Kaufman’s Comedic Genius

Matt Besser, co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade, chats with Megh Wright about the enduring appeal of cult comedian Andy Kaufman:

[H]e wants to alienate, he wants to fool as many people as possible, and he does the same kind of thing in that Letterman clip [above], 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.

Besser and Wright further discuss what makes the above Letterman clip so outstanding:

MW: 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.

MB: 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 an earlier post, Josh Jones also praised Kaufman’s Letterman appearances:

Kaufman sends Letterman into a fit of stammering “uh, oh… ums” and the audience into fits of laughter by looking like he’s just stumbled in from a psych ward and isn’t sure exactly where he is or why. When he finally opens his mouth to speak, at nearly two minutes into the interview, he seems lost, dazed, almost childlike. Which everyone thinks is hilarious, because, well, it’s Andy Kaufman. It must be performance art, right? No matter which Andy Kaufman appeared before an audience, they always had the sense there was another one, or several, underneath, whether they knew his act or not. But you could never know if you’d hit bedrock. …

One might say Andy Kaufman invented trolling, the art of riling people up by impersonating idiots, crazies, and abrasive jerks. And he got away with it for one simple reason; he was authentic—all of his characters had some kind of endearing vulnerability, even at their most deranged.