Andy Kaufman: 30 Years After His Death (or Presumed Death)

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 a experimental comedy record from his ramblings, 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 hope maintain Kaufman’s desired attitude, delivery and overall product. The following interviews were conducted for a story published on August 30, 2013 and can be viewed here: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/culture/kaufmans-last-tape

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This second installment of interviews is with compiler and producer of the record, Vernon Chatman. Besides his work on Andy and His Grandmother, Chatman is also known for his work as a standup comedian, television writer (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock Show) and he is currently a producer on Louie C.K.’s FX comedy Louie.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Vernon Chatman

 

So, let’s get into this. How did you get involved? How was this project presented to you?

Dan Koretsky from Drag City just called me up and said, “Hey, I have an interesting project for you.” And he explained the situation: There’s 82 hours of these microcassette tapes and Lynne doesn’t want to go through them, but wants someone to go through them to put together the album that he was sort of working on. It was a daunting, giant project, but I couldn’t resist. It was also wrong. From the outside, my immediate reaction was “of course,” but beyond that, was there something wrong and flawed about this? Especially since I never met him. It was something that seemed impossible to fully succeed at. I like impossible things and I think Andy always had an aura of impossible, and he worked with the impossible as one of his tools and tricks so I just thought, “alright.”

 

What was the reasoning that they ultimately selected you? How taken aback by it were you?

I’ve done some projects, and I’ve done a bunch of comedy that fucks with what is real, and fucking with people aggressively. I did a strange project with Drag City and had a good relationship with them. They knew that I was a guy who did comedy and was interested in the weird ways of putting it together. It was called “Final Flesh.” It was a bizarre movie. I’ve also spent a bunch of time editing over the years—editing as a way of building something.

 

I talked to Lynne a little bit and she said that she would pick up one of the cassettes every now and then and play it, but would you say you are the first person to ever hear these things all the way through in their entirety?

I think so. I think Dan Koretsky listened to them as well. I’m not sure if he listened to the entire thing, but I think that he did. Then it was just me and my editor Rodney. I think we are the only ones who totally went through them. I doubt even Andy himself went back and listened through the tapes. That was one of the main things, just getting a glimpse of somebody on a real time level for such a long period of time is one of the closer ways that you’ll even be able to get a sense of somebody long-dead or long-supposedly-dead was like.

 

Tell me about the time frame. When were these presented to you and how long did you decide to take with them?

It wasn’t a decision to take way too long. I can’t remember, but I’m thinking it was three years ago. It was a long time ago. It took a really long time to go through the tapes and it took a really long time to just start assembling and mixing and trying the various orders and choosing just what ultimately stands out and what’s an interesting blend of what’s there and then trying to spending enough time assessing just what it was that Andy was going for within this. It just took forever.

 

Were you the one who digitized them?

No, I think it was Dan Koretsky or someone working with him who did it. So while he was digitizing it he listened to it a bunch.

 

So were you ever presented with the actual box of tapes?

No. The closest I have to that is just some sort of photocopies of the labels.

 

Yeah, tell me to what extend he annotated the tapes. Were there any notes?

He notated to an extent that made me forget the idea of relying on that at all. It was mostly scribbles and it was just bullet point things to remember. It was clear—I never went to them for reference once I realized the pattern of what was on there. It wasn’t like “Use this! Use This!” There weren’t directions on there. It was pretty clear during the tapes what he was most enthusiastic about, whether he more focused on something that was more presentational or if he was just giddy about what was happening and aggressively driving down the line of torment or whatever kind of comedy he was doing.

 

Were there any permissions that needed to be granted from anyone on the tape?

You know, I don’t know the actual process that it went down, but we bleeped out any names that might have been recognizable to some people, but it doesn’t seem like there’s any issue. Almost everyone on the tapes was very aware of it. The process of the whole experiment wasn’t really a hidden tape recorder thing, it was more of “Hey check this out I have a tape recorder” and dragging them into whatever strange thing he is going to spin around them and get them wrapped up in, the confusion to the point where they forget that there’s a tape recording… or they’re increasingly angry that it’s being done.

