I’ve always liked comedy. Although that’s like saying I enjoy breathing. There are so many flavours of comedy out there now. Some feel ancient. Some are fresh out the packaging, ready to challenge your expectations. Some of them certainly clash with each other and none of them are to everyone’s taste. Still, there are so many variations on the simple premise of making people laugh. Your tastes can change a lot over the years, but sometimes it’s fun to go back to where the early laughs bloomed.
My comedy tastes started with my parents. They showed me the warmth and wit of old Arthur Askey and Will Hay movies. The pure magic Laurel and Hardy channelled into their every misunderstanding and collision. The slapstick soap operas of Charlie Chaplin. The elegant, destructive brilliance of Buster Keaton.
My favourite, though, was always The Marx Brothers. I love their particular brand of mad anarchy. The manic, silent Harpo with his wild eyes and demon grin. Chico’s onslaught of puns and cons (we’ll duck the racism of his character for now). And then there’s Groucho. His sly, defiant, razor sharp New York drawl had already snuck into my head through the universal translator that is Bugs Bunny. The cigar, the clearly fake moustache and the stooped walk were all soon carved into my brain as I watched Duck Soup over and over again. The bleeding edge speed of his sarcasm was a wonder to behold. He was my favourite victorious outsider.
It fascinated me how I could trace his fans through my favourite comedians and comic creations. Fletcher in Porridge has something of Groucho about him. Sid James, when he was appearing in Hancock’s radio shows and early TV shows, was channelling some of Marx mirth. Hawkeye, in the TV version of MASH, was undoubtedly harnessing that same energy.
When I became a fan of Woody Allen, it didn’t take me long to see the link between the little comedy nerd genius and his icon. Whilst Allen never harnessed the Marx snark, the speed and brilliance of his surreal, intellectual comedy sparkled as a well-honed tribute to his hero.
As I got older, my comedy compass shifted. Sometimes through the influence of friends, sometimes through late night TV surfing. I got into the uncomfortable pleasure of watching Alan Partridge fail and fail again. I saw Chris Morris skewer the world around him whilst he kept a sharp, straight face. Seinfeld and Sanders showed me how America was warping the formula its past masters had perfected. Whilst here Father Ted, Darkplace and Spaced were all merrily making up their own rules, breaking ground for an incoming flood of new comedy.
It was around then that I first heard about Bill Hicks. I was attempting some stand-up for a college show and my tutor wanted me to try and emulate Hicks’ attitude. He lent me Revelations, Hicks’ London live show. In a typical tale of modern Hick’s fandom, I saw a documentary on the man before I got to the funny stuff. It was on before the show and it was called Just a Ride. It told me this fast talking, angry, wildly inventive Texan was a genius we’d lost just as he was getting through to us.
I loved what I found in Hicks. I was a teenager and on the outside of every circle I stood by. His comedy made that okay. In fact, at times, a love of Hicks and whiskey encouraged it.
When I started to read about Bill, I found out he loved Woody Allen. Which linked him back to Groucho Marx, via the stunning route of the reborn Richard Pryor in his case. It seemed all of my comedy heroes kept following that line.
A lot of them still do, apart from one. One who very much stands apart and one I’d drifted away from until recently. In fact, to be fair, I’m still not even sure he is a hero. He’s more of a case study in truly interesting choices.
I first stumbled across Andy Kaufman thanks to the rather lacklustre movie about him. I can’t remember what made me watch it, but Man on the Moon just misses the mark for me. Much like the Lenny Bruce movie that starred Dustin Hoffman, it’s a biopic that gets lost in its own reverence. It becomes fan fic by the end credits. Still, there was something in Kaufman’s message that peaked my interest.
I bought the biography his friend and co-writer, Bob Zmuda, released. The stories in there were truly inspirational, if a little dangerous for a bored mind. Andy’s madness can be catching. He was the anarchist who rebelled against his medium as much as the world around him. That appealed to me. Andy’s flammable mirth was original and, even now, it still feels alien. He would happily turn everyone against him and find it funny all by himself if needs be. He was an audience of one and he never seemed to chase the big money or jobs. Instead they came to him, curious and hoping to harness that indefinable energy. Not that it worked. Kaufman was an agent of chaos. He always tore his success down to build something new. He was a mad alchemist. A wild destruction derby racer and yet, somehow, he was the sweetest kid in the world.
His comedy came from a truly unique blend of innocence and mischief. I couldn’t get enough of the theory behind it. I read whatever I could find on him at the time. In the end, it was only a lack of material that got me looking towards the likes of Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery and the strange annex that is modern alternative comedy.
The other year, I picked up Zmuda’s second book on Kaufman, hoping to rekindle some of that old love. Sadly, this one didn’t work for me. It tried too hard to play on the theory about Kaufman faking his death and that joke definitely died on about page two. It also spent way too long on the making of Man on the Moon. Which I didn’t care about. I was there for Kaufman, not Carrey.
According to Bob, Jim had embodied Kaufman and his alter ego Tony Clifton at all times on set. He’d turned the production into one giant Andy Kaufman show, which nearly brought it crashing to a halt more than once.
It was mildly interesting, but it all felt a little needy to me. I hate to say it, but it felt like a chance to wring one last bucket of money out of an icon. It was getting to that Jeff Buckley level of re-release. Here’s all his radio interviews. Here’s all the live versions where it rained outside. Here’s that version of Grace where he wore his hair slightly different.
Recently, a few people (in real life and podcast land) have talked about the fact that Netflix released a documentary called Jim and Andy, which is basically a long and rather intimate interview with Carrey where he talks about his time filming Man on the Moon and his career to that point. It’s all intercut with footage of him on set, channelling Kaufman.
I’d been a little wary of watching it, but I ended up with some free time on Friday night/Saturday morning, so I gave it a try. The whiskey in my system made the early reactions pretty bitter.
As I kept watching, though, I found myself smiling. Not at the antics. No, I was starting to think I was watching one final Kaufman joke. One I approved of completely. One that was far better than any clingy biography or middle of the road, Hollywood movie.
What if all this footage had been faked? I mean, Kaufman loved finding ways of turning the tables on you and it’s easy enough to fake handheld footage. Ask David Blaine. Besides, this all felt a little too staged to me. The guy playing Andy’s dad starting to treat Jim like his real son. The real family acting as if Jim was possessed by Andy. Also there was something about the people in the background. Danny DeVito looks like he wants to play along, but can’t quite drum up the energy while shooting a movie. Paul Giamatti keeps back, watching things unfold as he waits for his scene. Like the kid in class who’s not joining in and keeping quiet until teacher comes back. Then there’s Bob and Andy’s ex. They crop up over and over again with a glint in their eye and tight rein on their voices. It all makes me think we’re seeing a performance wrapped in a documentary.
The set doesn’t look broken enough for the chaos they’re showing us and Milos Foreman’s angst just seems a little too much like the modern slow burn for me. Once you start thinking like that, it’s hard not to start watching this as the movie they should’ve released. A fake documentary about a move that never quite worked.
Of course, I could be wrong, but who could blame me for looking for one last hidden Kaufman punchline? After all, any Kaufman joke always came with Andy giggling over your shoulder and it was good to think he was there whilst I finished my drink and started my way into an early January weekend. At this time of year, I need a little Kaufman in my heart. Along with a little Hicks in my shoulder and Marx on the tip of my tongue.
It’s the best way to get past the new year blues.