Few things get me more emotional than Andy Kaufman. Even hearing a few words of R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon” makes my eyes well up. I remember watching his early appearances live on Saturday Night Live and the night he got into a fist fight on Fridays. And while I was alive for his descent into pro wrestling mania and his battle with cancer, I don’t remember much of the end. Maybe I didn’t want to process it. Maybe that’s why I believed — to this day — that Andy is just waiting to pull the curtain back on all of us and come back. And maybe not coming back? Perhaps that’s his best trick of all.
Conversely, I’ve never liked Jim Carrey. Unlike Andy, who undermined his own popularity and resisted the mainstream while simultaneously making a living from it, he seemed too eager to please. Too happy to take and take from the blockbuster machine, to be in works that didn’t challenge him. That’s why The Cable Guy surprised me. Here as the buffoon who mugged his way through Dumb and Dumber forcing viewers to contemplate the pain behind the character. He followed that movie with later challenging films like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The Jim Carrey that appears here is not the rubber-faced maniac who seemed to cry out, “Watch me! Love me!” This is a graying, faded, bearded, rougher man who has been through no small degree of personal loss and pain. And this is also a man who willingly gave his identity over to not just Andy Kaufman, but to Andy’s more frightening side, the villainous Tony Clifton.
In a recent Newsweek article, Kaufman’s sister gives some insight: “I think that Jim Carrey was a vessel,” she said. “This may sound a little wooo-hooo, but I do believe he allowed Andy to come through him. I also chose to believe that Andy was coming through him. When he looked at me, I’m not kidding. [It was like] speaking to Andy from the great beyond. I felt like he was coming through as the evolved, astral Andy.”
I’ve watched Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon numerous times. And I’ve read plenty of books, digested plenty of articles and watched every appearance Andy did on TV. I look to him in the way that I extend to few performers: he’s more of a truth-speaking prophet than just a person. Do I give him too much credit? Do I see things in him, do I project magic that he wasn’t able to perform? I think — I fervently believe — that he was something more. A force. Someone who was able to push buttons, upset people and be a real-life wrestling heel while at the same time delivering childlike moments of whimsy and wonder. Just the footage of him inviting everyone to join him for milk and cookies after his Carnegie Hall performance makes me weep openly. It feels too real, too loving, too honest and much too true.
Carrey claims that Andy Kaufman appeared to him and telepathically “tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Sit down. I’ll be doin’ my movie.” He added that “What happened afterward was out of my control.”
The Kaufman family wasn’t happy with Man on the Moon. They felt it presented Andy as a jerk, unlike the person they loved. It was too sappy. Too much a Hollywood story. Michael Kaufman, his brother, takes issue with the role that Bob Zmuda and Lynne Margulies claim they had in his brother’s life. They take special umbrage with the book they wrote in 2014, Andy Kaufman: The Truth Finally, that claims that Andy really is alive and simply waiting to reveal himself.
This September, Jim Carrey caused a stir at a Harper’s Bazaar party where he said that he was there because “I wanted to come to the most meaningless thing I could come to” before ending the interview by claiming that he didn’t really exist. It was the most Kaufman of interviews. And ironic, considering that after twenty years, this footage would finally be shown.
Man on the Moon hits the beats of Andy’s life, but maybe I love it not for the movie that it is, but for the spirit of the man that it resists showing properly. To me, what takes a Kaufman performance beyond a routine and into transcendent bliss is the moment where you are confused. Or where you can see that he’s waiting for the punchline as much as you are. He can’t wait to sing the Mighty Mouse chorus. He is still Foreign Man under all of Elvis’ swagger. He’s a kid in his room wishing he could be Fred Blassie for a day without having to deal with the very real danger Blassie faced, such as 21 stabbing attempts and an acid attack. The film — and Carrey — get very close. And maybe the spirit of Andy is inside Carrey in the film.
But I find more of him in the interview that Carrey gives in this documentary. It feels truer than any of the antics he aped for Forman. Even the moment where he takes off his microphone and says, “We really got into some wild shit here,” you sense that he’s bewildered at the experience, even decades later.
Can anyone else even be Kaufman in a world where everything is seen as fake news and a conspiracy? Where media is already meta and simple tricks like playing with the vertical hold on a TV wouldn’t make sense any longer? If Andy had survived or stayed in the pop culture world, would he remain relevant? Or is the fact that he went away and could still take over another actor’s life remain his best and possibly final trick?
To me, the real difference between Carrey and Kaufman are their signature lines. Carrey found that he wanted to free the audience from concern, to say “Alrighty, then” and become the Hyde to his everyday Jekyll, to unleash the monster within himself and ignore any worry that anyone wouldn’t like him. It no longer mattered. But for all the ways Kaufman chased his audience away, his “thank you very much” was honest and pure, respecting the members of the audience that put up with the insanity and pranks and reality-bending nonsense to come through to the other side, to savor the moment of being entertained, to sit and devour milk and cookies before finding him on the Staten Island Ferry the next morning, where the show would just keep going.