Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown. First Second, 2017. 9781626723160.
(This conversation started with me talking about a British documentary show on Netflix called Embarrassing Bodies. Gene sends his daughter screenshots from it. You should watch it.)
Gene: I’m a recovering pro wrestling fan.
Sarah: Coming into this, I was like, he’s this comedian…
G: Did you like him?
S: Not my favorite but I respected his funny meta-comedy, practical joke sense of humor, but it wasn’t something I tuned in for.
G: I remember watching SNL when I was really little, I used to stay up all night watching TV. (This and letting me read anything I wanted are what I owe my parents for.) I watched the first season when it aired when I was 7. I remember seeing him do the Mighty Mouse thing. It was crazy.
S: I saw an HBO special he did that was all the hits, so I saw all of his famous bits compressed into like an hour.
G: I saw him on Taxi, too. I remember seeing him wrestle women. I remember seeing him apologize to his parents on Letterman.
S: I saw some of those too.
G: Weird, right?
S: Not as weird as Crispin Glover, but weird.
G: Glover never really seems to be having a good time. Andy Kaufman seemed to be having fun.
S: We start in Kaufman’s childhood, and it was funny to see so many of his later bits reflected in his childhood. Obsessed with Elvis, watching Mighty Mouse…and it didn’t feel artificial, it felt like we were finding out this was the kind of kid he was.
G: Right. And the thing that I like about the wrestling parts — he and his brother were huge fans — was that he loved the bad guys.
S: Because they could do anything.
G: There’s a scene where his brother and he are doing some wrestling move and Andy ends up in traction, in the hospital.
There’s a thing about the art in this book, where Box Brown used a texture I haven’t seen him use before — it’s kind of random dots — I really think that worked. (We read electronic galley copies, and we hope this is in the final version.) I’ve always liked his art and how deadpan his stories are, but looking at this he’s gotten much better at drawing real people into his Box Browniverse.
S: It’s his simple style, but obviously a person with emotions and depth.
G: But drawn as only Box Brown would draw it. Young Andy is still him, his parents are recognizable, so are the wrestlers, they’re individuals.
S: And at the same time their noses are triangles!
G: Andy Kaufman came from a working class family near NYC. He loved Buddy Rogers. My favorite moment is when he’s talking about how much he loved it when Rogers kicked another wrestler on a stretcher. But Andy loses his faith in wrestling when Rogers loses — it’s not quite clear if he was taking it seriously, but somehow that quick loss was too much for him to see the character violated in that way.
Then in high school Andy goes into the city and visits Bill Dirks, a guy with three eyes two noses. He was a real guy!
S: And Babatunde Olatunji showing up at his high school. He’s a legendary percussionist. (And later Andy plays the bongos…)
There’s a parallel story of the wrestler Andy ends up working with…Jerry Lawler, in Tennessee.
G: I was like why is this in this book?
S: I knew about that part of his life already, so I knew why, but that parallel development, Lawler as a kid obsessed with wrestling who makes it his career, and gets fairly far into it before realizing the outcomes are predetermined. (His head explodes when he finds out.) It gives background on how wrestling works, how the money works, and the training, and injuries…
G: There’s a lot of respect here, like it doesn’t matter that it’s not real because of all these other cool things about it.
And then somehow Andy gets involved with Transcendental Meditation, he cleans up his life– he had been taking a lot of drugs– and comes up with the character Tony Clifton, the world’s shittiest lounge singer. (I was always confused as to why Clifton was performing after Kaufman died….but Andy gave it to his friend, the comedian Bob Zmuda.)
S: And the Latka accent from Taxi came from a bit he did with no explanation.
G: Even guys at comedy clubs didn’t know he wasn’t some shy foreigner. WTF?
For me the biggest weirdness in the book, stranger than him going off and getting involved in professional wrestling in Tennessee and becoming a hated villain, was when he was a heel and really wrestling women.
S: That was the part that changed how I viewed him. He gets into it because Elvis was into watching films of women wrestle. And because of that he starts doing it. And not just to be a heel and as a performance, but because he’s sexually into it.
G: His long underwear outfit was to hide his arousal.
S: Really strange. That’s where I’m going to bring in my stories about working in the library. (both laugh) How much consent is there in a situation like that? When you don’t know the other person is super into it. We once had a regular caller who wanted us to read news headlines to him over and over and over again, and it was clear to me at least that he was masturbating while this was happening.
G: I have to ask, what kind of headlines?
S: “3 Dead in Car Wreck.” Not obviously sexual. Though there was a guy who wanted Consumer Reports ratings of condoms read to him but only by female staff members. And there was another guy who wanted to talk about noses a lot, the texture of yours…And there was a moment where I was like Oh, this is, I’m his 1-900-Newsheadlines line. I’m not trying to kinkshame but I would say it’s nice if everyone is consenting. Because when you find out later, that’s really gross.