“Thank You Very Much” is a documentary about Andy Kaufman that does just what you want it to do. It details Kaufman’s life and career, showcasing all the stage bits he became famous for (and including rare footage of performances and offstage antics that even Kaufman fanatics have never seen). But more than that, the movie understands him. It explores the depths of what Andy Kaufman was about — though that doesn’t mean that we’re subjected to a bunch of talking heads discussing how “conceptual” and punk-the-audience weird he was, and who was the real Andy, anyway?
I mean, there’s some of that (it’s not like Kaufman wasn’t toying with us at every moment, or trying to make you wonder who the real Andy was). But Alex Braverman, the director of “Thank You Very Much,” grasps the fundamental truth of Andy Kaufman: that what he was up to, in his defiant and Dada screwball way, was showbiz. It was theater. He wanted to tickle you, to make you giggle and squirm, and he marshaled those impulses because what he really wanted to do was to make your eyes pop out of your head in a spellbound WTF trance of comic disbelief that became, in the next moment, belief.
More from Variety
Who was the foreign man with the sweet funny accent and the slicked-back hair and no sense of humor? He was so unreal he was real…until he became Elvis Presley. Who was Tony Clifton, the most loathsomely untalented fourth-rate Vegas nightclub comedian you’d ever seen? He was a train wreck of an entertainer for whom abuse and comedy were one, and he was so aggressively not funny that he was a spectacle. Of awfulness that took on a scandalous life of its own. Was he Andy or not Andy? He was both. What Andy Kaufman wanted was to be more entertaining than entertainment, more amazing than entertainment. He was a comedian who was really a magician, a spellbinder, and a transcendent actor.
Comedians, we can all agree, should be funny. They should make us laugh. And though Kaufman was the most crazy-visionary comedian of his time — a kamikaze jester, a stand-up performance artist, a cracked genius of the what-is-reality? put-on — we still think of him, fundamentally, as a knowing clown who found a way to provoke the catharsis of laughter.
Yet as someone who grew up with Andy Kaufman and loved him from the moment I saw him, I have no problem saying that laughing at Kaufman had relatively little to do with what I cherished about him. He rarely reduced me to giggle fits. (Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, and George Carlin, by contrast, did.) You might hear that and say: Okay, I get it, Kaufman was going for something trippier than mere laughter. That’s certainly how people talked about him at the time.
But while Kaufman liked to say that he never told a joke (and therefore wasn’t expecting the kind of on-cue laughter that comedians go for), those who watched him and described him as a surreal TV art prankster crafting stunts to mess with your head were, in a certain way, overstating how strange he was. He wasn’t alienating (except when he stood onstage and read “The Great Gatsby”). He was mesmerizing. His stunt comedy invited you in. What he wanted to do was make your jaw drop, to invest performance situations with an existential charge, a kind of danger. What he was satirizing were the expectations of the audience — the passive, predictable culture of amusing ourselves to death. Every Kaufman routine was, on some level, like the moment when Peter Finch’s Howard Beale takes over the airwaves in “Network.” With Kaufman, television, the narcotic of our time, had the rug pulled out from under it. And so did the audience.
And that was entertainment.
In tracing the development of Kaufman’s act, “Thank You Very Much” includes fascinating footage, like his local-yokel audition for the first season of “Saturday Night Live” (he wound up with a spot on the premiere episode, which launched him), or backstage glimpses of him clowning around with Bob Zmuda, his creative partner in crime, who’s interviewed extensively here, along with other comedians, friends, and romantic partners, who color in the mystery of Andy. (In the late ’70s, Laurie Anderson was a pal who became one of his fake hecklers). “Working for Andy was almost like working for Harry Houdini,” recalls Zmuda. “These were illusions. We wanted the audience to leave the room and say, ‘Was that for real?’ That’s it. That’s all we wanted.”
Much of this terrain has been previously mined, notably in Bill Zehme’s biography “Lost in the Funhouse.” But Braverman does a superb job of spotlighting how traumatic elements of Kaufman’s childhood set the table for his onstage madness. Born in 1949, he grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, and when the grandfather he was incredibly close to suddenly died, his parents told Andy that “Papoo” had gone away on a trip, which made the young Andy feel rejected and abandoned. Tellingly, his trauma was triggered by a spectacular lie, which is just what his act became.
Braverman interviews the Iranian college buddy of Kaufman’s who unknowingly became the basis for the foreign-man character. And the movie colors in how Kaufman’s devotion to transcendental meditation, which saved his life in 1968 when he was a 19-year-old druggie and alcoholic, became one of the keys to his comedy. We see an extraordinary video clip of him at a conference presided over by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, where Kaufman goes up to the mic and asks the Maharishi if anyone would need entertainment in a world where everyone was enlightened.
We see the yin and yang of innocence and rage in Kaufman’s comedy. It’s quite a leap from a clip of his late-’70s TV special in which he interviews the original Howdy Doody, with surreal sincerity, to his several-year-long descent into wrestling women, a one-man over-the-top culture war in which his frothing anti-feminism seemed both a put-on and disarmingly…sincere. Even his friends and supporters, like Marilu Henner from “Taxi,” talk about how much they disliked the wrestling, though by the time Kaufman arrived at his feud with Jerry Lawler, he was using the fakery of wrestling — and the susceptibility of the audience — to satirize the fakery of what America was becoming. The documentary never even points out that the Lawler feud was entirely staged, but that’s because it doesn’t have to. It has already shown us that Andy, like the man hovering above Howdy Doody, was always pulling the strings.
Kaufman had it written into his contract on “Taxi” that Tony Clifton had to appear in one episode. And we hear, in detail (and with candid audiotapes), how when Clifton showed up on the set, showering the cast members with his bile, he left them sputtering with outrage. Danny DiVito, who does great impersonations of Kaufman, brings moments like this one to life, but all we can think is: Couldn’t they take a joke?
The film also chronicles how Kaufman’s career, by the early ’80s, was starting to fall apart. Yet he reveled in the failure. The night he was voted off “Saturday Night Live” (mostly because the producer Dick Ebersol had grown to resent him) counts as one of the lamest moments in that show’s history, but his 1981 appearance on “Fridays,” in which he smashed the fourth wall, stopping a comedy sketch dead in its tracks and scuffling with Michael Richards, was Kaufman at his most brilliant. His scabrous skewering of late-night weekend comedy proved more hypnotic — and funny — than anything on late-night weekend comedy.
“Thank You Very Much” is the second Kaufman documentary to be presented at the Venice Film Festival. The first, in 2017, was Chris Smith’s “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” which chronicled how Jim Carrey went all psycho Method during the shooting of “Man on the Moon.” (He became as possessed with playing Tony Clifton as Kaufman had.) “Man on the Moon” is a great film that never got its due, because its essential perception — that Andy Kaufman, far from simply being the cutting edge of “conceptual” comedy, was an avatar of the entertainment age — turned out to be way ahead of the curve. “Thank You Very Much” makes a similar case for Andy Kaufman, but by stitching every moment of his career into a single vision (he was a showbiz innocent turned entertainment-state guerrilla who wanted comedy to be as deep a dive as mediation), it captures him for a new generation, as well as for the generation that was there but can now appreciate that he saw the future more than they knew.
Best of Variety