Album Review: Andy Kaufman ‘Andy and His Grandmother’.

Image courtesy of Drag City Records

(laying it on thick)

We are all gathered here today to
bid one final farewell to Anthony
Sebastian Clifton — who passed
from our midst far too soon. The
world has lost the greatest superstar
of all time … and I … have lost my …best friend.
But grieve not, my brothers, for
Tony need not be forgotten.
Fortunately, he can be remembered
forever … through this magnificent …
(pulls album out from behind podium)

– Andy Kaufman & Bob Zmuda, ‘The Tony Clifton Story’ unproduced Screenplay, 1st draft 1/1/1980

There’s a moment during an interview with Andy Kaufman on ‘The Midnight Special’ from 1981 when he inexplicably, but seemingly innocuously states his date of birth as January 17, 1937 as opposed to 1949. It’s so ridiculous, and incongruous to the context of the interview that it always stuck with me, until I saw the year 1937 pop-up again in Kaufman lore, stated as the date of birth of his ‘alter ego’ truculent Vegas Lounge singer Tony Clifton, who, as an unproduced biopic script of his life would have it, died of cancer at Cedar Sinai hospital.

Being as Andy Kaufman never self-identified as a comedian, it isn’t nearly as big a surprise as some are making out that ‘Andy and His Grandmother’ is his first ‘comedy album’, if it can be described as a comedy album at all – as with everything he did, there’s more at play beneath the surface. This collection has been culled from 82 hours worth of Dictaphone recordings Kaufman made with the intention of compiling as an album, a project that eventually fell by the wayside as other schemes, or his failing health presumably took precedence. As cohort Bob Zmuda or others close to him would tell you, the majority of Kaufman’s ‘act’ was either honed, or played-out entirely off-stage. While the ability to mess with an audiences heads was obviously gratifying to Kaufman, his predilection for creating his own brand of reality was just as easily sated in his social interactions with the general populace. Biographies are littered with accounts of Kaufman and Zmuda engineering episodes such as the one in which the egotistical ‘Star’ Kaufman would flirt-with and eventually make off with the weeping stooge Zmuda’s girl to the disgust of watching coffee shop patrons, or accounts of friends happening upon Kaufman panhandling on the street for no apparent reason, and while those same associates might have since published unflinching and candid accounts of their time with the man, certain doubts will always linger as to how close anyone actually was to him.

The Dictaphone tapes in question were long held in the possession of the closest thing to an actual girlfriend in Andy’s life, Lynn Margulies, and offer a tantalizing glimpse into this hinterland of his much pondered-on personality. The record starts-off somewhat disconcertingly with an especially recorded musical introduction by prodigious Chicagoan Jim O’Rourke, and narrated by Saturday Night Live Alumnus Bill Hader. As reputable as the assembled personnel is, with a performer as anomalous as Kaufman, contemporary interference seems ill conceived, and concern emerges that this is going to be an un-listenable mismatch of Lo-Fi snippets corralled into some semblance of coherence by over interference. Such concerns however are short-lived, as the Vernon Chatman whittled tracklist does an admirable job of making sense of such an enigma of a performer and wealth of material. We’re eased into the concept by hearing Andy showing off his Dictaphone to assembled family members, before hearing an excerpt from a performance where Andy probes his audience’s tolerance for an idiotic ditty he made up that morning about ‘going to Birmingham’. Relenting to his audiences stony silence, Kaufman admits the stupidity of the song before launching into it again and again to prove his point.

A notoriously promiscuous individual, even this aspect of Kaufman’s life was not off limits for the practice of his particular brand of psychological exploration, as documented on first unadulterated (if you’ll pardon the pun) track ‘Slice of Life’, in which Andy earnestly attempts to coerce a woman he’s just slept-with into discussing for posterity why she didn’t look like she was enjoying herself and the logistics of the act itself, under the auspices of documenting the sort of intimate interchange never evidenced outside of dramatic interpretation. That these conversations are from an unseen aspect of his real life makes you momentarily marvel at their authenticity, until you remember this is Andy Kaufman, and he decided to press record. Kaufman continues probing, with conversation seemingly engineered to elicit the most spontaneous and unguarded of responses. For example, after his ‘date’ says she has long anticipated their congress, Kaufman replies “Well, I’ll tell ya, if I hadn’t have come back from New York City diseased, it’d have happened a long time ago’.  To the uninitiated or unconvinced of his ‘comedic’ genius, this would be crude and simple provocation and manipulation, if it didn’t happen to be true (Kaufman once discovered he had syphilis after feeling severely fatigued and realising he was turning yellow).

Kaufman’s legacy is built on the fact that truth is subjective rather than absolute, and the presupposition that you have him pegged is the moment when his legwork to lull you into a second-guessing sense of certainty pays dividends. On ‘Andy Goes To The Movies’, you hear Kaufman regaling his family with an outlandish tale of how he refused to leave a movie theater as the film’s credits rolled and was subsequently roughed-up by security. His tone is so over earnest and indignant, reminiscent of an Andy you’ve seen onstage right before his subterfuge falls down, you start to assume he’s winding them up, until a voice asks in a weary and cautious tone “is that true?”, signalling a jumpcut to a bellowing persona reminiscent of his Intergender Wrestling asshole calling someone a “fucking pig” and refusing to ‘leave the movie’, before being restrained in a cacophony of Mic friction. It isn’t all high drama however, and there are plentiful interludes of genuine hilarity, most notable of which is ‘Andy and his English Friend Paul’ in which an exasperated Kaufman answers the phone to an overbearing lady friend as an Englishman named Paul. The quality of the accent, and audacity of his manner is an absolute joy to behold, and a reminder of what Andy is at his absolute best. In the English language we’re lacking an antonym for terrorist, but Andy was it. The collection wraps up with some explanation as to why a planned album never came to fruition on ‘I Want Those Tapes’ where a threatening ex demands any and all recordings, insinuating harm will befall kaufman if he doesn’t hand them over. Reflecting on the situation in a conversation with Zmuda, Andy relishes the notion he may be killed as a result of his actions and how fitting a climax to the album it would be. Apart from the dying part, which he wouldn’t enjoy.

Bob Zmuda: “He played with people’s heads not only onstage but off, and it cost him at the end.”

Andy Kaufman: “We could fake it? When I’m more famous we could fake it.”

A lot of innovative modern comedy is geared not toward laughter necessarily, but drop-jawed cringes and groans. Kaufman was light years ahead of his time, in an era when even the nuanced, raw Stand Up comedy we now know was in its infancy. As a long time fan, I’m still caught off guard when unearthing new routines. To be educated in the ways of Andy leads only to setting yourself up for more surprises. There’s an argument that this album is for completists only, and not for the casual fan. I would argue the latter doesn’t exist. To ‘get’ Kaufman, is to be incapable of getting enough, and I’m salivating for the other 81 hours.

Andy and His Grandmother is available now from Drag City

Chester Whelks

Chester Whelks

Chester Whelks is a peripheral figure on the fringes of existence. Predominantly bothering the local music scene of his native Manchester, England, he has a very finely attuned Justice-button, and knows how to call a spade a ‘Multi-Purpose Murder/Concealment Device’.

One Response to Album Review: Andy Kaufman ‘Andy and His Grandmother’.
  1. Shawn c. Baker Reply

    Great review sir! I’ve always been largely interested in the kind of reality manipulation Kaufman was infamous for experimenting with, yet despite this and the fact that a good friend for years was into him I’ve never really had a proper introduction to his work (outside of Taxi, which is different). Perhaps I will begin with this album.

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