Andy Kaufman: Wrestling with the American Dream by Florian Keller

Andy Kaufman was an enigmatic individual, to say the least. Milos Forman’s 1999 bio-pic, Man on the Moon attempted, but failed, to reveal the real man behind all the strange behavior, and this written study also falls short with its well-meaning shot at comprehending this odd character.

Explaining Kaufman is a tall order for any filmmaker or writer, and to be fair, Florian Keller had a Herculean task in studying Andy Kaufman. For casual fans, Kaufman was the lovable Latka on NBC’s Taxi. But there was also a darker side to his persona. Kaufman appeared to enjoy baiting the audience, like those times he challenged women to wrestle him. He escalated these stunts into battles of the sexes, similar to the way Bobbie Riggs pitted males against females during his historic tennis matches with Billy Jean King.

Kaufman was skilled at attracting attention; but was he truly funny? Keller devotes a whole chapter to this very question. In the traditional sense, Kaufman was not a comedian. He didn’t tell jokes, nor did he relay funny stories. Heck, he wasn’t even physically funny in a slapstick sense. And yet, for lack of a better term, he was and is categorized as a comedian. Perhaps he was closer to a performance artist. Even so, the comedy clubs where Kaufman made his living are hardly the places you expect to witness performance art.

In addition to profiling Kaufman, Keller spends almost an equal amount of time exploring the messages in Kaufman’s body of work. Keller subtitled this book “Wrestling With the American Dream,” and writes much about Kaufman’s relationship to this elusive American Dream. He states, “The American Dream is that public fantasy which constitutes America’s identity as a nation.” Parents tell their children, sometimes without even thinking, that they can become anything if they want it badly enough — even the President of the United States. But the cold hard truth is that only the rich and privileged ever reach those rarified heights. Kaufman, Keller asserts, oftentimes played the “everyman” under the assumption that even he, Mr. Generic Citizen, could make his every (American) dream come true. He acted out this waking dream like a living, breathing, crash test dummy. “As far as Andy Kaufman is concerned,” Keller writes, “his deconstructive manipulation of the American Dream consisted in the fact that he did not even bother to manipulate it; as an over-orthodox author, he took this public fantasy so literally that any explicit critique became unnecessary for its fundamental inconsistencies to be revealed.”

An ability to reinvent one’s self is another assumed attribute of this American Dream. In his preface Keller writes, “One of the premises of my book is that ultimately the subject of the American Dream is constituted by the belief that the self can be endlessly remade for the sake of success and happiness.” When you think about it, Kaufman was a prime example of someone who “endlessly remade” himself. Kaufman treated his Foreign Man and Tony Clifton characters as if they were real people, not just conjured up comedic personalities. For instance, Kaufman agreed to sign on for Taxi only after his “friend” Tony Clifton was guaranteed guest appearances. Additionally, Kaufman mastered a mean Elvis Presley impersonation, and the King lavishly lived out this remaking principle: He went from rags to riches, from Tupelo to Memphis. He may never have become president, but he met presidents and dignitaries during his lifetime, even though he was a rock ‘n’ roll star. If a poor Southern boy could become “king,” anything is possible.

Keller’s examination of the American Dream is one of this book’s weakest sections, because he dedicates whole pages to the Oxford English Dictionary and American Heritage Dictionary definitions of this popular U.S. term/concept. To base one’s analysis on dictionary definitions smacks of lazy research. It’s also troubling that Keller sites Forman’s film multiple times in his book. Granted, cinema is a large part of the pop-cultural vernacular; it’s just overused and little out of place within this otherwise serious study.

Reading this book is a little bit like watching old Ernie Kovacs videos today: As with Kovacs in the ’50s, it’s hard to believe Kaufman ever became as popular as he did. Kaufman was a man, after all, who purposely messed with people’s heads, yet was paid handsomely for it. Women agreed to get physical and wrestle with Kaufman, not because they liked or even respected him, but because he presented them with a challenge. Perhaps this is what attracted the general public to Kaufman, as well. He confronted people in ways they had never been challenged before.

Andy Kaufman was not a traditional comedian, actor, or performance artist. He was a silly and many times ominous provocateur, instead. We’ll never fully understand him, but the fact that Forman made a movie of his life, R.E.M. wrote songs about him, and Keller has added to the mounting Kaufman literature with his book, tells us that he is an endlessly fascinating icon. Comedians follow the adage, “Always leave them laughing.” Kaufman, on the other hand, appeared to live by the phrase, “Always leave them scratching their heads.”