Monday, December 20, 2010

Andy Kaufman vs. Tom Green

A thought exercise was recently solicited to my cultural radar: Andy Kaufman vs. Tom Green?

A well regarded gentleman in my aquaintance responded with the effect of--I don't see why either of them are remotely praise-worthy, and if someone on this forum wishes to educate me in a civilized manner, that would be welcomed (I may have hallucoread that last part).

The meat of this gentleman's feelings on the matter literally read as follows: "Someone should explain to me what part of dressing up like Elvis, wrestling chicks, or acting like an 11-year-old I should find in any way entertaining or amusing."
Lets first examine the Kaufman portion of this: dressing up like Elvis, and wrestling chicks.

Kaufman Part 1: Dressing up like Elvis.
Kaufman's Elvis was considered one of the very best impersonations in the country for thoroughly (and scathingly) nailing the king. But a satirical and dead-on impersonation alone does not (many would say) a genius make. His nightclub act centered around that timid foreign-guy character who was a (calculated) failure at entertaining. During an era where impersonation comedy was blowing up, foreign-accent-guy (later known as Latka on Taxi) would set up comically bad impersonations by saying, "...and now my impersonation of Dick Clark... ...Hi I'm Dick Clark" in the same monotone foreign accent. It was a moderately amusing gag and would get some chuckles but he would repeat the bit until the audience lost interest and he stopped getting any response. Then after he had started "tanking", he would set up the gag once more, Latka would say, "And now my impersonation of Elvis Presley". He would then inexplicably transform into the most electrifying Elvis the audience had ever seen, complete with unveiled costume and full musical numbers for sometimes ten minutes on end. At the finish of the Elvis shtick, he would revert back to Latka and give a timid, in-character "dank you veddy much..."

I can understand totally when people say, "you had to be there". No doubt about it, it was an old-fashioned nightclub act at heart. But Kaufman was the very first (that history remembered) to get as conceptual and to take the kinds of risks he did.

Kaufman Part 2: Wrestling women.
This is admittedly less groundbreaking, but still has merit in the realm of TV entertainment. He was a big wrestling fan, and after becoming a TV star, wanted to use his fame as a way to get involved with the WWF. And since everybody needs a gimmick, he simply chose gimmick of "Bombastic guy who's cocky despite the fact that he only wrestles women." Then, when he inevitably gets his ass handed to him by whoever the alpha-male wrestler of the day was, it was a more effective heel-squash than the usual TV crossover. It wasn't exactly re-inventing the wheel, but he wanted to participate in the WWF, and came up with an appropriate gimmick which suited both pro-wrestling kayfabe, as well as the greater arch of comedy.

3) Other reasons to enjoy Andy Kaufman
While these were the only two specific examples given of "why is that funny?", one can presume that the other aspects of Kaufman's career were similarly unimpressive to my online associate. The prevailing themes of the Kaufman legacy which lead think-tankers to compare him to Tom Green are those of endless fucking-with-people.

Since many thought that Tony Clifton--one of his costume and makeup-heavy alter-egos--was actually a different person, Tony would show up at nightclubs as Kaufman's opening act (and sometimes at actual TV tapings without filling in the producers) and slam Kaufman, often making an awkward scene. He used Clifton like a surrogate Manchurian candidate, going in at the expense of his own good name (Clifton's) to create that "Live Trainwreck" feeling that can't be conjured within the context of an act. Imagine being at a nightclub or taping of taxi and one of the stars' notorious buddies has a crazy meltdown and needs to be removed! [For logistical reasons, Clifton would sometimes be played by his in-on-the-joke manager]. I don't know if you've ever had a front-row ticket when shit really breaks down, but I remember my old sales-office job--a lady who was being given a hard time by a customer threw the phone and ran out of the huge sales-room clutching her hair and sobbing. As much as I had no ill-will for her, nor do I generally wish torment upon people in day-to-day situations, you better believe that nothing re-affirms your existence on this planet like a severe routine-breaking (preferably loud) episode. Kaufman manufactured synthetic confrontations in order to create a field of meta-entertainment, and nothing quite like it came along for 20 years with Punk'd--or, arguably, our next pisser-offer of the squares... Tom Green.

Tom Green: Acting like an 11-Year-Old

[It should be noted that since writing this piece, I have interviewed Tom Green, and have come to find the following opinions somewhat obsolete. I won't strike them, though, because they probably offer a worthwhile context for how Tom Green might commonly be viewed by his fans.]

The aforementioned field of meta-entertainment that Kaufman created by simulating ugly meltdowns and other pranks is generally only truly appreciated as an organic occurrence. If there is knowledge that a prank is being staged, it loses most of its value.

Take a look at youtube's greatest freakout ever. Do it.

