Andy Kaufman: The Midnight Special (the one we watched)
Plus reviews of:
A Great Night for Video with Friends
If ever an evening were made for video watching, last Saturday was it. With Mrs. Worsted out of town, I was one of the single guys once again. Tuckered out from their tomcat shenanigans of Friday night, my friends Even Tone and Dr. Blackie Fernwood were up for a mellow evening with the boys.
Since Handshake Pete and I had noticed the re-release of Andy Kaufman's Midnight Special on video, we'd wanted to see it. Our ongoing admiration of Kaufman's originality far preceded his latest resurgence, but we've been enjoying the opportunities to review his material together. Of late, we caught a showing of I'm From Hollywood and My Breakfast with Blassie (it was Pete's fourth time seeing the latter). I rented the Midnight Special and invited the guys over. Pete brought along his friend, Brad from North Carolina.
Even Tone gave this film Six Little Drops of Kitty Urine on a scale of 3 to 7. His comments were sparse, though he did astutely observe that "we love Andy best when he's cruel."
Dr. Blackie awarded it Three Dogs and a hind quarter (on a scale of four whole dogs). The third dog was the coveted Schnauzer.
Pete assigned the number 10, surrounded by 10 extra stars! He calls it a "good sampler of Andy." And the extra 10 stars were for the "wide-ranging display of Andy's turtlenecks."
Brad from NC gave it 7 stars on a scale of one to ten. Brad found it funny, but "anti-climactic."
Your man, Gooden calls it a 9-1/2 star film for its ability to entertain without bringing up any issues. (My scale ranges from 1 to 10, but most movies actually earn somewhere between 9 and 10 stars because I just love movies so much.)
If you've ever seen Andy Kaufman do his impressions that inevitably culminate in an astonishing Elvis Presley, then the first segment of this video will greet you like an old friend with whom you've spoken so much, that there's nothing left to say. The Andy Kaufman (Add the Word Special), Man on the Moon, and his most famous appearances on Evening at the Improv and Saturday Night Live all start with this same routine, and if you've seen it once... well, I suppose there are always some different nuances each time.
The Presley song usually varies, and he tends to cover the lesser-known tunes, which I find refreshing. In fact, not having heard this song, I wondered if Kaufman might have written it himself as an extremely astute send-up. "No," Pete assured me, "that's a Presley tune."
Wolfman Jack, the show's host, then comes out to rap with Kaufman briefly. Jack's eyes bug way out. Soon after that, brand-new material segment #1 takes place: Andy acts out Little Red Riding Hood using a Howdy Doody doll. This had us laughing. As Brad said, "He's a comedian that never tells a joke. He can make you laugh, though." One reason I found it funny is that I hadn't seen it before.
The other highlight of this video is seeing Tony Clifton, Kaufman's abusive lounge-singing alter ego. Though Pete and I had been aware of Kaufman's stylings at the time he was doing them, neither of us had known about this character before seeing Man on the Moon. So seeing it was a considerable treat. It was inspiring enough to make us all do simultaneous embodiments of Clifton for a good five minutes!
Andy's musical guests, Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon and Slim Whitman are nothing to rave about. "Boom Boom" does "Tallahassee Lassie," one of the goofier 50's ditties. Brad wondered if calling a woman "Lassie," was like calling her a dog. Dr. Blackie postulated that the song was in homage to Cannon's Scottish heritage. Incidentally, Cannon's haircut is a fun 80's artifact, across between Wally George's and Dick Clark's.
Slim does better just by having an imposing presence to match his impressive vocal range. But the best musical number, we all agreed, was Kaufman's own rendition of "It's a Small World." Jim Carrey recreates this in the recent movie. Seeing this original performance drove home Kaufman's unorthodoxy much more effectively than Carrey's interpretation. Kaufman dances around like a rooster, chants the verse in a squeaky singsong, and then plays congas while his backing band, a mean-looking hand-drum section, sings the chorus through scowls.
Then there is a short clip about Andy's wrestling women that's also worth seeing. This special came out at a time when Kaufman was voted off Saturday Night Live by its viewers, having lost popularity because of his "Wrestle-womania." This clip goes into some detail about the reasons Kaufman likes wrestling and likes being the bad guy. In a sense this clip, and the whole special, reads like a PR spin engineered by Andy's agent Karl Shapiro. It's all on the light, friendly, I want-to-be-liked side of comedy. Except Tony Clifton, of course, who purposefully embodies misanthropy.
What we ate while watching
Dr. Blackie and I each had two Staropramens, a Czechoslovakian beer. Brad had one. Pete and Even Tone drank red Calistoga. I had a bag of animal cookies to serve, but since the screening had been postponed from 6 to 8 and my animal cookie jones had hit its peak at 7, I'd already opened the bag, snacked, and gotten over it before the guys arrived. Thus, I served no solid food. Thank goodness we didn't rate my savvy as host!
Summary of Kaufman's Body of Work
If you loved Kaufman back in the 70's and 80's, then you could do with seeing Man on the Moon. It fulfills two valuable roles for Kaufman fans: first, it reviews his chronology with some detail, giving those that were baffled during his career a perspective for understanding or at least mentally filing his work. Second, it recaps all his best bits, including both the ones you've seen dozens of times and the ones you might have missed. Jim Carrey fans will love Carrey, and Carrey detractors will hate Carrey; but whichever you are, it's easy to see that the rubber-faced one is in earnest about faithfully and tenderly portraying his honored predecessor. Points for that.
For newcomers to Kaufman, Man on the Moon will entertain, but may be a shallower experience. Discerning audiences will get an unpleasant eyeful of completely fabricated love scenes with Courtney Love, and may leave the film grumbling. Undiscerning audience will laugh out loud and forget they ever heard the name as soon as the next posthumous John Belushi resurgence occurs.
But let's get back to people who were intrigued by Kaufman back in his heyday. Seek out and rent My Breakfast with Blassie. I agree with Handshake Pete that it's the most subtle, silly, and brilliant piece of work in his oeuvre. In it, Kaufman and wrestler/manager Freddie Blassie dine at a Sambo's Restaurant in LA. Pete says that Kaufman is putting Blassie on, but this is an extremely subtle belief that he has come to only after repeated viewing. As is often the case, Andy's intentions are extremely difficult to discern. That he's mocking My Dinner with Andre is obvious, but it's a red herring. The bigger questions are what is he doing with Blassie, and what is he doing with wrestling?
I'm From Hollywood documents Andy's wrestling career pretty well, and is good for the Kaufman completist. The Andy Kaufman (Add the Word Special), goes over much of the same ground, but also throws in some brand new stuff. As a talk-show host, his awkwardness is never funnier. Heartbeeps is a 70's family comedy that's pretty much forgettable--so much so that all reference to it was left out of Man on the Moon. And there's another film out there somewhere called In God We Trust. Anyone have any info about that? Let me know.
Pete told me that in the book about Kaufman's life, cohort Bob Zmuda cites a screenplay in progress that never found backing before Andy's tragically early death. The screenplay was going to be the life story of Tony Clifton. Oh, man! If only that had been made!
Who are we? ©1998 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. Questions or Comments?