Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Andy Kaufman Isn’t Funny

Art historian Miriam Katz wants to bring stand-up comedy into the serious world of galleries and museums

Jessica Weisberg
February 26, 2013
(Ragnar's Photohalla, Flickr)

(Ragnar’s Photohalla, Flickr)

Treating fart jokes with erudition might seem, at first, like an easy way to alienate people. But Miriam Katz, an art historian who studies stand-up—and describes interviews with comedians as “studio visits” and stand-up shows as “comic objects”—is as spritely as she is serious, conveying her seriousness about jokes with the energy of someone who could successfully sell an esoteric health product to the harshest skeptic.

Katz began studying stand-up because she’s a fan. She also has a longtime interest in thinking of artists as “spiritual guides”—an interest that dates back to a summer art program she attended in Israel when she was 17. Comedians, she believes, have a lot to teach the world. “If you’re being funny, it means you’re paying attention. You can’t make fun of something unless you know it really well,” Katz told me, as we toured around a West Village exhibit dedicated to life and work of Andy Kaufman, recently closed at Maccarone. Katz has tried stand-up herself a few times. The routine she’s working on now is an extension of her scholarship: a long list of what’s funny (the 1980s and ’90s) and what’s not (marriage, the 1960s and ’70s). Something counts as comedy, she reasons, when it makes someone laugh. Katz has identified different strains of laughter, her favorite being when she laughs despite herself, but she doesn’t consider herself a particularly good comedian. “I mean, I’m fine,” she said. “But I have good taste in comedy. I have a great sense of humor.”

Katz has made a career out of talking to comedians, whether on “Breakdown”—her contribution to a spate of podcasts like “WTF” with Marc Maron or “You Made It Weird” with Pete Holmes that bring NPR-style reflections to bear on the art of comedy—or for her articles in ArtForum, or for the discussions she hosts at PS1, the MoMA outpost in Long Island City. For “Breakdown,” Katz interviews a combination of comedians and visual artists, including Cory Arcangel and William Wegman. Comedians, she thinks, appreciate the opportunity to talk loftily about their craft. “They’re also more comfortable using spiritual words like ‘creativity’ than visual artists are,” she said.

Andy Kaufman approached comedy with a discipline often associated with visual artists. Kaufman was a comedian all the time, Katz said, not just when he was on stage or on set at Saturday Night Live or The Andy Kaufman Show; he had what Katz calls a “comic practice.” He enjoyed blurring the distinction between comedy and life and taking jokes to epic lengths. At the peak of his career, he took a job as a busboy at Jerry’s Famous Deli, in West Hollywood; most famously, he invited the audience at a Carnegie Hall show to meet him on the Staten Island Ferry the following morning. Before he died, from lung cancer in 1984, he hatched a plan to fake his death and reappear 20 years later.“He was always playing with reality. He created alternate realities,” Katz said. She refers to such antics as “long-form jokes.”

Last week, Katz hosted a panel at PS1 featuring three comedians, Tim Heidecker, T.J. Miller, and Brent Weinbach. Heidecker, who is best known for being one half of the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, announced on Twitter late last year that he had been named editor of Rolling Stone magazine and maintained the hoax for more than a week. (“meeting with Taibbi was intense,” he tweeted. “needless to say we don’t agree on much but i respect him! will find a way to make this work!”) T.J. Miller starred in Yogi Bear 3D and said that he went after the role, in part, because he thought it made for a great joke; he insists that every host at every comedy club include the credit in his bio. Most people think the credit is a joke.

At the exhibit, Katz was eager to show me artifacts that showed a more “genuine side” of Kaufman. There was a letter he wrote to his father—in 1971, while Kaufman was working as a truck driver—in which he thanks his father for being caring and supportive and promises to make him proud one day. “I want you to know that in all seriousness I do plan to become a very accomplished performer,” he wrote. There was a will Kaufman drafted the night before his bar mitzvah—his belongings were to be distributed equally among all of his relatives, including his grandparents. He wrote several dark novels, none of them published, with eerie, abstract titles like The Hollering Mango. As seen through these artifacts, Kaufman seems solemn, affectionate, and eager to please. He turned to transcendental meditation, Katz told me, because it helped him tune out his detractors.

Kaufman had plenty of detractors. Stunts like taking a nap on stage or reading aloud from the The Great Gatsby often bored and angered his audience. He had an extended bit about wrestling women and named himself “Intergender Wrestling Champion of the World,” which earned him enough hate mail to fill an actual book—Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts! (Kaufman might have enjoyed the fact that his girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, wrote the introduction.)But there was a lasting purity to Kaufman’s theatrics. “There was nothing corny, nothing telegraphing that he was kidding,” Weinbach said during the panel. “There was no winking to the audience.”

All three PS1 panelists, meanwhile, have a Kaufman-esque, absurdist kind of humor. “I want to make people laugh and make them say ‘what?!’ at the same time,” Weinbach said. The night before the panel, Miller did a show in Traverse City, Mich., and came on stage soaking wet—no explanation. None of the panelists have much interest in revealing, autobiographical humor in the vein of Louis C.K.; they’re experimental in the most concrete sense of the term—inventing strange situations the way Kaufman did and seeing if they make people laugh.

But by the end of the evening, the panelists got restless reflecting on their craft with Miriam Katz. “I’m going to be funny,” Heidecker said. They started doing crowd-work, undressing a young man in the audience whose question went on for too long; Miller performed a monologue about the inevitability of death. “You think it’s important to make money, to achieve something, so your parents can be proud of you right before they’re dead,” Miller hollered. “No one’s fucking talking about that. Instead we come here and we’re like, ‘Hey, Bret, is that a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a Velociraptor?’ ” They insisted on finishing the panel with the lights off. In the dark, some people laughed. Some people got nervous. Some people went, “What?!”


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Jessica Weisberg is a writer and editor in New York. Her Twitter feed is @jessicaweisberg.

Jessica Weisberg is a writer and editor in New York. Her Twitter feed is @jessicaweisberg.

Support Our Podcasts

In addition to Unorthodox, the world’s No. 1 Jewish podcast, and Take One, our daily Talmud meditation, we’re hard at work on exciting new Jewish audio series.