In the fall of 1975, Andy Kaufman stood next to a record player, looking nervous and anxiously staring at the audience for several seconds before turning the record player on. It was October 11, and this the first airing of what would become one of television’s most endearing and widely watched shows in history, Saturday Night Live. George Carlin, as the show’s first-ever host, introduced segment after segment of entertainers performing all kinds of acts. John Belushi played a foreign man being taught English by Michael O’Donoghue; Chevy Chase bellowed the first “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”, Billy Preston performed “Nothing for Nothing,” and Jim Henson presented The Land of Gorch with the soon to be Yoda, Frank Oz. Andy Kaufman just stood there.
As the vinyl record turned, the music by Philip Scheib and the lyrics by Marshall Barer quickly projected to the audience. It’s the theme song from the famous cartoon Mighty Mouse, as sung by Roy Halee, the title character’s very own voice actor. The march soon begins: “Mister Trouble never hangs around/When he hears this mighty sound.” The tall, dark man next to the small record player, dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and a sports jacket, apparently has no idea what he’s doing there. He waits a beat. He’s doing nothing. He stands there. The song plays, he waits, the audience waits. Twenty seconds after the performance starts, Andy raises his left arm and turns into a baritone star when he lip-synchs, “Here I come to save the day!”. The audience can’t contain their laughter; the man is a hit. Then Andy falls silent again, and just stands there, still. Doing nothing.
It’s fall 2017, and I’m endlessly going down the maelstrom of late-night online browsing. I’m looking for something. And I find Andy; a “song and dance man,” not a comedian. Andy Kaufman came to the attention of wider audiences than the ones in the small comedy clubs where he used to perform before 1975 when he was invited to perform in Saturday Night Live. He stared in the hit television show Taxi between 1978 and 1983, was a frequent guest of Late Night with David Letterman, fooled his entire audience by wrestling women, and challenging Jerry “The King” Lawler of the Continental Wrestling Association. Andy Kaufman was all over the place, like a loose rocket before he died of lung cancer in the summer of 1984. He was 35. I wasn’t even born yet. And here I found myself, forty-three years after SNL’s pilot, wholly taken away by Andy Kaufman.
He wasn’t funny. Not in the way other things are funny. He’s awkward; he’s uncomfortable. He looks confused, and I am confused. Twenty seconds into his performance and he’s standing there doing nothing; the tension broken by his first “Here I come to save the day!” has already been given away, it’s the heart of the bit. I’m thinking to myself, oh, I get it. But Andy is just starting; thirty seconds into the performance, he’s rocking his body nervously, I notice how his fingers curl up and stretch by his side. Is this the first time he’s on stage? He blinks rapidly, avoiding eye contact. Then he focuses his gaze on something, seeking approval. Back to blinking. He raises his head and opens his mouth; he’s about to sing again. It’s the wrong part of the song; he lowers his brow in shame. Perfect comedic timing; there’s tension and discomfort and laughter again. And Andy is doing nothing.
The bit ends just under two minutes, and I want more, so I play it again. I’ll replay this clip several times in the following months. The song stuck in my head, Andy’s subtle knee jerk, as he goes from doing nothing to doing everything. But is he doing nothing? At some point during my fixation with Andy Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse skit, I’m reminded of something I read once: “What we require is silence, but what silence requires is that I go on talking.” Andy is framing the silence; he’s making it center stage. And by remaining silent during most of his time live, he’s making me crave more. I want him to do more of what he’s doing; I need to hear his voice, to see his left arm elegantly sweep towards the audience, his knee follow the beat of the song. But I want him to stay quiet, too. To just be awkward and shy and anxious. To remain in silence, making it fertile, fecund with tiny pleasures, lush with precise, subtle content.
This bit by Andy Kaufman got me right in the gut precisely because of his subtle use of what’s not supposed to be part of the show. His unease is deliberate and rehearsed to mastery; the effect is extraordinary. On my first watching, I’m waiting for him to do something, not realizing that this is it, this is what I’m supposed to be looking at, this is what I’m supposed to be enjoying. But I get the joke; the audience gets the joke. It’s subtle; it’s clever, it’s sophisticated. But the greater sophistication of it relies on how closely he makes me read something that asks not to be read.