Saturday, January 23, 2010

Like Ionesco Doing Stand-Up: Andy Kaufman & Eugene Ionesco

Richard Lewis is often quoted as having said Andy Kaufman’s act was “almost like Ionesco doing stand-up.” This notion is dismissed as misguidedly connecting the very American Kaufman with the European avant-garde in Florian Keller’s study Wrestling with the American Dream, and is chalked up to his contemporaries “struggling to come to terms with his perplexing performances.” (Keller, xii) Bill Zehme, in his Kaufman biography Lost in the Funhouse, introduces the quote with similar connotations of overintellectualization, calling Richard Lewis the “chief intellectual neurotic” of the comedy milieu. (Zehme, 139) Neither seem to seriously consider that Andy Kaufman’s work may actually resemble that of the playwright Eugene Ionesco. Using Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd—the book that coined that term and put Ionesco in league with the likes of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter—I will track some of the similarities between Ionesco and Kaufman.

Ionesco’s first play, The Bald Soprano, sprung from his attempt to learn English. In transcribing “the clichés and truisms of the conversation primer” in which “two married couples solemnly inform… each other of things that must have been obvious to them all along,” Ionesco saw society’s manner of communicating disintegrate “into wild caricature and parody, and in the end language itself disintegrated into disjointed fragments of words.” (Esslin, 110) In reading the sentences from his English primer not for what they could teach him about the language, but for their actual content, the horror and absurdity of modern life was laid bare in front of him. The resulting play that he sculpted from these scraps of “pseudo-clichés and pseudo-truisms” Ionesco called “a parody of a play, a comedy of comedy.” (Esslin, 110) The Bald Soprano is a first step towards what Ionesco sees as “The need to break down the language of society, which ‘is nothing but clichés, empty formulas and slogans.’” (Esslin, 101-102)

Several of Andy Kaufman’s routines similarly reproduce clichés in order to point out their societal effects. His obnoxious ‘Tony Clifton’ character always thanks the audience and producers of the show with standard showbiz platitudes while insulting the former until the latter forces him to leave. That even the cruelest, most grotesque parody of an entertainer still says things like, “I’m really happy to be here,” “You’ve been a great audience,” etc., serves to highlight just how empty such sentiments are—even when they’re coming from the mouth of an apparently sincere and much more likeable, entertainer.

Kaufman’s ‘Foreign Man’ character is a study in the reproduction of stereotypes, a character that wants to fit in so badly that he too closely replicates the standard way of behaving and is thus rendered pitiful. The jokes that he tells are all outdated stand-up standards, but by reproducing them bare and without colorful details, he shows that all such jokes can only ever be variations on cliché. “My wife’s cooking is so bad… it’s terrible” is not a joke, but the stereotypical skeleton upon which the joke is supposed to be hung. When Foreign Man complains that the traffic was so bad it took him an hour and a half to get here, but doesn’t further elaborate, he points out how banal a joke about the traffic would be even if it were funny. Foreign Man’s imitations work in much the same manner. Florian Keller writes, “He does not actually mimic his objects of ridicule, but what he imitates are the very gestures of imitations, that is, he mimics the routine of stand-up ‘impressions.’” (Keller, 101) He is ‘a comedian telling a joke,’ ‘an impressionist,’ in the same way that Tony Clifton is ‘a lounge singer,’ and each character in The Bald Soprano is “the personification of accepted ideas and slogans, the ubiquitous conformist.” (Ionesco qtd. in Esslin, 115)

