Andy Kaufman is alive.
Ultimately, it is irrelevant if he actually still occupies a body and is actively participating in things, because it is obvious just from reading reactions to Monday night’s amazing events at the annual Andy Kaufman Awards that he is still creating conversation and speculation, which seems to have been his lasting legacy.
I’ve read anything i could find today about the incident, and I’m still not sure what to think. I do know that I wish I’d been in the room, and I am hoping someone got this on tape so that we can actually see it at some point. For now, here’s what we know. Every year, there is a talent competition to help foster new comedy voices, and it comes down to a performance/awards show where they pick the winner. This was the ninth annual event, and as part of the ceremony each year, they have a special guest come to speak.
This year, Michael Kaufman was part of the proceedings, and at some point during the evening, things got very, very weird inside the Gotham Comedy Club. To fully understand, you need to know that Andy Kaufman passed away from lung cancer at the age of 35, but before that, he was positively obsessed with the idea of faking his own death. Based not only on what I’ve read over the years but also on dozens if not hundreds of conversations I’ve had with people in and around the LA comedy scene, I would say it’s pretty clear that by any standard mortal definition, Kaufman is deceased. And yet, every few years, there is fresh speculation spurred in many cases by clever appearances by Tony Clifton or some new story told by Bob Zmuda.
With Monday’s event, though, things were taken to a different level, and I’m fascinated by just how something like this comes together. As Michael Kaufman was onstage, someone asked him for what must have been the billionth time if Andy is still alive, and he replied, “I don’t know,” according to the account by Sean L. McCarthy over at The Comic’s Comic:
Michael Kaufman told the audience that while cleaning out Andy’s things after his death in 1984, he found among his many writings an essay about how Andy planned to fake his own death, his literal, figurative and spiritual leaps through meditation, and how he’d eventually reappear on Christmas Eve on 1999 at a particular restaurant that had served him a favored dish years earlier. When that date arrived, Michael said he ventured to the restaurant, asked for a table under one of Andy’s pseudonyms, and waited. He didn’t meet Andy that night, but said someone handed him an envelope, and in that envelope was a letter addressed to Michael from his brother. The letter purported that Andy wanted to go into hiding and live a normal life, that he’d met and fallen in love with a woman and had a daughter, and that he didn’t want Michael or anyone to say anything while their own father was still alive. Andy’s and Michael’s father died this summer. Michael said a young woman called him a month afterward to say that Andy indeed was alive, that he was watching the Andy Kaufman Awards from afar and loving the fact that so many comedians had been inspired by him. When Michael asked the Gotham audience if that young woman had showed up Monday night, a 24-year-old eventually stood up from the back of the room and sheepishly made her way onstage.
Michael asked the audience if they believed her, or him, and said he didn’t know what to make of it all himself.
Killy Dwyer, one of this year’s Andy Kaufman Awards finalists, already had burst into tears while Michael was reading the alleged 1999 letter from Andy.
Dwyer wrote on her Facebook page afterward:
“Ok. Tonight was a mindfuck. Anyone who was there will attest. Andy Kaufman’s daughter came onstage and claimed he was alive. It was. It was…I can’t tell you how it was, only that it was as real as any reality that i’ve seen. and yeah. I get that it is – could – might all be a hoax. That was the only and last thing I want to say. it was fucking fucked up. She said he is alive and that the passing of his father this July made him want to reach out via her- to Michael, Andy’s brother. She said he is watching the award entries, semi and finalists with great interest always. He just wanted to disappear. To be a father. To be an observer. As much as this seems like bullshit as I type it, it was as real as anything I’ve ever seen. There is video. It was chilling, upsetting and absolutely intriguing. I bawled my eyes out. The entire room was freaked out. It was, if nothing else, brilliant. and incredibly mindfuckng and AWESOME.”
Michael escorted the young woman offstage and asked that we respect her privacy.
That is just straight up next level crazy. If it’s not true, then whose joke was it? Do you think Michael Kaufman perpetuates the idea with stories like this? I’ve never heard of him doing it before. Or do we think maybe Bob Zmuda helped put this together? Because he’s not really even mentioned as being at the event on Monday, and I would think he’d want to be there to see it play out.
My favorite idea is that Andy Kaufman actually outlined all of this before his death, right down to the notion of introducing a 24-year-old daughter at some event. It would be so great to eventually learn that he had come up with the notion because I love the idea of him picturing an audience in the year 2013 still (A) caring about him and (B) debating the notion of his mortality. Andy loved to play the long con, but there’s only so long he could personally take a joke considering he passed away at the age of 35.
I love jokes and pranks that take a long time to play out. One of my favorite stories about George Clooney involved a garage sale painting he found while he was driving one afternoon. He said it was the ugliest painting he’d ever seen, and so he bought it, took it home, and then immediately bought a ton of art supplies. He set up a new painting room for himself in his home, put up some incomplete canvasses, and made it look like he’d been painting in there. He then invited over one of his dearest friends, Richard Kind, to tell him about how he’d been learning to paint. He proudly showed off the garage sale find, which he claimed was his very first completed painting, and he made a big deal out of gifting it to Richard, who said how much he liked it.
Here’s the best part: Clooney let Kind hang that painting in his house for a year before he finally confessed the prank, and what makes it truly funny to me is the thought that, for a year, Clooney could go sit at Richard’s house and look up at that horrifying terrible painting on the wall in a place of honor. You have to be better at playing it straight than I am if you’re going to pull off a joke like that. I would have been in tears laughing every single time I saw the painting. There’s no way anyone would have believed me if I’d tried to pass it off as my own, but with Richard, he wanted to believe that Clooney would make a gift of something that personal, and that’s part of any good prank. You have to set people up to reveal some truth about themselves, something that they would do or say or be without your help. Great pranks reveal character, and time is a big part of that.
With this Kaufman story, all you need to do is take a look at how much coverage it got online today to see that, no matter what, Andy wins. Andy turned his own life into such an elaborate hall of mirrors that people are able to believe, no matter how unlikely, that he could have actually faked his death and disappeared and, more importantly, stayed gone. People want to believe it because so much of his art seemed to be building up to that one final epic punchline, and it’s more fun to imagine that he pulled it off than it is to imagine him dying of lung cancer in a Los Angeles hospital just as he was starting to enter the prime creative phase of his career.
Let’s say someone does an independent DNA check on this girl and she turns out to really be Andy Kaufman’s daughter. Would that ruin the fun? If she turns out not to be his daughter, does that put a definitive button on things? At this point, can there be a conclusive answer that everyone would accept?
If the answer is no, then Andy is indeed alive. He’s alive when I hear theaters howling at “Bad Grandpa.” He’s alive when I see four different paparazzi photos exposing four totally different people as being the “real” Banksy. He’s alive in the way the word “reality” has been so permanently and hopelessly perverted by television shows that have nothing to do with reality. He is alive when someone stumbles on a Tim and Eric infomercial at 2:00 in the morning on Adult Swim and has no idea what they’re looking at. He is alive when you see how Neil Hamburger uses Twitter to talk to corporations. He is alive because his comedy, barely commercial when he was alive, has influenced not just other comics, but musicians, filmmakers, writers, and artists of every stripe. Andy Kaufman is alive because Andy Kaufman can’t die at this point.
Even if he did.