A couple of nights ago, I sat down to watch the film Man on the Moon, starring Jim Carey. The film is a bipopic about Andy Kauffman. To be perfectly frank, when I rented the film, I didn’t even expect to like it. The film is often touted as one of Jim Carey’s worst films, and I’d heard mixed reactions to it.
As I watched, I found myself being totally sucked in, my intrigue for the title character growing by the minute. Before slipping the film into the DVD player, I hadn’t even been sure who Andy Kauffman was, and now I was utterly fascinated by him.
Although Kauffman is often called a ‘comedian’, he didn’t like this title. He didn’t see his performances as being the same as those of other comedians, and he felt that he shouldn’t adopt the title for that reason. He regularly referred to himself as a ‘song and dance man’. His act consisted mostly of gimmicks, impersonations, funny voices, and acting along to phonograph records.
Andy Kauffman was a regular performer on Saturday Night Live, until the audience voted for him to be kicked off the show for his controversial behaviour. He also had a long career as a wrestler, challenging women to pit themselves against him in the ring, creating an inter-gender wrestling event. His chauvinism was a mere act, but it still incited a huge amount of hatred from feminists everywhere. He also appeared on the television show Taxi until it was cancelled.
The thing that intrigued me about Andy Kauffman was his unflinching commitment to his act. He never broke character, and he performed with such conviction that the audience were never entirely sure whether he was kidding or not. He once appeared on an episode of Fridays, and was to perform a live skit about marijuana use. Kauffman was famously anti-drugs, and staunchly refused to say any of his lines. One of the other actors grabbed a set of cue cards and threw them in front of Andy, and the show had to cut to commercial when he got into a fist-fight with the director. It was later revealed that the entire thing was a prank, but some people are still unsure as to whether it really was a gag, or whether Andy just said that to cover up the fact that he’d incited a fist fight on national television.
It was this commitment to his performance and his love of shocking the audience that has led to the most fascinating part of the Andy Kauffman story. Tragically, Andy died of lung cancer in 1984. He was 35 years old. Andy had spoken to many people about the idea of faking his own death. Apparently he thought it would be the ultimate practical joke. That’s why so many people, including some who were very close to Andy, refuse to believe that he’s actually dead. Many conspiracy theorists believe that Andy will emerge one day, and reveal that his death was a hoax- the punchline to the world’s biggest practical joke.
I really do believe that Andy is dead. Although, I have to admit that while I was watching the scene that depicts his funeral in the film, I half expected him to rise from the coffin and reveal that it was all just a joke. While I wouldn’t applaud if Andy reappeared now, I do feel a certain level of reverence for him. It’s hard to fathom a person who is so wholeheartedly committed to their craft in the way that Andy was. He was a single-minded performer, and was constantly thinking of ways to make his act bigger and better. He didn’t settle for doing things half-cocked, he always did them with every ounce of his being. And that’s what I adore about Andy Kauffman.