Some of the other routines performed by the Foreign Man character go even further towards Ionesco’s goal of “breaking down the language of society.” In Limits and Laughter: The Comedy of Lenny Bruce & Andy Kaufman, Victoria Beyer discusses a performance wherein Foreign Man starts the show in hackneyed showbiz fashion by walking through the audience and talking with people here and there on his way to the stage. She remarks, “The absurdity is… the contrast between Kaufman’s standard way of dressing, gesturing and casually chatting with the audience (even his intonation seems familiar, though his words are incomprehensible) on the one hand and the childish gibberish he speaks on the other.” (Beyer, 139) It’s unnecessary for Foreign Man to actually say anything intelligible because this simulation of social niceties and entertainer/audience rapport is as equally empty—and equally sincere—as any actual communication would be in this context. Kaufman once again alludes to the essential ridiculousness of a situation by performing it in a ridiculous manner. Ionesco wrote, “To feel the absurdity of the commonplace and of language—its falseness—is already to have gone beyond it. To go beyond it we must first bury ourselves in it.” (qtd in Esslin, 115) Kaufman’s characters bury themselves in the cliché of social interaction and the blank repetition of stereotype, in order to suggest the possibility of a way out. As Ionesco wrote, “To attack the absurdity (of the human condition) is a way of stating the possibility of non-absurdity. …For where else would there be a point of reference?” (qtd. in Esslin, 164)

In another demonstration of the communicative possibilities of dismantling language, Foreign Man often broke down into tears because he forgot what he was supposed to do next, or because of his expressed confusion over whether the audience was laughing with or at him. His crying would intensify into a hysterical bleating, heightened to maximum effect. It would then become rhythmic as he moved to the conga drum, making music of the overperformed shame of failing to entertain. These emotional histrionics resemble the latter portions of The Bald Soprano, when the parody of our already artificially performed social interactions has reached a melodramatic frenzy.

Ionesco’s original solution for ending the play after it had reached this hysterical pitch was a very Kaufmanesque turn: “Ionesco had planned to let the maid, at the height of the quarrel, announce ‘the Author,’ after which the author would appear, the actors would respectfully step aside and applaud him while the author would approach the footlights with sprightly steps, but suddenly raise his fists and shout at the audience, ‘You bunch of crooks! I’ll get you!’” (Esslin, 112) Kaufman used a variety of means to directly confront the audience—the examples are almost too numerous to cite. His goal often seemed to be to provoke, confront, incite. He almost certainly would have agreed with Ionesco’s assertion that, “An artistic creation is by its very novelty aggressive, spontaneously aggressive; it is directed against the public, against the bulk of the public; it causes indignation by its unusualness, which is itself a form of indignation.” (qtd. in Esslin, 138) Even when he wasn’t telling them they were idiots as Tony Clifton, pulling the rug out from under them with his many tricks and reversals, challenging them to wrestle, etc., Kaufman’s audiences were often left in a state of indignation. What other responses—besides profound befuddlement and anger—could an audience have after paying for the privilege of watching a man silently making carrot juice, displaying a cyst on his neck, or lying perfectly still inside a zipped-up sleeping bag? One stage direction in Ionesco’s play Jack, or the Submission, reads: “All this must produce in the audience a feeling of embarrassment, awkwardness, and shame.” (qtd. in Esslin, 121) Esslin quotes one critic saying Ionesco fails because his work is “unbearable nervously as well as aesthetically,” and rebuts the notion thus: “Yes this is precisely what [it] is supposed to be—unbearable. For in spite of its being laced with a bitter, farcically tragic humor, Ionesco’s is a far harsher convention of the theatre than one based on mere pleasantness.” (Esslin, 148) If one sure thing could be said of Kaufman’s work, it is that is was never meant to be simply a nice way to spend a night at a comedy club. The variety of responses, beyond laughter, intended and elicited by Kaufman is the reason so many feel uncomfortable labeling him as a comedian and continue to seek an alternative way to contextualize his work (a process that continues, of course, even with this article).

The ending Ionesco settled on for The Bald Soprano—after his producers rejected his proposal to storm the stage and scream at the audience—was to reset the play back to the beginning, a move also used in plays by Beckett, Pinter, and Genet, and used again by Ionesco in his second play, The Lesson. Esslin writes that the characteristic plays of the Theatre of the Absurd “have a circular shape, returning to the initial situation, a zero from which the preceding action is seen to be futile, so that it would have made no difference if it had never happened.” (Esslin, 156) This is the formula, too, for that most famous of Foreign Man’s performances: turning into Elvis Presley. After doing a series of non-imitations—which Victoria Beyer points out are only repetitions of the announcement of the imitation—Foreign Man would transform into Elvis. He would sing an entire song, do some characteristic stage patter, throw portions of his clothes into the audience—he would mimic an entire performance, until the audience had forgotten the caterpillar and were fully invested in the butterfly. Then, in an instant, he would revert back to his original state, and as Foreign Man deliver what was both his and Elvis’s catchphrase, “Thank you very much.”

