Could Andy Kaufman be pulling off the biggest prank of his exceptionally strange life in comedy, almost 30 years after his death? Vernon Chatman isn't at liberty to say.
Chatman, a fellow comedian perhaps best known for co-creating the cult sketch show Wonder Showzen and as the voice of Towelie on South Park, compiled the brand-new comedy album Andy and His Grandmother. Full of eccentric real-life moments, with the late comedian toying with the minds of his girlfriends, talking to cops and hookers in assumed voices and, yes, chatting with his grandmother, the album was culled from 82 hours of tapes Kaufman recorded for his planned debut album, which never came to pass after his death, reportedly of lung cancer, at age 35.
For years Kaufman fans have insisted that the comedian faked his own death, citing various appearances by his alter ego, the surly lounge singer Tony Clifton, as proof. (Clifton has also been played over the years by Kaufman's close friend and co-conspirator Bob Zmuda.) Chatman, 40, tells Rolling Stone he questioned the validity of Kaufman's death when he became obsessed with the comic while in college, after seeing a double feature of My Breakfast With Blassie and I'm From Hollywood.
"I'm resolved to the not knowing," says Chatman, who just published a parody book, Mindsploitation, with a foreword by Louis C.K. "There was certainly a time when I thought, statistically, it's gotta be more likely he faked it. What other public figure of the last 50 years, if you were to vote, would have faked their own death for entertainment – their own entertainment? What are the chances that guy would also happen to die at 35 of lung cancer, and he was not a smoker?"
Asked whether there was any point during the making of the album when he imagined getting an e-mail from Kaufman himself, Chatman comes up short.
"Honestly, I can't comment as to whether I've gotten any of those," he says. "I signed a thing where I can't comment."
OK, then. It's true that the last track on Andy and His Grandmother features Kaufman and (presumably) Zmuda discussing an angry girlfriend. "Wouldn't it be great if she killed me? And you have the tapes," Kaufman says.
Whether Kaufman was challenging women to wrestle or appearing on The Midnight Special to sing a song that consisted of three words, "I trusted you," repeated relentlessly ("I defy you to find a more punk rock thing than that," says Chatman), his archivist says what made him great was that he made his audience "recalibrate your thoughts about his approach with every project he [did]. Everything he did was so different."
Chatman points to a story Kaufman often told about himself as a child, spending every day at recess delivering an imaginary show to the trees in a grove near the playground. One day a boy came by to retrieve a ball, and stopped to watch. Andy ignored him and kept doing the show. By the end of the week, the whole class was watching their odd-duck classmate do his show.
"You have to admire the purity of his work," says Chatman. "I mean, he was just a laser across anything with any reverence toward any standard . . . anything. He was just truly doing whatever tickled him.
"He does things that can be brutal and mean, cruel, bizarre. But they're all from a very kid-like, innocent place, ironically. That's what makes it hang together. There's no cynicism, even in his calculation and cynicism."
Chatman, who co-created the wackadoodle Adult Swim miniseries The Heart, She Holler (which stars Patton Oswalt and Kristen Schaal and begins its second season later this year), says he did his own tape recording, inspired by Saturday Night Live, when he was in middle school. At camp one summer, he developed a big crush on a high school counselor and sent her one of his tapes.
"I wrote to her and said, 'You're gonna love it – just make sure you mail it back.' She's probably still enjoying it."
Whether or not Kaufman is around to critique Chatman's work on the album, the producer says he tried his best to build the album Andy wanted to make.
"He'd talk about a bit in relation to the album – specifically, how he wanted a moment to be in the album," he says. "I used those as anchors . . . It was an impossible task, but when I could, I tried to discern his general intentions for what this album would have been. Obviously, you can't know."
Or can you?