Andy Kaufman: 30 Years After His Death

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It was 30 years ago and a day that Andy Kaufman passed away. And despite three decades without him, his legacy lives on through the work of others. He pushed the limits of comedy through both innocence and seeming insanity. Decades ahead of his time, both the edgiest of comics to the most mild-mannered performers of today all seem to take a page from his life’s work– whether they credit him or not.

In honor and remembrance of Andy Kaufman, the great performance artist, comedian and self-proclaimed “song-and-dance man,” on this, the 30th anniversary of his death, I give to you the complete, extensive interview sessions I shared with the major players surrounding the release of last year’s debut and posthumous comedy record, Andy and his Grandmother. Released by Drag City, the LP/CD/MP3 was a collection of over 80 hours of Kaufman source material and ideas recorded on microcassette from 1977-79. Referencing his intent to make an experimental comedy record from his notes-to-self, practical jokes and provocative phone pranks, Rodney Ascher and Vernon Chatman edited the 80-hours down to 48 minutes of strategically arranged soundbites that they hoped maintain Kaufman’s desired attitude, delivery and overall recording aspirations.

Over the next week I will publish three exclusive and unedited interviews with those special people who have had a rare glimpse into the life and work of Andy Kaufman. Our first in-depth conversation is with Andy and His Grandmother editor, Rodney Ascher– one of the only people to have heard all 80 hours of tape that went into the final condensed recording.

Excerpts of the following interviews appeared in a story for Esquire published on August 30, 2013. The edited story can still be seen here: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/culture/kaufmans-last-tape

Enjoy!

 

Hello? Is this Rodney?

Yes it is.

Rodney, this is Nolan calling from Esquire, how are you?

I’m good; I was expecting your call.

So I guess, starting at the top, how did you become part of this project?

Well, in a lot of ways, it was just really good luck. I think my understanding was that Lynne [Andy’s girlfriend at the time of his death] took the tapes to Drag City who had worked with Vernon [comedian and co-editor] before. He clearly had a sensibility that complimented Andy Kaufman. Me and Vernon have some friends in common and at one point were talking about collaborating on a project that never came to be and at one point he started contacting me. I’m not sure why he chose me to be a partner on it. We never worked together except on that, and nothing that got passed around together. I guess he thought that I would get it.

What was your exact role in this? What were your responsibilities in the project?

I was the editor. I was the guy who had all the recording in my computer. Vernon had gone through the tapes and logged most of them. He had indicated which bits seemed liked the best ones. So I would pull them and put them together and find other things that I thought were promising—pre-developed ideas that I thought were interesting that I wanted to put on there. Me and Vernon, and I don’t know if there was anyone else, who listened to all 80-plus hours, but we really took some time with it and we studied it for over a year. Certainly when he sent them over I was working on a graphics project, so I was spending most of my days in Photoshop or doing other work. It took a lot of time and it required a lot of brain. I had five or more hours to a day that day that I was chipping away at pixels. I would notate parts that really stuck with me. In a way I would like for the whole thing to be available streaming some way because it would be a completely different experience. For me it was like time travel. It could be a birthday party where he took his tape recorder with him for three hours it would be on the table and you could hear voices going in and out, and you would find the narrative. There was no point where the characters would be introduced, you would just have to know who they were in the context and maybe twelve hours in you would finally hear somebody’s name. It’s incredibly satisfying. For me, just being able to listen to all 84 hours was the reward for doing the project.

To what degree was there knowledge of these tapes before they came to light? Was there a general knowledge that these tapes existed to anyone outside of his closest friends?

I’m a pretty big Andy Kaufman fan and I’d never heard of them. After I started working on the project I went back and read some of his biographies and you’d never hear about them. And that’s weird to me because it was very clear to listening to the tapes that he always had this recorder with him everywhere, and he was always making himself a pain in the ass with it. So I would have expected if he was doing an interview with his friends or people he worked with in those days they would know he had that tape recorder with him. You know, I don’t have bachelor’s degree in Andy Kaufman outside of this project, but I’ve never come across any reference to it anywhere. Have you?

No, I hadn’t heard anything about it until this project came to light. So when did knowledge of these tapes become available? And who had them?