 

I didn’t know too much about who was on the tapes, so when I talked to Lynne, I just assumed that she was one of the women on the tape. But I was totally mistaken. So, I guess what was the time frame of when the tapes were recorded? Is there an exact beginning and end?

It was 1977-1979 and I think that there are clear records on the tape where you know what time of year, what month and then there was one time where he had a tape on and he was going around New York City and messing around with people dressed like Santa Claus. Then there was the time he was messing with Santa Claus as a Tony Clifton type of guy. Then he was messing with a Hare Krishna guy. Then on New Years he went to Times Square– he went around making speeches and made an event of the moment. Those were certain moments when we knew where he was. Then there was a time, maybe all of June, so it was 30 days and in the height of his effete, so that tape was on and everywhere he went he would be recognized and he took a month off just to meditate.

 

That being said, was it painful to take certain things out and were there things that you wish made the final cut but would have changed the tone or ideal of his record?

Hopefully the balance is right. There are definitely certain things I went back and listened to and put on a podcast and thought “wow that was funny, why didn’t we put that on the album?” There was a thing where he did a goofy voice and went to the Empire State Building and he was talking like this the whole time and asking silly questions. And he would keep saying “King Kong, King Kong” and he was tormenting people for a really long time, and there were so many great really funny reactions. Lynne even mentioned that she thinks he probably wore a costume for that and put on a big overcoat and glasses. People eventually threw him out. It was really funny, but for me it never quite filled in the picture, you couldn’t really get the sense of the context for it. And there were a few things where he messed with people in the foreign man voice, which is so iconic and people really identify with him. I thought this is exciting and this is before Taxi and he’s doing that character and confusing them, but nothing like that made it either. The weird thing is, the points where he was being the most unlikable, shall we say, I made sure NOT to steer clear of that because it would make him seem unlikable. Sometimes when he’s being really aggressive and pushing people to the point where they’re upset—people he’s close to like friends, and people he’s not close to—I just thought that is so in him, and it’s such a driving point of what makes him so entertaining, and also he so often went into those things that I thought those tapes should offer the side of him that you didn’t get to see in other places. Certainly the intimacy of talking to a woman after he had a one- night-stand with her and pressing her to explain for the tape-recording audience what it was like for her and how she liked the sex, and just dragging her deeper and deeper– asking for the details, insisting it would be great for the album. It was really intense. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t preserving some precious legacy or view of this loveable guy, I just wanted to include what he thought was entertaining, and what I thought was entertaining even if it’s somewhat complicated.

 

That being said, it’s billed as a comedy record. It’s what he would think of as a comedy record, but as far as what you get out of it, it’s almost as much as a documentary of his life being his work. Was that always his concept for the record?

It’s hard to say. I really didn’t want it to be a documentary or a biography as far as a celebration of the man’s life. I wanted it to be a piece of entertainment. He didn’t call himself a comedian, but he certainly thought of himself as an entertainer. He was certainly interested in entertaining. I certainly wouldn’t call this a comedy album because he didn’t call himself a comedian. But he did work in these formats and I think when he says it on the tapes that he’s making an album. I mean he wrote screenplays, he wrote television, he did variety shows, he always worked in familiar formats and worked within his version of what he finds entertaining. In the end you know he did it in the form of wrestling, things people never messed with. This was about following what his intentions were, and his intentions were most clear when he was doing something that was really entertaining and he would get excited about how good it would be on the album. That’s really what I thought should go on the album. Intrinsically that’s going to be a look into how he operates, because the strange line between the shifting line or circle or whatever between his life and his entertainment, and him being in character or out of character, or him being on or off. It’s all of these things. There’s a strange non-line there. That’s part of the entertainment. But in terms of getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse– behind some famous person– that I don’t care about. I don’t think he cared inherently fucking with that stuff.

 

Did he give any cues or even notes to himself on the cassette or is it just material. Like on the record there are dogs and car horns blocking names. Is that something he suggested within the tapes? Or is that something to protect the legalities?

That was totally whatever lawyers got together and thought was the smart thing to do because of these women. So we had to bleep it, but me and Rodney thought lets have something in the spirit of Andy. Even the bleeps are provocative and irritating and childlike and almost insulting to the two women.

