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Friday, January 25th, 2013

Making the Strange Journey to Andy Kaufman's Funhouse

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

When it comes to comedy today, audiences are kind of spoiled. With podcasts, cable channels, video sites, and every other vehicle for media out there, you can cater your content to whatever your specific niche is. You like redneck jokes? Try out Larry the Cable Guy's Twitter feed. Prefer smart short films? Above Average is right over here. You like film analysis with a smattering of anti-comedy? Tim Heidecker has a podcast for you. Back in the days of only three TV networks, I hope you liked Bob Hope specials and whoever Johnny had on that night.

That's why Andy Kaufman is so interesting to me. The fact that this man was allowed to coexist in this world and managed to find his audience is so amazing. I'm not taking anything away from him when I say this; he was incredibly talented and had such a profoundly unique voice. But the odds against him succeeding, let alone landing a major role on the hot sitcom Taxi, doing a bunch of bits on the seminal years of Saturday Night Live, or getting his own 90 minute special on ABC, the focus of today's article, must have been infinitesimal.

The Andy Kaufman Special was taped in 1977 but didn't air until August 28, 1979 and takes the viewer into a world that is purely Andy's. It serves as a bit of a greatest hits, compiling many of his classic pieces into one arena, but also veers off into its own unique animal. The show opens with Andy as his Foreign Man character, speaking directly to the audience about how this special came to be in his heavily accented, broken English. "ABC gave me $50,000 to make a special. I was supposed to hire writers and guests, but I was so lazy. I did not do it. I went on vacation and now I don't have any money left. Just for this camera and this chair. …So we will just sit here like this for 90 minutes." Andy sits there nervously for a long beat and insists that this is true. There won't be any special tonight. He waits a little bit longer and then leans in a bit, confiding with the camera. "Now that we have lost the audience and only my friends are watching, I would like to show my special." And just like that, we've entered the world of Andy Kaufman.

The special itself is set up as a pastiche of two separate genres: on the one side, this is a big prime-time variety show special, with massive sets, a studio audience, guests, a band, musical performances and all the trappings of that format. On the other side, Andy keeps referring to this as "Andy's Funhouse." He does call and response songs about animal sounds, treating them like children. He does segments that seem to be geared towards "the boys and girls at home." As was his usual style, you could never be sure what was a bit and what was genuine. While watching, the audience was surely uncertain if there was something wrong with the TV, or if there was something wrong with themselves.

There are three versions of Andy that appear throughout the special; three facets of his personality that appeared in most of his work. The first, we've already been introduced to: Andy the Character. Probably his most famous character, the Foreign Man opens the show for the viewers at home, and he also introduces the special to the studio audience. When he comes out on stage he starts out as this character and does his inept standup routine. "Talking about the terrible things, take my wife please take her. I love my wife very much but she don't know how to cook. One night she make me steak and mashed potato. The night before she make me spaghetti and meatballs. Her cooking is so bad, it's terrible."

The Foreign Man does his impressions of Archie Bunker and Ed Sullivan, which, if you aren't familiar with the bit, involves him saying things that these people would say in his regular voice and accent, setting him up for his last impression of Elvis Presley. "Also Sprach Zarathustra" plays as Foreign Man turns his back to the audience, unsheathes the spangles on his pants, puts on a jacket, does his hair back, and turns his head, revealing the trademark snarl. Andy as Elvis performs "Treat Me Nice," tosses his jacket, his vest, and his turtleneck into the crowd, (revealing that he is wearing a sweatshirt underneath that reads "I Love Grandma") and then returns to his Foreign Man voice: "Thank you very much."

After this, Andy becomes his normal self and tells the audience that everything he's done so far was him just fooling around, and then throws to a commercial. It is here that Andy the Character blurs with a second personae, Andy the Jerk.

