Andy Kaufman was, by all accounts, a difficult person to get to know, and had he not been, it's hard to imagine his comedy working half as well. With Kaufman--famous for his work on Taxi, but legendary for what he did elsewhere--it was always clear that he was making a joke, but never entirely clear who it was on, or even if he was in on it. At one point in Andy Kaufman Revealed!, his writing partner, best friend, and co-conspirator Bob Zmuda describes the real Kaufman as being somewhere unseen working the controls of his body from a bridge deep within his mind. That makes him a particularly tricky subject for a biography, and Zmuda's is one of two timed to coincide with Milos Forman's forthcoming biopic Man On The Moon.
As a biographer, Zmuda suffers from a problem of perspective: In some ways he's too close to Kaufman to write about him, and in others too distant. For many moments in Kaufman's life, he simply wasn't there, not being present during his childhood and barred from the set of Taxi and Heartbeeps as too great a distraction to the easily distracted actor. But taken as a personal reminiscence, Andy Kaufman Revealed! proves both enlightening and entertaining. Kaufman lived his act, and while it's true that if anyone got a chance to know the real Kaufman it's Zmuda, it's more important for the sake of the book that he knew the act. The "revealed" of the title is only half there for the sake of a joke: Zmuda explains what went into such creations as Tony Clifton, Kaufman's wrestling career, and other elaborate pranks that played themselves out in public. It's fascinating material, and it goes a long way toward compensating for the fact that Andy Kaufman Revealed! reads with all the flatness usually associated with ghostwritten memoirs (which it is). Also curious: the tone with which Zmuda addresses Kaufman's sexual exploits and involvement in Transcendental Meditation. Maybe it's co-writer Matthew Scott Hansen's fault, or maybe it's Zmuda's way of doing another joke with Kaufman by parodying tell-all biographies, but the book's passionless, voyeuristic reportage seems less interested in understanding and more interested in exploiting the peculiar aspects of its subject's private life. Only in its closing chapters, which address Kaufman's sudden death from cancer in 1984, does Zmuda let his guard down and portray his friend in terms that are moving as well as entertaining.
Still, Andy Kaufman Revealed! is difficult to put down, providing a compelling look at the life of comedy genius whose comedy and genius were his life.
Zmuda has composed an often hilarious tribute to his best friend that...reveal[s] many of this master trickster's secrets.
NY Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The brilliantly subversive comedian Andy Kaufman is remembered today not only for his ability to make people laugh but also for his unnerving blend of shock humor and high-concept performance art. Fifteen years after Kaufman's death from lung cancer at the age of 35, his close friend and collaborator Zmuda unveils an intimate portrait of the enigmatic performer. In 1972, Zmuda, then a struggling writer/comedian, first saw Kaufman perform at New York's Improv as Foreign Man, a lovable dork, who, after bombing miserably on stage, would burst into a dead-on impersonation of Elvis Presley. Foreign Man would become Kaufman's signature act, leading to regular appearances on Saturday Night Live and a role as Latka on the TV sitcom Taxi. Yet Kaufman, according to Zmuda, often grew bored with celebrity and constantly pushed the comic envelope: inventing an alter ego, the swaggering, foul-mouthed lounge singer Tony Clifton; taking a Hollywood audience out for milk and cookies (a concept for which Zmuda claims credit); going on tour to wrestle college-age women, an idea apparently dreamed up by Kaufman in order to get women to sleep with him. Kaufman's unpredictability was such that audiences never knew whether or not they were in on the joke; when the comedian succumbed to cancer, many wondered whether he was faking it. Zmuda reveals some long-kept secrets--including the truth about the infamous feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler, which landed Kaufman in the hospital. Although Zmuda touches upon Kaufman's obsessive-compulsive behavior and the possibility that he might have exhibited a form of multiple personality disorder, this highly absorbing memoir will be read less for its insights into Kaufman's psyche than for the immediacy with which it recounts his brief but blazing career. (Sept.) FYI: The Andy Kaufman craze continues this fall as Universal Pictures releases the Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon, directed by Milos Forman and starring Jim Carrey. In November, Delacorte will publish Lost in the Fun House: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman by Bill Zehme. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
In the 15 years since his death, Andy Kaufman and his performance-art comedy have become legendary among his peers and the public. Now, with a bio-pic starring Jim Carey opening in December, Kaufman's having a much deserved moment in the sun. Andy Kaufman Revealed! Best Friends Tell
All, by Kaufman's writing partner, Bob Zmuda, with Matthew Scott Hansen, details the brilliance of Kaufman's
careerbeyond playing Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi and regular appearances on Saturday Night Liveas seen by his closest confidant. Kaufman redefined the relationship between performer and audience; he would rather make his audience angry than make it laugh. Or, perhaps, as Carrey says in the book, "Andy was the director and the audience"and we were his performers.
Andy Kaufman's best friend may be taking us for one last ride in his tell-all biography, but his rendition of their shared lunacy is so heartfelt and funny that it hardly matters. All the anecdotes seem kosher, but since most of Zmuda's tales are about himself and Kaufman duping their audiences, it's hard to be absolutely sure. Like much of Kaufman's humor, half the fun is just guessing. The other half is sitting back and letting the action happen. After all, this is the story of a man whose friends didn't even believe he had really died of cancer in 1984, and they had watched him waste away for months. Zmuda, who executive produces HBO's Comic Relief, starts the story off in the early '70s, when he and Kaufman collided on the New York comedy scene. They were nut cases, both of them. Kaufman was the performer, Zmuda was the guy who handled the details. The sheer outrageousness of their exploitsfrom the mysterious screenwriter Zmuda worked for to Kaufman's insatiable libido to the comic's final days trying to beat cancer through psychic surgerymakes for a great read. Neverthelss, Zmuda is a reluctant storyteller. Much of his motivation for revealing secrets is the upcoming movie Man on the Moon (of which he is an executive producer), starring Jim Carrey and directed by Milos Forman, which is going to spill what Kaufman's friends have kept quiet over the years. The revelationssuch as what really went on with the public feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler and who exactly was dressed up as Kaufman's obnoxious alter ego Tony Cliftonare anticlimactic because our interest was never about the truth anyway. The one intriguing mystery that Zmuda can't unpuzzle and thatguides the entire narrative is the mysterious nature of Kaufman's comic gifts. Was he a genius or was he absolutely crazy? Zmuda's story is a riot, but Kaufman took that answer to the grave.