Well I’ve never spoken to Lynne. I’ve only worked and talked to Vernon. I’ve talked a little bit with the Drag City guys as well. My understanding is that Lynne always had them and was aware of them in general, but never really listened to them all. But, on her to do list, was to get this record that he had intended made out of them. Maybe she just had a casual conversation with someone at the record label. Are you going to talk to Lynne? From what I gather, is that they were always somewhere, maybe in storage and she had the problem with figuring out how to get them out there. Maybe it was on her “to do” list. I think our project started right after that book of letters, you know. So maybe it was on her “to-do” list after that.

Was there any sort of permissions of people involved to get the tapes made available? I guess she would be the main person.

Again, that’s something out of my responsibility. Outside of Vernon producing it and Drag City, I don’t have any ideas what they did. I thought this was amazing and this needs to make it to the record and then there’s Vernon who would say “there’s a part where Andy and Bob were in a taxi cab and we should take that out.” And maybe we would clean up the digressions and put that together. There are maybe 20 tracks on the record, but on the rough cut there were probably 40.

As far as editing, one of the tracks seems spliced together. Is that something that you guys did, or is that something he did before on his own?

With that kind of stuff, we would take cues. There wasn’t a written document on how to put these things together– but what was really interesting is that when he was working with Bob Zmuda, there were parts of the recording where he would say what his vision was in putting these things together. The tapes were all raw, but within them there was a lot of talk about things that he wanted to do, and we would try to follow up with that as close as we could.

What about the horns and the dogs that cover up the characters’ names? Is that something that he wanted to do?

That happened after the fact, but we did it the way that he we thought he would have wanted.

So he wanted to keep the names out of it essentially?

I think– and Vernon would have more to say about it– I think that he wanted to keep an emotional quality to it and this particular set than a particular person. There’s a ton of stuff on the tape that had a lot of documentary value and wasn’t necessarily funny. Vernon had a really good focus and thought that we were here to make the comedy album and that this is recorded for, and not to create, a biographical documentary. I’m sure the tapes have that biographical value to someone who is creating a documentary type of project.

Well, after saying that, would you even say that this could even be billed as a comedy record? It’s not a straightforward comedy record in the traditional sense. Even with Andy pushing his own comedy limits, don’t you think people would even question to what degree this is even a comedy record?

He even talked about that on the record. He talks about it conceptually and that there’s something funny about presenting it as a comedy record while its actually emotionally much more complicated than that. Even the idea of presenting it as a comedy record is part of the joke.

He talks on the recording about perhaps having a deal with Columbia records to release a comedy record. Was there any validity to that?

I heard that multiple times on the record, but I haven’t come across any documentation or paper work– nor have I read anything about that. I don’t know whether that was something to fool people he was documenting or whether there was a contract. I have no idea.

How hard was it when it came to sequencing and segueing each segment into each other? And beyond that, were you trying to keep a certain tone throughout?

We tried a couple of different sequences, and it was about creating an ebb-and-flow in a way. When you talk about the difficulty of it– in the course of the record he talks about making a record called Andy and His Grandmother, and I think there’s another section, which may not have made the record, or it might be in “I Want Those Tapes,” where he throws out another idea for the title of the album. Each of which suggested a different conceptual version of it. Arguably each could have been a separate album. He could have picked one or the other. Also, a lot of the stuff develops chronologically, like the relationships with these women. I think that the sequences, a lot of them, are dictated by the chronology of what happens. There’s also some stuff intermingled with it, like with the evolution of the relationships with the women on the record.

Are there any specific things that didn’t make the record that you’d like to reference? Or things you wish made the record?

A lot of the ambient stuff was really interesting. He was in New York City in 1979 on New Years Eve and he goes through 2 or 3 hours and you hear the jostling of the crowd and the ball drop, and that was another thing that was like time travel. It’s like “Wow, I’m in New York with Andy Kaufman on December 31, 1978,” which wouldn’t have made for any track to listen to—it’s a 3 hour ambient listening– but to me it was amazing. To be able track the travel on the calendar from this day– then he goes back to LA. There were a lot of things that were documented and we know the dates. There was the meditation retreat he went on and the hours before it he would talk about going there and the hours leading up to going there. And then he would get there, so when you listen to it in the long form, you’re tagging along to his life in some ways. And there’s a funny bit that Vernon did on a podcast about a trip to the Empire State Building and he was doing the “Foreign Man’ character, and he was messing with people in character. There were also parts I liked where people would realize who he was, but it never quite made sense that it made it to the record– but for me, it would be very dramatic.