Once a moment goes by, Andy suddenly adopts a harsh New Yawk accent, thinking he's off the air, and demands the clothes back from the crowd. A stagehand, played by Andy's longtime friend Bob Zmuda, gives him a glass of water which Andy spits in his face in disgust when he realizes it's tap and not spring water. A stagehand counts down and suddenly Andy is as friendly as can be.

Andy the Jerk appears again in a segment of the show called "The Has-Ben Corner." In it he introduces a former child star named Gail Slobodkin who was in a Broadway production of The Sound of Music before her "career just sort of fizzled into oblivion." She performs a song, and then Andy steps over to interview her, asking her questions such as, "What was it like when you first felt you weren't going to make it in show business?", "How does it feel to be a has-been?" before telling her that he really hopes that she makes it, adding: "Personally, I don't think you will…" Throughout it Gail maintains her composure, but seems a little flummoxed and hurt by the treatment she's receiving. Tragically, according to Bob Zmuda's book, Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman, shortly after this appearance, Gail cited her national television appearance on Andy's special in her suicide note.

Except there was no suicide. Or note. There wasn't even a Gail Slobodkin. It was another TV prank from Kaufman (here's another one from a 1982 episode of Late Night with David Letterman).

Another TV prank (a term that I have simultaneously invented/regretted inventing) happens a little later in the special when the picture begins to flicker for a second. It seems as though something has gone wrong with the horizontal picture on the TV, and then it goes away. Then the flickering comes back. Eventually the issue is acknowledged by Foreign Man who is sitting at home, grows more and more frustrated with his broken TV before throwing to commercial, but a long time passes before Andy lets the audience in on the joke.

The third Kaufman personae is one that pervades the entire undertaking: Andy the Innocent. Throughout the show, Andy acts as though he's speaking with children, singing to them about how the "cow goes moo," and having a midnight snack with them of a peanut butter sandwich ("Can you all say 'peanut butter sandwich?'"), ice cream, and chocolate milk made with their sponsor's product, "Uncle Andy's Chocomarsh."

When Andy invites his guest on to the stage, Cindy Williams from Laverne and Shirley, he portrays a completely out of his depth interviewer. There are huge, 30-second gaps of dead air in between questions. He asks her three separate times about her recent trip to Russia and what Finland was like immediately after she told him. Then the whole thing turns into a series of questions about her costar Penny Marshal before he asks her to perform a song that she hasn't rehearsed and thought had been cancelled. While she doesn't do as convincing a job as straight man as Gail did, she still does a fine job allowing Andy to portray his "aw shucks, I don't know what to do next" guy.

But the best example of Andy the Innocent comes when he introduces the original Howdy Doody to the show, who was last seen on TV in 1960. Andy has a very sincere conversation with Howdy, who is performed here as he was on the original show, by Buffalo Bob Smith. Andy tells Howdy how important he was to him growing up and seems to genuinely choke up when he closes his conversation by saying, "I have so much I wanted to say to you, and I wish we could talk more. I just want you to know I love you, and I wish we could talk more and this is really something to me." But how sincere is it all? We've seen Andy snap back and forth from foreigner to tough guy to impish child: who is he really? Well, not knowing is half the fun. Andy is all of these and none of these at the same time and he revels in keeping the audience guessing.

The fact that two years passed between the filming of this special and it's eventual airing show that ABC probably had some trepidation in airing this unorthodox special. The 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, the fight over the airing of this program is dramatized with one executive telling Andy's manager George Shapiro to "tell Kaufman this network will never air this program." While that fake network executive would eventually be proven wrong, I have to imagine their reaction to the show must have been pretty close to the unhappy faces in the movie. But the stars did align and The Andy Kaufman Special did air (not once, but again on February 29, 1980, edited down to 60 minutes). The influence of Kaufman's work is far reaching and so much of the comedy that we have today is a direct result of his outlandish work. It's astounding that Kaufman was able to get on the air when he did, it's no surprise that he's still remembered fondly to this day.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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