Andy Kaufman has always been an enigma in life and even in death. The man came out of nowhere with a comedy act in 1975 no one had ever seen. His comedy was a form of performance art as he would do the strangest things and never break character even behind the scenes. It’s one reason why so much has been said and written about him over the years. From Jim Carrey’s 1999 film Man on the Moon to recent articles written about how Kaufman may be Donald Trump.
As a big fan of Saturday Night Live I’ve always had a fascination with Andy Kaufman because of his memorable weirdness on that show and it wasn’t until picking up Box Brown’s new graphic novel that I truly began to understand the man.
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
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 does this matter?
This may be one of if not the greatest biopic of Andy Kaufman ever written. It not only peers into his childhood like no other work has done, but it captures the many reasons why his comedy was the way it was. On the surface he may seem weird and even mean spirited, but after reading this book you’ll understand the person underneath it all. There’s also a five page bibliography to back up the history as well as a quick reveal that Andy’s brother was involved in its creation.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
Andy’s fascination with immitating makes you wonder how he would have developed if he grew up today.
There’s so much in this graphic novel I never knew about and it all starts with Andy’s childhood. As a young boy, Brown reveals how Andy was fascinated with TV shows and loved mimicking things he saw. That included Elvis and Mighty Mouse (both of which were big parts of his acts later on). In these early scenes, Brown does a good job revealing how these childhood moments were like training for when he finally ended up on TV. His career didn’t explode overnight by any means, but Brown shows key moments in a natural way that help build up to his eventual appearances at comedy clubs and SNL. What’s fascinating about these parts of the graphic novel is seeing how Andy figured things out and honestly loved them to the point where emulating them was part of his fandom. It’s as if his performances were a natural progression that had to happen due to Andy’s relentless obsession with them.
An even bigger surprise was Andy’s fascination with professional wrestling. He was addicted to watching the matches and all the drama that came with it. This might have been an obvious thing to some given wrestling became a big part of his public performances later on in his career, but I had always just assumed it was something that spun out of wrestling women. Brown reveals however that Andy was enraptured with the heels in wrestling AKA the bad guys. He always wanted them to win and adored them to the point where he wanted to be them.
Further connecting this graphic novel to wrestling is how Brown follows the career of wrestler Jerry Lawler. Lawler is the wrestler Andy Kaufman worked and sparred with at actual wrestling matches in Memphis, Tennessee. He’s also the same guy who famously slapped Andy on the David Letterman show. Brown’s integration of Lawler allows him to focus on the early days of wrestling which acts as an interesting history lesson for those who don’t know a thing about it. What’s interesting about this element of the graphic novel is how the showboating and fake storylines of wrestling are precisely what Andy Kaufman’s routines were about. Since wrestling at the time was far from as popular as it is today Kaufman’s comedic act was an enigma, but in many ways, he owes wrestling for much of the DNA of his act on TV and movies. Vice versa, Andy changed wrestling too as he integrated a celebrity element literally in the ring increasing people’s interest in the sport.
Andy loved wrestling as much as he loved Elvis.
It can’t be perfect can it?
Although it only takes up a single page in this 257-page graphic novel there’s a scene where Brown speaks to Andy Kaufman’s brother about Jim Carrey’s film. It’s interesting to get his take on the film–he didn’t think it did his brother justice–but it also sticks out like a sore thumb. It does set up a sweet ending, but it seems almost unnecessary given how well researched and written this graphic novel is at portraying Andy Kaufman.
Is It Good?
Once you reach the end of this graphic novel you’ll have a newfound appreciation for what Andy Kaufman did but also who he was. Brown captures the kindness of Andy and the sweet nature he embodied that drove him to do his act and gain the audience’s attention. There may never be another comedian like Andy Kaufman and this graphic novel explains why through his unique and very strange journey in achieving public fascination.