Dir: Alex Braverman | US Doc, 99′
The Safdie Brothers are behind this new documentary that looks back at the life and career of Andy Kaufman, considered one of the most innovative, eccentric and enigmatic performers of his era. A master of manipulation, Kaufman could generate merriment, tears or violent reactions from his audience, even discombobulating his closest friends into a nonplussed silence.
Messing with reality is everything that Andy was about. His art form is his act but – like every artist – he had to come up with something new and this was the magic formula: To have fun. Whether the audience got it, or not, it was up to them.
Documentarian Alex Braverman jumps around a bit in telling Andy’s outlandish story. It unspools like an outburst of mixed emotions; anecdotes and excerpts from amusing chat show interviews. The comedian can’t understand why people laugh at his deadpan silences – but not at his gags. But when he finally lands a Carnegie Hall gig success has arrived.
The best thing about Braverman’s film is that he goes back to Andy’s upbringing to understand why this middle class Jewish entertainer had such a desperate need to live in the past, recreating an eternal childhood. Apparently It all stems from a ‘narcissistic wound’: As a child Andy’s best friend was his grandfather Pappo. The two were inseparable, and sold on each other until grandpa’s death. Andy’s parents didn’t have the heart to tell their son his friend had gone forever, saying Pappo had just gone travelling. But Andy never got over his parents’ deception. Unable to cope with the rejection he created an alternative way of staying forever with Pappo, retreating into an interior life in his bedroom where he invented his own TV station ‘Channel 5’, eventually turning himself into a children’s entertainer and then a fully fledged adult comedian.
Humour was largely situational. Taking a one off job as a waiter Andy would often put on funny voices when serving customers, leaving the diners flummoxed but unsure how to respond. By creating a series of different characters, Andy could dissimulate, accessing the innermost depths of his personality with these diverse guises. The ‘foreign man’ Latka act was one of his most long-running gags. An Elvis impression allowed him to be sexy. The Tony Clifton character allowed him to be an ‘asshole’.
Danny DeVito – one of the main talking heads – talks of his involvement with Andy during the ‘Taxi’ years, But the fact that Clifton actually existed as real person led to a complicated set-too with his ‘alter ego’. Another act featured an old woman who died of a heart attack on stage. But nobody understood whether it was real or not, leading to complaints as Andy’s acts drifted dangerously near the bone.
Personally too his life became fused with fantasy. Often he responded “not necessarily” when confronted with unequivocal facts. Drug addiction took over and, for a while, Andy lived in a local park as a ‘drop-out’. After this troubling episode he managed to bond with his father, who is still alive and provides ballast as a commentator. Andy discovered transcendental meditation and claimed it saved him. He eventually became a teacher of the method.
At one point Laurie Anderson joined him on his stage and became his stooge, often in some very violent violent acts that showcased the brutal face of America in contrast to the saccharine one so often vaunted by the entertainment industry. At this point he had also started a bizarre new act challenging women to wrestle him in the ring where he would perform as the bad guy wrestler, at a time when women’s lib was on the rise. Andy could be great fun in a crowd but he was incapable of emotional intimacy.
Thank You Very Much is entertaining and well put together chronicling the life of a unique performer who was also, like many entertainers, a troubled soul. Braverman certainly gets under Andy’s skin, as much as anyone could, to celebrate a man who was socially unconventional whose skill was performing for an audience who didn’t know it was actually watching a show. MT
VENICE CLASSICS AWARD FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY 2023