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Comedy CD Review: Andy Kaufman – ‘Andy and His Grandmother’

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Andy Kaufman’s erratic career played like that of a performance artist more than a comedian. Sure, he had a role on the hit sitcom Taxi as the cuddly foreigner Latka Gravas, a variation of the stage persona that would lip sync to a Mighty Mouse record before launching into a spot-on Elvis impersonation. He would end these performances back in foreigner mode with a heavily accented “Thank you very much.” Kaufman was always playing with identity, to the extent that his public persona was an arrogant, childish jerk, battling wrestlers on David Letterman and taking on the crude Vegas persona of Tony Clifton.

homepage_large.a953e43dSo when Kaufman died in 1984 at the young age of 35, fans hoped and assumed this was another stunt. Thirty years on, we have yet to see the punch line.

Kaufman never released a record in his lifetime, but Drag City has put out Andy and His Grandmother, culled from over 80 hours of tapes. Compiled by comedian Vernon Chatman and edited by Room 237 director Rodney Ascher, Andy and His Grandmother is supposedly anchored around tape-recorded guidelines left by Kaufman and buried in the avalanche of tapes. Anyone looking for the reassuring persona of Kaufman’s foreign man will be disappointed. Conversations with Andy and his grandmother are windows into the late entertainer’s home life, but aren’t very funny despite the elderly woman’s difficulty understanding what a tape recorder is. Kaufman did not really consider himself a comedian, and these tapes bear that out. Much of the set is devoted to awkwardly personal moments, intimate conversations with groupies, and telephone arguments with an ex-girlfriend.

In a conversation at the end of the set, Kaufman and a co-conspirator (possibly Bob Zmuda, who took on the role of Tony Clifton, further blurring the idea of identity and authorship) discuss an angry girlfriend. Kaufman suggests that it would be great if his girlfriend killed him, leaving his friend with the tapes of their combative dialogue. This sounds more intriguing than it is. I loved Andy Kaufman and would have loved to report that his posthumous recordings are not posthumous at all, and that it is a vital addition to Kaufman’s provocative oeuvre. But at this juncture in pop culture history, tell-all tapes of an intimate nature seem like just another episode of reality TV, albeit in CD form. Maybe the times caught up with Kaufman after all. From beyond the grave, his final attempt to annoy and befuddle his audience is an ordinary audio document, barely of interest even to fans.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.