Do you know exact timeline of these tape recordings?

Not off hand, but they were labeled. I believe it was about two years– maybe 1977-79.

It must have been interesting how many times he had to change the tape– because you can’t fit much on those little recorders.

Each tape side was about an hour. They were labeled things like “Tape 22, Side 1.” Sometimes there was an entire hour of nothing. Like sometimes he turned it on and left it on and there would be just a couple of voices and I would listen to the whole thing and see if there was anything on there. It was a mystery factor of what was coming up next. Vernon had a jumpstart on me, so he listened to the first half before I started and then I caught up.  

Did you just get the digital versions or were you able to see the tapes and how it came to Drag City?

I only got the audio files. Somewhere along the way I got to see the JPEG file of the cassettes and the hand-labeled day and cassette number on them.

That was my next question… were they notated at all by Andy? Did he include any notes?

I didn’t see any paperwork or transciption of paperwork, but there are parts where he says, “Oh this part would be really good like this, or I can see it going like this,” because he has these conversations with friends and family about the tapes. There’s that track where he tells his girlfriend, “Hey this conversation would be really great on the record.”

Who is the narrator on this record?

That’s Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live. That was recorded to just put things in context a bit. Conceptually there was something about it being stark, but it was just to help people along a bit. By recording something today by a contemporary, we are not trying to pretend that the narrator was recorded back in the 1970’s. We tried to make that clear.

How did it feel to be one of the first people to hear these recordings?

It was incredibly exciting and a great privilege. A couple of strange accidents resulted in this coming my way, but it was very frustrating because I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. We tried to keep it very quiet until the project came along. So, I was on this time travel with Andy back to the 1970s and it was like seeing an incredible movie or reading an incredible book that nobody else knew existed. And besides Vernon I didn’t and couldn’t talk about it with anyone.

What was the last thing that was on the tapes? Did he do them til the end of his life? Is there a sense of closure at the end?

No, it ends in ‘79 and he died a few years later. There wasn’t a very satisfying ending. He says, “I have now finished the recordings and we are now going to have my friends edit them.” I’m not sure what the last part, but there wasn’t some climatic satisfying ending.

You wonder why he decided to stop if it was such an important part of his life for so long.

Yeah, it could be the question of clearly wanting to make the record, but there was probably also some sort of process he had to take to work on new material. Did he look back at the tapes that were such an important part of his process? Did it become less important? Did he look at the tapes and say, “Jeez, I already have 83 hours, there’s gotta be a record in there somewhere. Either way I didn’t find a tiny bow at the end of it.”  

What do you think the perception or the ultimate goal of these recordings is? It will obviously surprise people. Is this closure?–Or does this prove to be yet another facet that no one knew about in an already complex man?

There’s that and there’s also the great quality of just—you can’t underestimate the great quality of how influential he was and how our culture has gone. You look at comedy today and look at the special that he did for ABC, it looks like what Zach Galifianakis did for “Behind Two Ferns” or some of the fantastic stuff you see on Adult Swim. He did it 30-years-ago, and he didn’t do it on a weird cable channel at midnight. He did it on one of the only networks at the time– on the level of that certain conceptual post-modern sensibility we are still working out permutations of. These tapes take the real life and shows how it mixes into his performance. There’s certainly perhaps an uncomfortable quasi-TMZ quality, but again, that’s where our culture has gone since. There’s also that taxi ride stuff. There’s a Borat-quality to that. He was exploring so many different styles of form that are still relevant at what people are doing today. It was so forward-looking. Like a lot of the best artists, he makes it seem so effortless, and when he does it, it seems so natural and inevitable. Of course he would do it this way because no one else would do it.

More information about Rodney Ascher can be found here: http://www.rodneyascher.com

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