killer Elvis impression. He was also a regular featured performer in the early episodes of Saturday Night Live, until a publicity stunt encouraging the audience to vote whether to keep him or kick him off the show: they voted to kick him off, and he never returned to the show. His life was memorialized in the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon (taking its title from an REM song about Kaufman), whose production was recently revisited in Netflix’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Jim & Andy. In his new book, Is This Guy For Real?, cartoonist Box Brown approaches Kaufman with a unique perspective, and details the nuts-and-bolts of what went into some of Kaufman’s most famous performances.

Box Brown has always been fascinated by pro wrestling, and his previous graphic biography, Andre the Giant, ably explores the day-to-day life and trials of a huge legend. While Brown’s story here begins with Andy Kaufman’s childhood and ends with his death, the focus of Is This Guy For Real? is almost entirely on Kaufman’s various efforts within the world of wrestling. To Brown, Kaufman’s onstage persona was necessarily tied to Kaufman’s wrestling fandom. Kaufman didn’t think of himself as a comedian so much as a performer, and as a fan of wrestling, Kaufman knew that no performer gets a bigger audience reaction than a heel. During his stints as a wrestler, Kaufman took heat as hard as he could. First, he “played” a sexist wrestler who would only wrestle women and trashed women’s athleticism at every opportunity (as Brown describes in detail, there was a lot more to this than just playing a character). Then, in his famous rivalry with wrestler Jerry Lawler, Kaufman sought cheap heat by making videos deriding Lawler’s Memphis fans and by pretending to sue Lawler over an oversold neck injury on Late Night with David Letterman. A large portion of this book is Lawler’s, too: at times Brown tells their stories in parallel as each develop their respective crafts and hurtle into one another’s orbit. By the time Kaufman and Lawler start wrestling, it’s clear what made them such good collaborators.

Box Brown’s fairly simple line illustrations are a great match for the subject matter. Brown’s backgrounds are undetailed and he stays focused on medium shots, so most of the time Kaufman’s drawn, he appears to have a spotlight on him, even when he’s not onstage. Performing, Kaufman’s almost always got a welcoming smile on his face, which should help readers appreciate the way he communed with his audience by tapping into the most basic ways he satisfied them. At other points, the blankness of Kaufman’s face – a few lines and shapes – help underline how elusive and unknowable he could be, even to those closest to him. Is This Guy For Real? includes information from many publications and from interviews conducted by Brown himself, and some of this material can range a bit from overblown speculation about Kaufman’s inner life to surprisingly long sequences about one-on-one conversations Kaufman had (e.g., Kaufman’s interactions with wrestling photographer Bill Apter). These conversations rarely shed much light on what was going on in Kaufman’s head at any given time and occasionally just serve to repeatedly underline the fact that Andy Kaufman loved wrestling. It’s through conversations with Kaufman’s longtime friend and collaborator Bob Zmuda that Brown manages to get as deep into Kaufman’s work habits as he does, and the results can be very troubling.

At a pivotal moment in Is This Guy For Real?, Andy approaches Bob Zmuda with an idea for a new gimmick: “First, I only wrestle women. … I’ll just be a complete pig. A chauvinist shit heel.” Zmuda replies, “The women’s libbers are gonna go completely apeshit.” Andy laughs and says, “I’ll be totally hated! … And I bet I score with like 80% of the chicks.” In her essay for The Village Voice, “There’s Nothing Funny About Turning Women Into A Punchline,” Lara Zarum cites Jim Carrey’s commentary on Kaufman wrestling women and being publicly misogynist in the documentary Jim & Andy. Carrey says, “It’s a way to weed out the crowd. Those people who don’t see anything past the literal – they don’t bother to look for the absurd truth behind it – [Kaufman]’s not interested in them.” Zarum writes, “Carrey assumes that those who look for the ‘absurd truth’ behind a man who gets onstage and claims that women are only slightly above dogs in the hierarchy of living things are allies — art freaks and comedy nerds who are undoubtedly progressive in their politics and surely don’t really believe that women are inferior to men. But … we’ve also seen the mainstreaming of the alt-right, a political movement that can, at least in part, trace its roots back to a nebulous group of trolls who viciously target women and minorities in the name of preserving the so-called purity of geek culture. This year, we learned a lot of those guys weren’t joking at all.” In Kaufman’s case, he wasn’t just kidding-not-kidding about hating women: he was also wrestling women because he got off on it. Brown’s book even details the lengths to which Kaufman and Zmuda went to hide Kaufman’s erection when he wrestled women. Kaufman would whisper obscene pick-up lines in the ears of his women opponents, perhaps in part to throw them off but also out of a sincere desire to transform the wrestling into sexual intercourse. There is plenty to criticize about Kaufman’s devotion to the kayfabe, as Zarum rightly does, but that Kaufman’s sexist pig routine was also motivated by the kind of embarrassing thirst that makes Kaufman ask Zmuda to duct-tape Kaufman’s hard-on to his leg is disappointing, unsurprising, and should give all Kaufman’s fans and acolytes pause.

The Netflix documentary Jim & Andy is in many ways a frustrating and informative document about the people who collaborated with Andy Kaufman. Wrestler Jerry Lawler played himself in Man on the Moon (as did many of Kaufman’s costars), and was taken aback that Jim Carrey, who stayed in character as Andy Kaufman during production, wouldn’t stop harassing and abusing him. “I guess I’m thinking about what Andy was really like,” Lawler complained during production, “and as far as I can remember, it was like he was very well-mannered.” As Brown makes clear in Is This Guy For Real?, Andy had the deepest respect for wrestling, frequently comparing his idol “Classy” Freddie Blassie to Elvis. When Kaufman entered the world of wrestling, he did so with the kind of professional courtesy one would expect from a devoted fan. When Jerry Lawler stepped onto the set of Man on the Moon, name-above-the-title star Jim Carrey refused to drop the act off-camera. The dividing line of Kaufman on stage and Kaufman in real life that Brown works so hard to elucidate in this book was completely missed or ignored by Carrey, even as he supposedly stayed in character as Kaufman. Brown asks the question “Is This Guy For Real?” knowing that it’s somewhat unanswerable; Carrey assumed the answer was “Yes” and went from there.

When Andy Kaufman died at the age of 35, his funeral wasn’t attended by his Taxi costars. Brown quotes Marilu Henner saying, “We all thought this was just another one of Andy’s put-ons. None of us believed him.” This may have been one major downside of Kaufman’s gimmick. In that era when kayfabe was de rigueur, “Classy” Freddie Blassie couldn’t even speak kindly about his acolyte and friend Kaufman because they’d played antagonists in the ring. It’s worth noting, of course, that Henner is one of the rare women commenting on Kaufman anywhere in this book. It remains unknown to the reader what any of the women who wrestled Kaufman, for example, thought of his played-up misogyny and sexual harassment. Michael Kaufman, Andy’s brother, shares a few anecdotes about the kind and considerate side of Andy that audiences rarely saw, but Andy Kaufman ultimately remains largely unknowable, only offering bits and pieces of his “real” self to those who knew him best. Is This Guy For Real? offers one of the clearest-eyed portraits of Kaufman’s artistic process, though its focus is fairly narrow. Until Kaufman reveals that he’s been faking death for over thirty years, that may be the best we’ll get.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.

Andy Kaufman Gets Illustrated in ‘Is This Guy for […]