Book: “Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman” by Box Brown
Publishing Info: First Second, February 2018
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: Comedian and performer Andy Kaufman’s resume was impressive—a popular role on the beloved sitcom Taxi, a high-profile stand-up career, and a surprisingly successful stint in professional wrestling. Although he was by all accounts a sensitive and thoughtful person, he’s ironically best remembered for his various contemptible personas, which were so committed and so convincing that all but his closest family and friends were completely taken in.
Why would someone so gentle-natured and sensitive build an entire career seeking the hatred of his audience? What drives a performer to solicit that reaction? With the same nuance and sympathy with which he approached Andre the Giant in his 2014 biography, graphic novelist Box Brown takes on the complex and often hilarious life of Andy Kaufman.
Review: One of my favorite memories of going down to Iowa to visit my grandparents was what my sister and I would do after the rest of the house had gone to bed. We would lie on the pull out couch turned bed, turn on the TV (low so as to not disturb anyone), and watch “Nick at Nite” well into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes our Mom would watch with us at least for a short while, and I remember the night that I first saw Andy Kaufman. “Taxi” was up next on the schedule, and my Mom was visibly excited for it. When an awkward mechanic came on screen and spoke in a strange and high pitched voice, she said to me “That’s Latke. He’s hilarious.” And he was. As I got older I learned a bit more about Andy Kaufman, his beloved characters as well as his not so beloved characters, and I wasn’t totally sure of what to think of him. I knew I thought he was funny. But I also knew I thought he was nuts. “Is This Guy For Real?” is a graphic biography that examines both aspects of Kaufman, from his childhood years until his untimely death from lung cancer.
Brown is probably most known for his graphic biography about Andre the Giant, and this book is kind of a similar set up: it tries to strip down the affectations and public persona that Kaufman had, and show what drove him. It mainly focuses on his wrestling career, in which he first started wrestling women and then eventually started a ‘feud’ with Jerry Lawler, a popular Tennessee wrestler. Kaufman was VERY MUCH a heel, or a villain character, saying sexist shit about women and playing up the ‘Hollywood Elitist’ persona that really pissed off the wrestling fandom, especially those in Tennessee. To the public he was a complete jerk who harassed and abused people for a laugh. It was kind of a pattern in a way, as one of his characters, Tony Clifton the obnoxious lounge singer, was also excessively cruel. But by all accounts from those he was closest to, this was not who he was in his personal life. I think that Brown does a good job of framing his performance art personality by juxtaposing his love for transcendental meditation and yoga. The other ‘well known’ take on Kaufman’s life is the movie “Man on the Moon”, a Milos Foreman biographical story starring Jim Carrey. “Is This Guy For Real” almost feels a bit more subdued, as it is less about the conflict that Kaufman created with his antics, and more about the drive and creativity behind it. When you see the thought process and the need to entertain and create that was behind it, it puts Kaufman in a new light, and makes his untimely death all the more poignant.
What struck me about this book is that it’s main focus is on Kaufman’s wrestling career, which was controversial in many ways. I actually had no idea that his ‘feud’ with Lawler went on for as long as it did, and that they had been hyping each other up from the beginning and all the way up until Kaufman’s illness. We got to see how Lawler started out as well, and how even though he was a heel himself he and Kaufman crafted a role switch for him. I, too, had no clue that Kaufman was so engrossed in wrestling that it probably could have become a second career for him had he not become ill. It doesn’t focus as much on his time on “Taxi”, nor does it touch on the fact he was banned from SNL, or that he had a very public meltdown on the show “Fridays” (the veracity of this meltdown is disputed, however: some say that it was all planned). This book definitely takes the position that while a lot of people, Lawler included, didn’t really ‘get’ Kaufman’s motivations and performances, or his need to perform in such a way, he was ultimately far more self aware and grounded than his reputation would imply, and his relationship with Lawler is evidence of this. I don’t know how I feel about Brown leaving that more controversial stuff out, though. It felt a little dishonest to omit these abrasive and unpleasant facts about him.
I do have to wonder, though, how much of that is actually the case. In the last few pages of this book Brown refers to a conversation he had with Michael Kaufman, Andy’s brother, in which Michael says that he didn’t like “Man on the Moon” because it portrayed Andy as a self centered buffoon who was lost in his own performances, and he didn’t agree with that. I do concede that that film, as much as I like it, definitely had to pull out a narrative of conflict, and that’s a popular angle to take when talking about Kaufman. But Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s comedic partner and close friend, had a HUGE hand in that movie. It kind of hits home that perhaps neither Zmuda NOR Michael really had a grasp on who Kaufman was at his heart. There was also one little ‘fun fact’ that I had a problem with, and it’s only because I have deep feelings about it. Brown says that none of Kaufman’s “Taxi” co-stars were at his funeral, and that’s not true. While most of them didn’t go, thinking he was playing a cruel joke on them, Carol Kane did attend. She played opposite Kaufman on the show, and by all accounts they got along very well. So to erase her from his life like that, even if it was just a side note to make a point about how misunderstood he was, felt wrong.
The artwork is pretty cool too! While Brown’s style is kind of simplistic in some ways, I think that it’s very unique, and just kind of adds to the whimsy that is already abundant.
All in all, “Is This Guy For Real?” was an enjoyable graphic biography about an entertainer that I really love. I feel like I learned more about him, and that perhaps I understand him a little bit better. Maybe. Because who knows with Andy Kaufman?
Rating 8: A poignant and well told biography about one of the strangest comedians of the 20th Century. While it left out some of his more notorious moments, it reveals a side that tends to get lost.
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