 

How much did you labor over sequencing and how to order it to create a mood?

It’s a little bit in the order that it happens chronologically, but mostly the stuff at the beginning was in the very few takes. There are a few things that build upon each other. We have the woman he had the one-night-stand with, and then there’s the other woman that he had a strange relationship with, that he may have been dating, and then the he eventually wants the two women to fight. Those kinds of things build to something. And that woman’s reaction to these tapes… well, I don’t want to give the rest away but, the last track… we went through a lot of versions and we wanted to have a lot of variety.

 

How difficult was it to determine who these people were and if they were reoccurring?

Yeah, it would be a funny thing where he would be having this conversation very early on where he was saying how he needed to get laid and this woman on the phone was naming names and he would say “yeah bring her by, bring her by” and “I’ll have sex with all of them. If you bring 20 women I’ll have sex with all of them” “Really”, “Yeah okay, I’ll set you up,” and he says, “no do it I’m serious.” Then like a minute later you realize that it’s his sister that he’s talking to who is setting him up. So obviously they were very close. He was himself with everybody. He would talk about those kinds of things in the same way. But then again when he talked to his parents he’d call them “mommy” and “daddy”. He’d come home and say “Mommy do you have any ice cream?” It was very, very kid-like. He spent a lot of time talking to his grandma. He was very sweet to her but also loved to push her buttons and drive her crazy, just like you know he did when he was 7. It was precisely the same. You could tell she liked it, but she dreaded it, and you know he was very much of a golden boy with the family. You have this really nutty kid who never changes. He always keeps that childlike sense of messing around his entire life. Then there are other times you can tell it’s he manager George Shapiro, or Bob Zmuda and there are people who I knew or knew what they sounded like. Then there were total strangers. Sometimes he would call a critic that wrote something that he didn’t like or call a fan that had written him a letter and have them come out and spend the day and the next phone call would be from the woman who you hear a lot who was curious why he cancelled plans with her to spend all day with this fan he had never met. He would say, “I made her whole day; I was very important to this girl.”

 

Did you receive or seek out any advice from Lynne or Bob about how to go about doing the record?

I didn’t rule the idea of that out in the beginning. But at the end of the day it felt a little purer to just have it dumped into my head and shake it all out and filter it out. There were questions that I would want to ask, but I would have to put so much in context that the person would have to listen to the whole thing, which they didn’t want to do anyway and it would take forever. So, between me and Rodney, who also listened to everything, we played a lot with the sequencing. It’s a gamble, but it’s not going to be perfect anyway.

 

Did you meet the people at all? Lynne or Bob?

No, I still haven’t. It’s still a very isolated thing. But I am very happy that they liked it, I’m crazily honored that they asked me to do it.

 

Are there any ideas to release or would you be into releasing the whole thing now that it’s digital?

I guess I feel like that’s not my decision. His intentions for the tapes seemed pretty clear, which was to make an album. Other than that, that’s a personal decision. I doubt he’d be against it, but I guess it’s not my call.

 

With the prevalence of this tape recorder don’t you find it strange that it wasn’t in his biographies or mentioned anywhere previously. Do you find that strange? Had you heard of these tapes before this project was presented?

I don’t think so. I don’t remember if it’s ever mentioned in any of his books. It’s 82 hours over the course of 2 years, so it’s not like him and the tape recorder are inseparable. And Lynne wasn’t around at that time. It’s kind of interesting because it was just a fly on the wall or a drop in the bucket of his life years, to me it kind of makes it all the more interesting that it wasn’t some extraordinary event. This is just how he lived. He wasn’t behaving differently with the tape recorder or without it. He could put on a costume and mess with people for two hours whether he had a tape recorder or not.

 

To your knowledge did he ever shop the idea of a record around or was he thinking of doing it after his death?

No, it’s so hard for me to say, but based on what I heard on the tapes, he said he had a record deal with Columbia records. I have no idea if that’s true. I get the idea that it’s not. I don’t know his intentions. There were conversations with his manager where he talks about the tapes in relation to his death and having these tapes as a record of what lead to his death. The intentions of when it’s done or when to do it, I don’t know.

 

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