Read an Excerpt
An Excerpt from Andy Kaufman Revealed! by Bob Zmuda
A Foreign Man
It wasn't an act, it was a happening.
As I cozied up to my vodka that night, I watched an array of young, talented unknowns named Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler, Joe Piscopo, Richard Belzer, and Larry David take the Improv's stage. (Larry would later co-create, write, and produce a little show called "Seinfeld.") During breaks between acts, a shaggy-haired young foreigner could be heard from the back of the room begging, then demanding, that Budd Friedman let him on the stage. The strange young man with the odd accent got the attention of everyone in the packed house as he and Friedman went back and forth about his being permitted onstage. I didn't know Budd Friedman, but I thought he was being overly patient with this sad loser.
Finally, near the end of the evening, after numerous noisy discussions between Friedman and the weirdo, the club owner threw up his hands and relented. Taking the microphone, he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together and welcome a visitor from afar, Mr. Andy Kaufman."
I didn't know much about comedy clubs, but I did know that going last was an honor. Still, this kook with the thick, unplaced accent had begged his way on as the closing act. The volleys between Budd Friedman and this guy were themselves worth the price of admission. I also remembered the law of the street for comedians and aspiring actors: pushiness works. I, along with the rest of the audience, sat back and waited for the schnook to bomb.
It didn't take long. Walking out into the spotlight, this goofy guy with eyes wider than the Hudson began with a few extremely lame impressions, or "emetations," as he called them. He started with Archie Bunker, slid into Ed Sullivan, and finished with our president, Tricky Dick Nixon. Even though each "emetation" was worse than the previous one, he emitted a rough charisma that began to grow on me. But despite that, the guy's sorry impressions, exacerbated by his indefinable accent, made me figure Friedman would be reaching for the hook in about two seconds. To my surprise, he didn't, and the man continued with his hopelessly amateurish act, a routine I was beginning to think he'd practiced only slightly in the cabarets of Budapest or Prague.
As his "act" painfully continued, some of the audience could not contain themselves and began snorting. They were not laughing with him, they were laughing at him. Some of the more sensitive shot the laughers disapproving glances, embarrassed by the discomfort this poor yutz had visited on himself and now the congregation. When he announced he was now going to do "de Elbis Presley" there was a collective groan from the house. Given this was 1973, years before Elvis impersonations would be in vogue, nobody gave a rat's ass about Elvis. I looked to Budd Friedman in the back, expecting him to rush forward to put this bonehead out our misery, but he just stood there, arms crossed, calmly awaiting the train wreck.
This poor Iron Curtain comedian then fumbled around in a tired little valise, found a comb, and began raking his hair into an Elvis coif. He reached back in and pulled out some props. He combed his hair again. I had been trying to suppress a laugh, for fear of hurting his feelings, but now I couldn't help it: amazingly, this guy was making the act of combing his hair funny. I started to pull for him at this point, excited that he'd managed to get the audience laughing with him. Suddenly the house lights went down and a single follow-spot illuminated the man on stage. The organized theatrics of that one light instantly indicated that perhaps all was not what it appeared to be.
After a few more hair combs -- just enough to whip the crowd into a laughing frenzy -- this weird young foreigner began an amazing transformation. Accompanied by the strains of Strauss's famous opening from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," he donned a spangled jacket, popped up the generous collar, hefted an acoustic guitar, and I was damned if he wasn't starting to really look like Elvis. Then he curled his lip in that perfect Elvisian arc, and the crowd screamed.
I was asking myself, Who the fuck is this guy? when I sensed that we all may have been had. The classical music segued into a rock 'n' roll riff and he launched into a stage strut in that patented Elvis prowl. It seemed as if the very act of stalking back and forth and bowing repeatedly in such brilliant mimicry was actually conjuring some sort of "Elvis life force" out of the ether. After a few circuits across the stage, arms flourishing in some air karate and those commanding eyes leveled on us, he grabbed the microphone and spoke. But this time, the poor foreign soul, the cringing little man we had admired and mocked for having the guts to stand before us, was gone. The voice was now rich, sultry...and from the Deep South, as in America.
"Thank yeh verra much...you can just stare at me while ah catch mah breath."
My jaw dropped. This was no impression, this was Elvis. Then, as the trademark lip twitch went out of control, he deadpanned, "There's somethin' wrong with mah lip." That brought a big laugh, partly because it was funny, but probably more so because we were all still in shock. I was satisfied that this was pretty impressive -- that his tribute to Elvis was good even if he wasn't really going to sing -- what happened next blew my mind.
Suddenly lights began to flash and he launched into "Treat Me Like a Fool." He was actually singing instead of lip-synching, and he was great. He followed that first number with a killer rendition of "Jailhouse Rock" that brought the house down. At the end of the act, this person, who or whatever he was -- I still wasn't sure -- nodded politely, eyes agog, and said, "Dank you veddy much."