Its entertainment value stems from the context of the presentation that it's entirely genuine. If it were found to be staged for the purpose of being a piece of entertainment, it would be stupid. Some youtube videos (including this one) are considered so entertaining that they seem too good to be true, and are accused of being staged. [Greatest freakout ever went on Tosh.O to defend its reputation (sorta).] At this point, who knows if it's real. To me, the very suggestion that it might be staged chips away at my enjoyment of it. [I had initially never doubted it, probably because growing up I had a sibling who acted like this often.] However, the very suggestion that it might be real makes it always enjoyable to some extent.

So, you all know--regardless of how many times you've been on the receiving end of a prank call--the moment you realize it's a prank, the entire context changes. The over-all relevance of the situation deflates down from an 8 to a 2. I like to keep this point in mind when comparing Tom Green to Andy Kaufman. And it is within this context that Andy Kaufman is a way more brilliant and important artist than Tom Green.

But I like Tom Green better.

Andy Kaufman was a creator. He invented entire worlds, emotions, he took risks like punishing bad audiences with reading The Great Gatsby (some of these stunts only paid off for his own lol's). He's everything a guy like me might aspire to be.

But Tom Green is a pure lusus naturae phenomenon. Tom Green's pranks generally had no twist, no particularly inspired architecture. To be perfectly honest, Tom Green is an idiot.

And he unleashed his idiocy upon an unsuspecting world with no particular agenda and with very little in the way of tongue-in-cheek. Unlike Kaufman, Green's pranks never went anywhere, they rarely proved any points and they had no significant outcome other than: a properly motivated moron can get a TV show and a movie.

This might be all well and good, but it does little to assuage my affiliate who wonders why he should enjoy someone "acting like an 11 year old".

Well, to me it is axiomatic that a full grown adult acting like an 11 year old is funny. It's funny for many reasons, most of which were never destined to be articulated. But since my particular delusions of grandeur involve articulating the beastly whims of the modern soul, I'm going to take a crack at it:

A full grown adult acting like an 11 year old is funny because a part of our adult brain occasionally wonders, "what would the world be like if we never matured?" We wonder how ridiculous it would be if we never experienced an emotional adolescence and felt uncompelled by society--free to indulge the non-sequitorial impulses that most humans have learned to completely ignore by around the age 24. Then you watch Tom Green and go, "yikes...".

This is why movies like Jack and Big, shows like "Kids say the darnedest things" and even "America's Funniest Video's" are popular, because there's something so poetically galactic about the unbridled asininity of pre-adolescence.

And his particular market of comedy--adults as kids--is quite popular. But one thing Tom Green fans realize about him that can't be said about the Jackass guys or Ashton Kutcher or Bam or Andy Milanokis--Tom Green's show was pure, uncalculated 11 year old antics. The fact that his shticks had no actual substance and were uninformed by any educated sense of comedy is exactly what made 50:50 percent of them either boring or transcendent.

I watched an episode the other day (yes I still watch it pretty often) which began with Green running around to everybody in the studio audience with an empty trashbag, screaming at them to give him their left shoes. After he got the left shoe from everybody in his small studio audience, he sprinted full speed out of the studio and out of the building. A camera followed him out into the streets, where he tied the bag of shoes to the back of a cab, gave the hood a smack, and the cab drove off into the night.

I'm pretty sure I got grounded for something similar when I was 11. Certaintly, the audience got their shoes back, which means that this is an obviously stupid bit of programing. But Green still did it. Because with Green, there is no programming.

Another episode begins with Green; straight-man/sidekick Glenn Humplik and a third guy staring at a pile of at least 20 donuts. After a few seconds they all begin cramming as many full donuts into their mouths as possible. They race to force every donut into their face (Humplik doing most of the legwork, Green and other-dude having a chuckle at his expense), and in the end, they don't quite succeed. They just sorta end up laughing through donut-plush mouths and high-fiving each other.

11? Hell, I think I used to do this in college.

Freddy Got Fingered took everything one step further. It was an entire movie about the importance of remaining an 11 year old into your adult years. It's a fairy tale about how being an obnoxious jack-ass can get you the dream job, the girl, the fame and the money. And it's filled start-to-end with truly bewildering gibberish, the likes of which will never be released by a major distributor again. The closest any movie (seen by more than a hundred people) came to imitating the quality of FGF's absurdity was 2005's Napoleon Dynamite. ND did a similarly thorough job of glorifying permanent residence inside a fantasy world. And while these films don't represent the real world as it exists today, they pose a challenge: they represent the world as it could exist, if all the negative-space within a rendered 3-D society were suitably explored by pious battalions of maniacal, foolish zealots.

Green's canon has a million examples of gags that, to read them on paper, come off as pointless nonsense. But watching them come alive after TV AND FILM STUDIOS PRODUCED IT gives one the feeling... that pointless nonsense may be a prevailing wisdom of a generation.

