Was This Man a Genius? : Talks with Andy Kaufman

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-06-16
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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Julie Hecht's hilarious and darkly comic book about the two years she spent interviewing legendary comedian Andy Kaufman at the height of his career.



In the winter of 1978, I was invited to a lunch for contributors to Harper's Magazine. I believed that short stories were valued by society and that was the reason for the invitation. However, at the time, as is still the case, writers of short stories were regarded with suspicion. During the lunch, Lewis Lapham, the editor, suggested that I write a "piece" on this or that for "us." I didn't like the words "piece for us," and I reminded Lewis that I wrote short stories.

"Isn't there anything you really want to find out about, and write about?" he asked me. I explained a few times, in different ways, that I wasn't a journalist. I watched Tom Wolfe eat his lobster bisque. He had excellent table manners. Then I walked back home. I was thinking dark thoughts.

Around that time I read that Andy Kaufman would be performing at Town Hall. I had seen him sing "Pop Goes the Weasel" when he appeared as a special guest on Saturday Night Live, and one thing I did want to find out was how Andy Kaufman had gotten to do what he was doing. I especially wanted to know how he came to sing that song the way he did. I got the idea that I would meet him, talk to him, find out the answer, and I would write about it. I asked my editor at Harper's whether she'd like to go see him perform at Town Hall. She said yes.

I spent a year meeting Andy whenever he came to New York to perform. The meetings consisted of hanging out wherever he was and taping whatever happened, but he wouldn't tell me what I wanted to know until the end of the year. The 150-page manuscript turned out to be too long for Harper's and the story was considered to be too strange to be published. When I told Andy about all this, he said, "Don't worry about it. The story is ahead of its time, the way I'm ahead of my time."

Most people didn't know who Andy was. He had made a special for a television network, but no network would show it.

"They won't show my special and now they won't publish your story," Andy said. "We're in the same boat."

"I'm in a worse boat," I said.

"No, it's the same boat exactly," Andy said.

ONE NIGHT about a year later, I was sitting on the couch watching the ten o'clock news when Andy called. "Why don't you ever call me anymore?" he said.

"Well, I finished my story. I don't have any more questions."

"But aren't we still friends?" Andy asked.

"You said you were too busy to have any more friends," I said.

"But then we did the story together. We both worked at it."

"For me it was work, for you it was play," I said.

"And wasn't that fun, work and play, the combination?" Andy said.

"Yes, it was the most fun I ever had. But the story is in a carton."

"You should never think that. People work and work on things and this happens. That's show business. You have to get used to it."

"But I'm not in show business."

"Oh. That's right," Andy said. "You should get used to it anyway. We'll always be friends, right?"

That was that for twenty years.

AFTER ANDY'S work was rediscovered, various people kept asking, "What about that Andy Kaufman thing you did?" This gave me the idea to rewrite and edit the story in order to show some true part of Andy Kaufman's life the way he talked about it.

Copyright © 2001 by Julie Hecht

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