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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

He's No Andy Kaufman

I’d like to start out today’s column with a warning: Do Not See the Borat Movie (Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan)! Of course by this time, I’m sure you’ve already seen it or decided not to, but in case you’re still on the fence, just don’t. I’m not suggesting a boycott on moral or ethical grounds, nor am I presuming to impose my taste on you; I’m just saying this: Do Not See the Borat Movie. If you ignore my warning and go see it anyway, you won’t have old Bruck to blame.

I think we’re all familiar with the Borat character and his basic shtick – he goes around posing as a socially backward documentary reporter from Kazakhstan, and films contrived interviews and situations with purportedly normal people, making them look like racists, bigots, or just plain fools in the process. Borat is a character played by the British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, who also plays other characters such as Ali G, the inept gangster, and Bruno, the over-the-top-gay Austrian fashion designer. Some reviewers claim that he’s making a grand statement about American prejudices and other weaknesses. I think he’s, well, never mind what I think, just don’t see the movie. Or if you do have some irrepressible urge to see it, wait till it comes out on DVD, then watch it with your thumb positioned over the fast-forward button ready for immediate action.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about the original shock comedian / outrageous performance artist, Andy Kaufman.

I think most of you are old enough to remember Taxi, the sitcom about a taxi company in New York that ran in the late 70’s. Kaufman played Latka Gravas, the loveable, wide-eyed, bumbling immigrant from communist eastern Europe. Latka on Taxi grew out of one of Kaufman’s stage personae, “Foreign Man,” and was pretty tame compared to Kaufman’s other characters.

Early in his career, Kaufman had an obsession with Elvis Presley, and is widely credited with inventing the art form of Elvis impersonation and launching that industry. Kaufman is reputed to have made a pilgrimage to L.A. to visit the King, hid in a kitchen cabinet, and jumped out when Elvis wandered by.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Kaufman, calling himself the world’s first Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion, maintained an offer of $1000 to any woman who could pin him in a wrestling match. Of the over 400 takers, none succeeded, although a few matches ended in a draw, and Kaufman didn’t always walk away unscathed.

Another of Kaufman’s characters was Tony Clifton, an obnoxious, raunchy, talentless lounge singer. Sometimes Kaufman played Clifton as a warm up act to his own, and sometimes Tony Clifton was played by others such as Kaufman's brother Michael or friend Bob Zmuda. In any case, Kaufman and Tony Clifton never appeared together. There was some contrived controversy over the Tony Clifton character, over whether or not it was really Kaufman, and once, Kaufman purportedly planted himself in the audience during a Tony Clifton act, and loudly heckled him, accusing him of being Kaufman. In another instance, Kaufman negotiated to have Tony Clifton written into an episode of Taxi, but once on the set, Tony Clifton's behavior got him thrown out of the ABC studios..

These are just a few of Kaufman's antics; there were many more, both on and off stage, some of which aren’t printable in a “family-friendly” blog. In fact, his whole life was an outrageous performance – he seemed not to have a line of demarcation between life and performance.

So what’s this got to do with Borat? All the hype about Borat, the movie, the lawsuits, the general notoriety, etc., has got me thinking about the truly visionary lunatic Andy Kaufman again. So basically what I’m saying is if that’s the kind of thing you like about Borat, you’ll do well to rent some Andy Kaufman footage.

Okay, I’ll admit, the way Borat decimated the genteel southern dinner party had me ROFLMBO. I think I got a hernia when, upon returning from a conspicuous trip to the restroom, he asked the hostess what to do with his baggie of stool.


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