Andy Kaufman on tape, like it or not | Comedy Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Andy Kaufman on tape, like it or not

The late, legendary outsider comic's debut album, Andy and His Grandmother, is culled from over 80 hours of recorded material, much of it undoubtedly recorded against someone's will.


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Drawn from 82 hours of microcassette tapes that outsider comedy pioneer Andy Kaufman obsessively recorded between 1977 and '79, Andy and His Grandmother (the album released by Drag City earlier this month) isn't stand-up (not even close) and it isn't wholly improv—at least half the players should be willingly in on the joke for it to even hint at improv. Instead, it's Kaufman wielding a then-fledgling technology to further his whacked-out, diabolical performance art. Narrated by Bill Hader, Andy and His Grandmother features Kaufman, well, fucking with people on tape, mostly to the point of the other party's crippling aggravation—girls he's sleeping with, cabdrivers, hookers, and, of course, his poor grandmother. It's Kaufman doing what he did best: getting rises out of people and stringing them out until he's reached the very precipice of being physically abused.

The album is fascinating—and really a testament to the skill of its curator, comedian Vernon Chatman, whose achievements include credits as a cocreator of the otherworldly Wonder Showzen and as a South Park writer and producer. Kaufman is relentless with the tape recorder, like a dog fixated on a new squeaky toy. He's occasionally cold-mannered and callous, as evidenced by the two-part phone call "(Honk) vs. (Dog) A" and "(Honk) vs. (Dog) B," in which he orchestrates a feud over the phone between two women both vying for his adoration. His manipulation of each is downright cruel—the main victim, who mostly refers to Kaufman as a "fucking scumbag," comes off as nothing short of a stalker—leaving the listener to question Kaufman's warped motives and what the hell he's trying to accomplish by roping others, many of them innocent saps, into his "jokes." But that's the point, right?

There are plenty of irreverent, uncomfortably fun excerpts on Andy and His Grandmother—like when Kaufman lures a prostitute over before saying, dumbfounded, "You want money?" Or when he's recklessly driving the car (no hands!) with his panic-stricken grandmother. But it's the menacing darker material—which gets heavier as the album wears on—that's the most electric. The final track, "I Want Those Tapes"—featuring a conversation with cohort Bob Zmuda about the possible staging of Kaufman's death (a long-alluded-to master hoax some thought Kaufman executed in 1984 when he actually passed away from lung cancer)—is downright eerie.

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