Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Some biographies are interested in getting to the complex truth of their subjects. This is not one of them. Focusing interviews on the people who loved the subject best will sometimes give close, personal stories, and that can be great. It can also give a skew toward the whitewash, and that’s what has happened here. Bob Zmuda and Kaufman’s brother Michael appear to be two of the major emotional touchstones for Box Brown’s account, giving it a sweet and personal nature with no teeth whatsoever.

There’s a lot about mid-twentieth century pro wrestling here, how a young boy could fall in love with it and be drawn into it as an aspect of show business. There is no hint that pro wrestling might have flaws other than insularity. None of the things we now know about how so many wrestlers struggle with painkillers and concussion/brain trauma and die young. Just: hey, it’s showbiz. Oh. Okay I guess.

And in this year of 2018, a major publisher feels perfectly comfortable putting out a book whose explicit thesis is that Andy Kaufman was “brilliant and kind,” that “Man on the Moon” was wrong to portray him as “a mean spirited buffoon.” Aww, isn’t it sad that his brother was sad about that movie? When even this book shows page after page of him spewing misogyny in order to get women angry so that they will wrestle him for–it’s very explicit about this–his carefully hidden sexual gratification, to which they have not consented. But if he privately tells his brother and his best friend that he’s for women’s rights, that’s fine, that’s his true self, and the rest is “all an act.” And his actual acts–his actions–don’t matter. It was a joke, hey, can’t you take a joke?

One of the many things this book is completely uninterested in examining is: if what Kaufman was interested in was surrealism, was unsettling people’s sense of reality, why did he choose to rehash exactly the same tired stereotypes that immigrants and women were hearing day after day? What’s unsettling about that reality? What’s daring about that? In a sense this is a common thread through forays into attempts at dadaist/surrealist humor going back to Marcel Duchamp’s “LHOOQ”: when Duchamp went to undermine what he saw as our reverence for fine art, he did so by repeating exactly the same crap that women hear on the streets every single day. By recapitulating the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Again. Did he say, “She is an echidna”? “She is an ice augur”? Did he overturn our sense of reality by making us think what on earth that could mean? Nope. Just: she has a hot ass. Har. Thanks, Duchamp.

And Kaufman’s another such, getting credit for being a brilliant and daring ground-breaking comedian–encouraging another generation of male comedians to see “I upset people and therefore I’m edgy and funny” as a standard–when he was repeating very, very tired tropes and reinforcing them. Any desire to examine that? To consider what kind of atmosphere it’s led to? To think about what it means when you’re saying something as a joke and the people who are listening to you are thinking, ha ha yeah, you tell those stupid bitches?

No?

Oh.

You know, one of the men in my field who turned out to have harassed dozens of women also is a man who told some pretty sexist jokes in public for years. Who still tells them, I expect, to people who are still speaking to him. And if you call him out for them, how can you not know that in his heart he believes in women and can’t you take a joke. It’s just that he also wants to be able to use women for his sexual gratification when he has power over them. Whether they want that or not. So…I read this biography of Andy Kaufman, and I thought, yeah. Hilarious. It’s always us humorless bitches who just don’t see the joke in the guy standing there saying, ha ha, that dumb bimbo…but you know that was part of the joke, right, you know I don’t really mean that.

I don’t know that, actually, Andy.

I don’t know that, Box.

I don’t know that, guy in my field, guy in your field, guy in everybody’s, everybody’s everybody’s everybody’s field.

I don’t know that. You don’t know that. What I do know is that when push came to shove, this is the material you decided to build your career on. And when push came to shove, Box Brown decided to give it a complete pass and keep building his career on it. Because hey, he talked to Zmuda and to Michael Kaufman and they said what a sweet guy Andy Kaufman was, and he could make a nice little book about how Andy Kaufman wanted everybody to be friendly to one another, especially if the women parts of everybody would sometimes get mad and do what his penis wanted without him having to talk to them about it like a grown-up.

Kaufman worked with women on SNL, on Taxi. He knew women in his life. Brown doesn’t list any women in his personal interviews for this book. I bet that’s a total coincidence, though, and reflects nothing about his mindset.

I bet.

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