Is This Guy For Real?

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Box Brown, Is This Guy for Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman (First Second, 2018). $19.99, pb.

Growing up in the 1970s there were many things that confused me: OPEC, Watergate, and vinyl jumpsuits being just a few. But nothing confused me more than Andy Kaufman. I mean, I thought I got his early schtick on Saturday Night Live: Foreign Man and his goofy pantomime of the Mighty Mouse theme song. But then in 1979 he did something that just creeped me out: he offered $500 to any woman who would wrestle him, declaring himself the Women’s Wrestling Champion. 

As fans (and confused followers, like myself) know well, Kaufman’s wrestling routine only expanded in his final years, as he got increasingly enmeshed in the Memphis wrestling scene and its leading figure, Jerry “The King” Lawler.  In the years before his death from lung cancer at age 35, Kaufman and Lawler did their routine in Memphis but also on national television on Late Night with David Letterman. I was now beyond confused, unable to determine what was real and what was an act—and more urgently in my teen years, whether I should be outraged or impressed. By the time he died in 1984, I had given up trying to figure it out.

To be clear, Kaufman’s career intersected with my personal coming-of-age at an awkward time, in my teen years as I was trying to articulate a feminist politics that could not be reconciled with his routine as World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion, and as I was in the process of leaving behind the custom van, Elvis Presley, and pro wrestling magazines of my youthful 70s for the literary and art journals I hoped would take me somewhere new. Kaufman’s open love for all I was trying to leave behind was just too hard to take, in part because I of course loved it still, despite my best intentions.

For all these reasons, I was especially looking forward to Box Brown’s biography of Kaufman, knowing if anyone could help me understand a generation later what I could not fathom at age sixteen it was him. Brown is of course a pro wrestling aficionado, and his graphic biography of Andre the Giant is a brilliant distillation not only of its subject but of the wresting culture I had not participated in long enough to ever fully understand. Is This Guy For Real? does precisely what I hoped it would: it provides a thoughtful and compassionate portrait of a man who crafted a unique brand of comedy performance from his unwillingness to make the very choices I was forcing myself to make at the time—between high and low culture, between art and camp. 

There will be readers who will be disappointed by the book’s heavy emphasis on wrestling—and its long digressions into stories of wrestling figures and politics. Taxi, which of course is how the majority of folks at the time first encountered Kaufman and his Foreign Man character, is given remarkably short attention in the book. Clearly for Brown Taxi was never anything more than a job for Kaufman—one that would pay his bills and open up broader national audiences for him to do the kind of avant-camp performances he really cared about. 

Other objections can be raised. It is likely the case that it could have used some editing and pruning, weighing in as it does at over 250 pages. And as is perhaps inevitable with such a long work, there are times when Brown’s minimalist style seems a bit rushed, a bit too minimalist to fully convey the dynamic energy of wrestling or Kaufman himself. 

But for me, this is the book I needed, and by its end I was immensely grateful to finally have an understanding of a performer who had so long mystified me.

Jared Gardner is the editor of Inks and a professor at Ohio State University, where he teaches comics, American lit, and film. His books can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Jared-Gardner/e/B001KHO9K4/