Was This Man a Genius?: Talks with Andy Kaufman
by Julie Hecht
Published by Random House
182 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Still Crazy After All These Years
Reviewed by David Middleton
In 1984 when the media reported that, at the age of 35, Andy Kaufman had died of a rare form of lung cancer, few people -- including the media itself -- believed the news. People speculated that it was just some elaborate hoax perpetrated by the man millions of people knew as Taxi's foreign mechanic, Latka Gravas. We thought that a man who would sing the theme to Mighty Mouse on Saturday Night Live, read The Great Gatsby aloud as part of his comedy act or publicly wrestle women could be capable of any number of crazy tactics and that the faking of his own death would not be beneath him if it meant that he could keep people guessing.
Since then there have been articles, stories and even a movie, all of which have painted a confused portrait of Kaufman. There seems to be little middle ground when discussing both his talent and his mental state. Was he a comic ahead of his time, a complete loon, or both?
The latest entry into this pseudo-psychoanalytical quagmire is Julie Hecht's Was This Man a Genius?: Talks with Andy Kaufman. For an entire year between 1978 and 1979 Hecht talked with Kaufman whenever he was performing in New York and recorded their conversations -- and anything else that happened -- in an attempt to get a story for Harper's Magazine. (The resulting piece was "considered to be too strange to be published.")
Hecht would go to concerts where Kaufman was performing, she would have dinner with him at his parents' home, spend countless and often fruitless hours with him in diners and hotel rooms struggling just to get Andy to spend an hour with her and talk about himself. One hour was all she wanted and what she got for her trouble was a year of abject lunacy.
Throughout the book, crazy as he may or may not be, Kaufman seems to be continuously yanking Hecht's chain, trying to get some reaction out of her, to a point where she literally becomes either creeped out or scared to tears. Yet she still goes back for more -- for the story -- putting herself in situations most people would have backed out of and said the hell with it. One of the first times they meet, Hecht rides in a car, with Kaufman at the wheel, racing down icy streets as he sings and claps along to music on the radio. Another situation has Kaufman and Hecht in Andy's hotel room. Andy instructs Hecht to go into the bathroom while he shuts the door and turns off the light. After her outright refusal and tearful exit, Kaufman comes after her and convinces her to come back into the room, claiming that she "missed out on something great." When Hecht asks what it was, Kaufman refuses to tell her claiming "You should have come if you wanted to see. But you didn't trust me, so you missed it... now you'll never know." Was Andy being mean? Crazy? Well, Hecht was such a spoilsport I don't think I would have told her what it was either.
We watch as Kaufman and his manager and friend Bob Zmuda make her put up with their embarrassing and emotionally nasty antics. Remember when you were a kid and there was always someone being picked on and the more they asked their tormentors to stop it the more they got teased and harassed? That's what happens to Hecht. The more she asks Kaufman to cut it out, the kookier he gets. Its almost as if he turns into what she wants him to be, which makes it difficult to get a true reading of what Kaufman was like when not with Hecht. It feels as though Hecht gets a bit too close to her subject to be completely objective.
At the end of the book, after the year has passed, when Hecht finally gets her hour with Andy -- two hours, in fact -- she wastes it on inane and meaningless banter and questions. After finding out that Kaufman eventually got to run the family film projector when he was seven, and was later asked to run it at other family occasions Hecht asks: "What made them want you to do it? Was there some special way you did it?" Kaufman answers: "You're the first person who ever asked me these questions and they are so stupid I can't believe it! I was asked to run it at Aunt Inger's and then all the others asked because it was enjoyable, okay?"
Was Andy Kaufman a genius? Was This Man A Genius? never really gets around to that: never answers the question and, in fact, it does not offer opinions or insights on much of what Kaufman did. It's really more of a transcription of conversations and events. Sometimes tedious conversations that go nowhere, where Andy is tormenting Hecht or just saying supremely uninteresting stuff, or Hecht and Kaufman are having shouting arguments with Bob Zmuda in the background telling them to shut up already. You are left to form your own conclusions and opinions about Kaufman as a person and a performer.
To be fair, Talks with Andy Kaufman is an entertaining book and I found myself fascinated, though not unlike the onlooker to a gruesome accident scene. But it still left me wondering: what was Andy Kaufman actually like? What kind of thoughts went on behind those big innocent eyes? Who was he really?
I think Andy would have wanted it that way. | May 2001
David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and during reruns of Taxi gets the urge to dance around and play the bongos.