There was clearly something about Andy Kaufman that was unlike any other comic/actor of his generation. A rule-breaking iconoclast, Kaufman blurred the line between performance art and comedy, never seeming to know where the line was between himself and his work. Misunderstood during his lifetime and embraced by a cult of fans that has consistently grown since his premature death from cancer, Kaufman chafed at the reins of the world in which he found so much success: the wild and wacky world of show business. He was a Dadaist in a world in which toilet humor was still all the rage. Imagine being Andy Kaufman . . .
Well, you don't have to imagine, thanks to the plethora of Kaufman bios that are hitting the marketplace today (as well as the biographical movie starring Jim Carrey). Bob Zmuda, Kaufman's lifelong friend and writing partner, tells the complicated, maze-like tale of Kaufman's short life and work (he died at age 36 from a brain tumor) from a very interesting perspective: the back-seat. Clearly, Zmuda wishes that he had been the one to stand in the spotlight but he doesn't want us to think that. Instead, he wants us to believe that he has written a really interesting tell-all that is wrapped in the love with which he served Kaufman's genius for as long as they knew each other. This is not the case, really: You definitely get the sense that Zmuda, who includes so much of his own personal history here, is more interested in revealing himself because he is still alive and has so much to offer, but he can only offer it to us through the guise of his friendship with Kaufman. It makes you uncomfortable, like the clown at work who is too loud to ignore but too unfunny to really enjoy.
I wish that Zmuda had just written a simple, fact-filled tale of Kaufman. He was so weird and wondrously exotic that to write a book using a strange perspective isn't icing on the cake --- it's cake on the cake. Maybe someday someone will purposefully and gently chronicle the man's life and work and let us decide for ourselves what characters we prefer.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 20, 2011