Out of the blue, in the middle of the action, an extremely clever comic actor began counting, very slowly, and with great concentration: one, two, three, four . . . enunciating each of the numbers with the utmost deliberation, as if they had gotten away from him and he was gathering them up again: five, six, seven, eight. . . . When he reached fifteen, the audience began to laugh, and by the time he had slowly, and with greater and greater concentration, made his way up to a hundred, people were falling off their seats. . . .
Yes, cross the border and you hear that fateful laughter. And if you go farther, beyond laughter?
—Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
It is 1:50 on a weekday morning as Andy Kaufman strides into the Improvisation. This is the New York comedy showcase where Kaufman used to be the “house weirdo,” ordering meals and eating them onstage, playing kiddie records, showing home movies, doing everything but telling real jokes. He insists he has never told a real joke onstage. Not on any stage. He just, well, does things. . . .
It has already been a good night for Kaufman. Earlier, he was recognized by a gaggle of pimps in Fascination, a sleazy slice of electronic video-game heaven just off Times Square. Then, riding here in a hansom cab, the driver, a pretty brunette, claimed to be a fan of his from Saturday Night Live. “I read where you gave a show at Carnegie Hall and took the audience out for milk and cookies,” she said. Andy smiled shyly. “Uh-huh. In 1982, I hope to take an audience around the world in an ocean liner. Wanna come?”
By 1982, Kaufman figures to need a restful cruise. This year, he plans to complete his third novel (none published), which he describes as “the story of a man’s life from start to finish.” When ABC’s hit sitcom Taxi (he plays the timid but sex-crazed immigrant mechanic Latka Gravas) lets out for the summer, he’d like to make a ninety-nine-cent national tour “so everybody can afford to see me.” Heartbeeps, in which he costars with Bernadette Peters, will be released later in the year, and he hopes to wrap up a screenplay, The Tony Clifton Story, for Universal. Clifton, a frog-voiced Las Vegas lounge lizard, is the strangest of Kaufman’s strange creations.
Inside the Improv, a male-female comedy team is flailing away in front of a small group of bemused conventioneers. The help is getting out the brooms and mops. Finally, the act finishes. Kaufman wanders onstage and begins lamely sing-songing, accompanied by tiny, mock-festive hops: “A hundred bottles of beer on the wall, a hunnerd bottles of beer. . . .” The audience titters. At ninety-two bottles of beer, chuckles. By seventy-seven, worried glances. Is he really going all the way? The voices change as he starts doing impressions. But the song goes on. George C. Scott sings “Sixty-six bottles of beer on the wall, sixty-six bottles of beer.” Elvis takes us down to fifty-three. Then Kaufman increases the pressure by counting back up for a few bottles, whispering a little, now singing again. Groans and face-rubbing. A few halfhearted boos. No matter. He rolls on. The bartender cracks ice, A phone rings. The crowd is silent now, mesmerized. “Forty-one bottles of beer. . . .”
Two men cover their ears; two others start clapping. One of the regular young comics is down on his knees in front of the stage: “Don’t stop, Andy, I’m gonna cum.” Andy massages the cadence — faster, then slower, then faster again. At fourteen bottles of beer on the wall, he leaves the stage. Suddenly, six people are screaming, “Don’t stop. Please Andy, do it.”
Applause erupts when he returns and completes the ordeal. He struts offstage, pumping his arms like Bruce Jenner in a Wheaties commercial. He’s euphoric. “That was magical,” he says in childlike tones as he treats us to ice cream in an all-night deli. “‘A Hundred Bottles of Beer’ has always been a fantasy of mine. But there’s a little voice that says, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that, that’s breaking all the rules.’ That’s the voice of show business. Then this other little voice says, ‘Try it.’ And most of the time, when the voice comes on and says, ‘No,’ that’s the time it works.” He is speechless for a moment “There are such psychological implications to that song, such great things you can do. Once they’re hooked, they won’t let you stop. Can you imagine?”
You want to be happy for him, this overgrown child, but something holds you back. Yes, almost all of Kaufman’s bits work. Once. He has stumbled onto a secret of comedy: the unexpected is funny. And what could be more unexpected than a comedian coming out for ten minutes and not being funny at all? The problem becomes what to do the next time, when everyone expects you not to be funny for ten minutes. Kaufman’s solution to this problem is not to be funny for twenty minutes, and then for forty minutes. But it doesn’t take a profound comic mind to see where that is leading. Only Kaufman doesn’t seem to notice.
“And when I get them,” he says, his voice, breathless, rising higher, “and they ask for an encore. . . .” The eyes are glazed. “Okay, folks, a thousand bottles of beer on the wall.”