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Thursday, July 25th, 2013

'Andy and His Grandmother': Andy Kaufman Is Still Trying to Mess With You From the Grave

Andy Kaufman is definitely dead. He definitely died at the too-young age of 35 years old of lung cancer in 1984. But because he was a comedian who for the last few years of his life loved to prank people, even smart folks believe that he is still alive. It is the power of Kaufman (and the leg work of Bob Zmuda continually dressing up as Kaufman character Tony Clifton) to keep the ruse going almost thirty years later, but it keeps the spotlight on the practical joke aspect of Andy Kaufman's professional career, and continues to overshadow the other types of comedy he had done. The man did love his Mighty Mouse.

Andy and His Grandmother, a comedy album culled from 82 hours of micro-cassette recordings Kaufman had made from 1977-1979, is an entertaining collection of works that both showcase Andy's earlier, sillier, more innocent material and the very provocative, antagonistic work he was known for once he achieved fame. Vernon Chapman, the co-creator of Wonder Showzenand The Heart, She Holler, and Towlie on South Park, picked out a little over 47 minutes of the tapes to make into as cohesive of a concept work as possible, producing effects on the more ambitious works that were clearly incomplete in their current state. Chapman recruited Bill Hader to provide narration whenever it was necessary.

The album initially humanizes Kaufman. The first few tracks involve recorded conversations with Andy talking about how misleading an album titled Andy and His Grandmother would actually be, and a talk with the woman he had just slept with, espousing the value of aural vérité. Before you start to believe that the whole album will simply be eavesdropping on Kaufman's personal life (which wouldn't have been all that bad really), the tracks that are clearly bits, with sound effects and the like, start. The fact that the audio quality isn't great on any of the completed gags by Kaufman makes them much funnier than they would have been if recorded in a studio, something that the comedian must have been considering. Andy obviously did not get arrested for staying inside a movie theater during the closing credits, unless you weren't paying attention and was doing something else while listening. Of course, this in turn makes the free-for-all, 6+ minute track "Sleep Comedy," which is inundated with Chapman's clean, produced sounds to accompany Kaufman's intended jokes for those that are fast asleep, too distracting.

Some of the bits are legitimately funny, no matter how much or how little you hear the reels of the cassette tape. In "Hookers," Kaufman approaches prostitutes and plays dumb as to what the ladies of the evening actually do. "Andy Can Talk to Animals" is one joke that gets more and more amusing the angrier Kaufman gets, possibly because it's the one time on the record where he is yelling at someone or something other than a cop, or just because he fully committed to yelling at an animal.

One recurring theme of Kaufman's later work is showcased primarily on the final quarter of the album, which focuses on Andy playing two women off of one another, attempting to start a fight between them, and other adventures in making the opposite sex angry for entertainment's sake. It somewhat foreshadows his attempts at provocation for comedic effect in wrestling women in the early eighties, which was intentionally and understandably controversial. Having heard the rest of the album, with its police sirens and phony arguments, the question of whether the women were Kaufman's actual girlfriends and/or lovers or actresses pops up, which adds to the dimensionality of the record. After an angry woman hangs up on Andy, the album concludes with Kaufman and Zmuda talking about how fun it would be to fake someone's death, attempting to perpetuate that myth once again.

Kaufman really seemed obsessed with blurring the line between what's real and what isn't, like on Fridays when he staged a fight or on Letterman when him and Jerry Lawler…staged a fight. And 29 years after his death, he manages to still seem to continue to be obsessed on Andy and His Grandmother, a record that fits right in with the rest of his oeuvre. Whether you find that struggle in deciding if something is based in reality or if it was scripted or not will greatly determine if you are a fan of Andy Kaufman, and the level of enjoyment you'll experience listening to this album.

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