The concept of transformation, and of opposites containing each other’s identities, was an important one to Ionesco. He said that the subject of his play The Picture is “metamorphosis, treated… parodistically to disguise, out of bashfulness, its serious significance.” (qtd. in Esslin, 137) While at university, Ionesco wrote two essays, one lambasting and the other praising the same school of authors. He published them, “side by side, under the title No!, to prove the possibility of holding opposite views on the same subject, and the identity of contraries.” (Esslin, 107) A monologue from another of his plays, Victims of Duty, seems to sum up Ionesco’s thoughts on the subject: “We are not ourselves. Personality doesn’t exist. Within us are only forces that are either contradictory or not contradictory… The characters lose their forms in the formlessness of becoming. Each character is not so much himself as another.” (qtd. in Esslin, 127)

Not only does Kaufman’s work on stage and television continually operate under the assumption of this thesis—the Foreign Man/Elvis performance discussed above, Kaufman’s continual transformations and announcements that “This is the real me”—but he lived his life in much the same way. The vegetarian, Transcendental Meditation-dedicated Andy Kaufman would sublimate his identity into that of the meat-eating, smoking, drinking, Tony Clifton for days at a time, replacing his innocent speech patterns and quiet nature with a gruff, profanity-inflected loudmouth. Kaufman needed Clifton: each proved the existence of the other. Ionesco wrote, “Two fundamental states of consciousness are at the root of all my plays. …These two basic feelings are those of evanescence on the one hand, and heaviness on the other; of emptiness and of an overabundance of presence; of the unreal transparency of the world, and of its opaqueness.” (qtd. in Esslin, 128) One state of being isn’t enough—only when an identity is coupled with its antithesis can we glimpse the true state of being. Esslin puts it simply: “For Ionesco, the author of No!, that early essay on the identity of opposites, it would not be difficult to hold a belief and to parody it at the same time.” (Esslin, 128)

Kaufman’s and Ionesco’s conception of the comic are both rooted in an essential conflation of comedy and the horrors produced by modern life. Ionesco wrote, “I have never been able to understand the difference between the comic and the tragic. As the comic is the intuition of the absurd, it seems to me more conducive to despair than the tragic.” (qtd. in Esslin, 158) Over and over in Zehme’s biography, as well as in Bob Zmuda’s insider portrait Andy Kaufman Revealed!, Kaufman is quoted as saying that he didn’t understand why people laughed at a lot of the things he did. He famously asserted that he never told a joke in his professional life and insisted he was a “song and dance man.” The truth of the matter is that he did want people to laugh—amongst many other responses. Victoria Beyer wrote that, “Kaufman’s strategies of humor are meant to have the audiences experience a variety of emotions, ranging from delight and feeling deeply moved, to boredom, pity, feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed, or even angry, ashamed and insulted.” (Beyer, 138) One of the funniest things about his material is that the issues he was confronting are dead serious. The same holds true for Ionesco, to whom I shall give the last word: “Humor makes us conscious, with a free lucidity, of the tragic or desultory condition of man. …To become conscious of what is horrifying and to laugh at it is to become master of that which is horrifying.” (qtd. in Esslin,158)

Works cited.

Beyer, Victoria. Limits and Laughter: The Comedy of Lenny Bruce and Kaufman. Doctoral thesis, University of Duisberg-Essen: 2007.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd, revised edition. Anchor Books, New York: 1969.
Keller, Florian. Andy Kaufman: Wrestling with the American Dream. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 2005.
Zehme, Bill. Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman. Delacorte Press, New York: 1999.

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