Welcome to the next installment of IN HIS LIKENESS: The Influences.

Having discussed my love of Muppets, Jim Henson, and more specifically giving a nod to the proverbial camera, I felt the next topic for this series of essays should be about the man who not only stared down the camera, but did it so we could laugh later. Andy Kaufman.

When I was a wee bairn (notice how most of these stories start with childhood. I’m the eternal 12 year old.) Nick At Nite and HA!, the precursor to Comedy Central, would play the original Saturday Night Live episodes. More than one of the models for my sense of humor came from watching those. I don’t want to ruin the surprise on the rest of them, but one in particular threw me for a complete loop. He walked out on stage with an old style phonograph, and listened patiently to the Mighty Mouse theme. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the bit. I didn’t know why it made me laugh though. It was probably because he didn’t say anything before he came on stage. He didn’t say anything afterwards. That was his act. The fumbling and almost lip-synching at the wrong time, the immediate face change as he became the announcer, the fact that he drinks a glass of water during the song as if he was straining himself… it all confused the hell out of me, but there I was cackling away at it.

Something inside me got Andy Kaufman right away. I know a lot of people just don’t get him or, at least, didn’t then. I over-analyzed that sketch for a long time. This all being before the web was an easy commodity, when Andy’s name came up (primarily on Ha!) I would watch with intense wonder. It was where I first saw I’m from Hollywood! which was a retelling of some of Andy’s stranger bits and his stint with Memphis Wrestling. My intrigue grew. How did pissing off a crowd get him jobs? How could he alienate his fans at times? I couldn’t have been the only one that got the joke, he was infamous!

That’s because Andy wasn’t just a comedian. He was a performer. That’s the big distinction. He did it in the character of Andy Kaufman playing Andy Kaufman, but when he was on stage, the end result was to make you feel something. That was the joke to him. People would pay (or watch on TV) to see what weirdness he might throw out there, but the end result was the same. He forced you into a position where you had to feel an emotion, and probably not an emotion you expected; which as far as I’m concerned, is the genius of the act.

I’m not sure if Andy’s work has ultimately inspired anything I’ve done up until this point creatively, but I’m damn sure he has inspired the way I treat an audience. The idea that you go up on stage, or someone lies down with your book, or any number of other creative activities that engage a person is fantastic. The act of pulling them into your personae and characters shows strength in what you do. BUT! The power that you can take laughter, which is a freeing emotion, and transform it into rage, or confusion, only to make the people that trusted you with a portion of their time have to reflect on it later to see that it was all part of the act in the first place… well that’s just brilliant.

From everything I’ve seen and read about Andy Kaufman, the thing about him that I most see in myself, is that there is still magic to be had. There is always a new joke to tell, even if nobody gets it at first.