I can appreciate how this particular essence is not everybody's cup of tea, and comedy is certainly subjective. My electronic correspondent is not wrong for not enjoying these cosmic fools, but he was incorrect for not finding them enjoyable--meaning literally: able to be enjoyed.

Signing off, Green successfully captured his purity of essence in one of many rap songs, titled "I'm an Idiot". He could be lying, it could all be a massive character calculation. It would be the most elaborate and thought-out adornment of stupidity ever. But I doubt it. His antics are too random and simply too non-entertaining out of context for them not to be brilliantly effective in-context.









3 comments:

Greg said...

Okay, I'll bite (I'm the guy that wanted to know what was so good about these two comedians).

My first thought, after reading this long and in-depth, well-thought-out post was that I just clearly don't find either of them funny. Not a single thing you described by Tom Green even seemed like it could be funny if I were there and saw it. I just don't think unbridled immaturity is to be prized, since it's so often visible unintentionally for free.

But that's not entirely right, I think, since I have found some things by Jackass funny.

So I started thinking about Kaufman, and I'm willing to just cut him the conceptual check. Nothing he did was exactly funny, but that doesn't make it not important. He might just be one of those guys who we agree to culturally fellate because he seems influential, even if he wasn't exactly great at what he was supposedly doing (in this case, comedy).

But that's not totally it, either, for me, because I love Warhol, who's probably the perfect example of that type of figure.

So what is it that makes these two so incomprehensible to me?

And I think I know what it is, in part because you alluded to it so heavily in this post.

I don't find cruelty funny.

It isn't funny to me when Andy Kaufman makes an entire room full of people really uncomfortable by getting into a fight with his manager. Nor is it funny to me when Tom Green steals people's shoes or embarrasses his mother on TV. Their cultural successors, like Punk'd, also seem deeply unfunny to me.

There's a lot of annoying, hurtful stuff in life, and every non-sadist who experiences it at least momentarily feels like they wouldn't wish it on someone else. Yet that's exactly what these guys do, repeatedly and on camera and for personal gain, and then we approvingly call the humor "conceptual." Well, I call it being mean, and I don't see the humor.

This isn't like Jackass, where all of the awfulness is directed on themselves, or the better Borat sketches, where the people getting pranked are guilty of bigotry. There's no comeuppance factor here; the people that are made uncomfortable are just people who didn't do anything to deserve this and, while I might admire your silver-lining view of a horrific event that shakes up your day, I doubt they share it. The victims are not even obscenely wealthy celebrities, like on Punk'd. They're just "squares," and I can't take any fun from their unhappiness.

There is an argument that all humor is rooted in someone's pain (espoused by Robert Heinlein, among others), and it's maybe one I believe. I'm certainly a sarcastic guy who's shot a lot of zingers at friends and enemies to get laughs. But I think there's a line between highlighting that pain and turning it into a source of laughter (like Gilbert Gottfried's telling of "The Aristocrats" when the crowd wouldn't let him joke about 9-11) and causing hurt for someone else to laugh at. For me, being on the latter side of that line makes one a bully, and I'm afraid I'm never going to find that very funny.

Dr. Carey said...

Okay, I'm finally getting a chance to respond to this.

I agree with you that cruelty isn't funny.

But busting chops is.

This might seem like a dumb distinction to make, so let's fine-tune it.

Cruelty dialed way down to the degree of mild-nuiscance harrassment, is funnier than Punk'd. When Kutcher gets people believeing they have a major crises on their hands because some contracter ruined their house, it's way less funny than Green's parents rolling their eyes and complaining about how their asshole son painted an inapropriate scene on their automobile.

Kaufman's humor was even less cruel in nature. Making a whole room of people uncomfortable is just the crest of the roller-coaster ride. It's the tension in a slasher-thriller. Nobody in the crowd think's THEY'RE in danger, and a good handful of people (or more) probably think it's pretty keen to catch a rare public meltdown. He didn't fake a heart-attack where people in the audience had to feel their adrenaline rush for sollutions, he just faked a big argument.

So the cruelty factor with both of them is something that I find to be a write-off. Furthermore, my explaination for the bulk of their merit is less about the pranks and more about the conceptual absurdity.

Laughter itself is human's evolved reaction to the absurd. [In another essay some-day, I'll hopefully get my wits together cogently enough to explain why I believe that laughter is actually the brain's response to the many daily realizations that there is no god. In doing so, the ego is submitting prostrate to Absurdity as the only legitamate higher power.]

Both of these performers (Green in particular) worked to synthesize the natural experience of true absurdity which, in the context of strategically planned entertainment, loses value from the vantage point of hindsight.

Muller said...

that pointless nonsense may be a prevailing wisdom of a generation.

...preach on, brother!