The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman


A cartoonish biography of the eccentric comedian (currently the subject of a Milo— Forman biopic starring Jim Carrey) whose edgy, humorless, often hostile performances were considered avant-garde when he died of cancer at age 35 in 1984. Following Andy Kaufman Revealed!, a memoir by Kaufman sidekick Bob Zmuda (1999), journalist and Sinatra biographer Zehme (The Way You Wear Your Hat, not reviewed) asks whether the comedian’s bizarre characterizations, wrestling matches with women, and peculiar obsessions (transcendental meditation, Elvis Presley, chocolate ice cream, conga drums, sexual marathons with prostitutes) were the work of a rare, iconoclastic genius or the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. The answer, it would seem, is a little of both. In early childhood, Kaufman grew sullen when his Long Island mother gave some of her attention to his two younger siblings. Identifying with his showboating grandfathers and the heroes of children’s TV programs, young Andy began to entertain at neighborhood birthday parties. His success, along with his enthusiasm for all things Elvis, brought him to Manhattan, where he emerged from the city’s comedy clubs to practice his trademark annoying stunts. His reading of The Great Gatsby in an effete British accent, his inept “foreign man” (who later became Latka Grava on the TV sitcom Taxi), and his repugnant Las Vegas lounge-singer character shocked audiences who weren’t sure whether what they were seeing was a bad act or subversively clever performance art. Zehme shows how Kaufman, not content with the fame his TV appearances brought him, alienated many who wanted to help him before he died—a nonsmoking victim of lung cancer—as his fame and fortune were ebbing. Funny and tragic, as any comedian’s story must be—even if Zehme holds his subject at arm’s length, implying that a closer look might be too unsettling for Kaufman’s fans. (First serial excerpt rights to Rolling Stone)

Pub Date: Dec. 5th, 1999
ISBN: 0-385-33371-4
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Delacorte
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1999


NonfictionINTIMATE STRANGERS by Bill Zehme
by Bill Zehme
NonfictionI'M ONLY ONE MAN! by Regis Philbin
by Regis Philbin