Friday, February 13, 2009

Nail Shut The Fire Exits

Joaquin Phoenix delivered a very funny non-performance on Letterman. I'm sure you've seen it by now. Some think the guy's snapped, that his spaced-out routine was real. Perhaps. If so, Phoenix certainly has the contacts and resources to get help. But I think the whole thing was planned. It just had that feel. A few people compared Phoenix's segment to Crispin Glover's infamous freak-out on Letterman's NBC show, but Glover's assault was too over the top. He didn't allow Letterman room to counterpunch, thus ending the bit before anyone knew what the fuck Glover was doing. Phoenix took the opposite route, a hippie Andy Warhol anti-interview, sucking Letterman into his silent space. If only more American TV was like this.

Not everyone liked what they saw. My friend James Wolcott got pretty pissed about it, which I don't fully understand, but that's subjectivity for you. Not content to box Phoenix's ears, James also took a poke at Andy Kaufman, whose ghost hovers over any perceived showbiz hoax:

"Isn't it past time for the Andy Kaufman cult to be given a rest? The farther out he went, the unfunnier he got."

Given our national amnesia, I'm surprised that Kaufman is remembered at all. He died in 1984, and other than that awful Milos Forman biopic, there hasn't been much in the way of a Kaufman "cult" that I can see. And I say that as a longtime Kaufman cultist. Even back in the day, Kaufman was often dismissed as nuts, self-indulgent, passé, and yes, unfunny. But that's what I loved about him -- he didn't settle for laughs. Kaufman went into areas where laughter made no sense. He pushed against every showbiz boundary he could, which horrified a lot of people I knew, but pleased me no end. And however unfunny he was, Kaufman still made me laugh. Then again, we've been over my mental condition.

Here are two photos taken during that period of my life. The first is another shot of Kamakaze Radio, from 1981.

This is my favorite photo of the group, faded by time. The only piece missing is Mike Owens, who co-founded KR, but by this point left the group after he, Jim Buck and I had a massive argument about our creative direction. Jim and I completely re-cast KR, using local theater professionals instead of comics, as we sought to limit the wackiness element as much as we could. While Mike's tantrums were not missed, his strange comic energy was.

Mike had a Kaufman-esque air about him, always willing to try the craziest shit. That's how we connected in the first place. Mike and I performed stand up in various spots around Indianapolis, the two of us occupying the weirder end of the local spectrum. (Jim often emceed these gigs, reading fake news bulletins between acts.) Mike told odd stories about ducks being crammed in the back of Saabs, then became a mutant Jackie Mason before commenting on US aid to El Salvador. I did impressions of people melting from nuclear fallout, or simply read from TV Guide, telling the audience what they were missing at home. Most of the other comics didn't like us, the audience less so. We didn't care. We knew we were doing something different, and soon channeled this energy into KR, which oddly enough was a success.

(I have a number of videos from that time, and would love to upload some of them to YouTube, but don't know how. Any advice is welcome.)

When Jim and I disbanded KR and moved to NYC, we took -- sometimes as a team, sometimes separately -- the same approach, which worked well enough for a time. It was thrilling to hear New Yorkers laugh at bits conceived and polished amid the corn fields. Here I am on the Lower East Side in early-'83, clad in my Army overcoat.

This was when Jim (who snapped the pic) and I were knocking around the club scene. As you can see, I was happy to be there. I felt free. I appeared at a few downtown spaces, most exciting for me, Club 57 on St. Mark's Place. I'd read about Club 57 in Esquire while still in Indiana, and was determined to perform there. The place was managed by a pixyish woman named Mona, whose day job was at Salomon Brothers, where I worked in the copier room. Mona's two idols were Thomas Jefferson and Yoko Ono, pictures of whom hung over her desk. She gave me a slot at Club 57, but when I walked in, I was intimidated by the heavy avant-garde posing by the patrons, which scared me out of trying more experimental humor. Instead, I showed what a mortician's fashion show might look like, then commercials for Irish Spring and Lucky Charms as conceived by the IRA. I died. All those bored faces just stared at me. My shit was too mainstream for the room. I was followed by a heavy-set woman who banged on a battered guitar and yelled, "Don't call me if you're not gonna fuck me, faggot!" That the audience loved.

Ah well. See what Andy Kaufman dredges up? Let's return to the source. Here's a bit from that same period, commemorating Catch A Rising Star's 10th anniversary. It's pretty self-explanatory, with Kaufman's partner Bob Zmuda playing the heckler. This is for you, James.