When is a comedian not a comedian?
It's a valid question when considering the bizarre career of Andy Kaufman, a performer who could be very funny when he chose to be and equally confounding when it suited him, which was often. The two sides were combined in some of his work, but Kaufman was clearly as interested in awkwardness and confrontation as he was in generating laughter. Calling him a Dadaist performance artist might sound a little pretentious, but it comes closer to the mark than "comedian" in describing his unpredictable style.
Though he reached his widest audience as the lovable Latka on the TV sitcom "Taxi," Kaufman didn't seem too hungry for the adoration of his audience. When he decided to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes, professional wrestling, he played the villain to the hilt. The entertaining documentary "I'm from Hollywood" (1989) details Kaufman's involvement in wrestling before its choreographed melodrama and mayhem had become as hugely popular as it is today.
Rather than bulk up for the competition, Andy decided to challenge women, declaring himself the Inter-Gender Champion after a series of real and staged matches. Though even the least sophisticated pro wrestling fans are in on the fix to a degree, Andy took advantage of wrestling's lack of exposure in the mainstream in the early '80s. When popular (male) wrestler Jerry Lawler pile-drived Andy after one of his inter-gender matches, it looked terrifyingly real to those not used to the gimmickry of pro wrestling. Footage of Kaufman going to the hospital, wearing a neck brace, and a memorable confrontation with Lawler on David Letterman's NBC show, made it all seem pretty authentic at the time.
But "I'm from Hollywood" makes it clear that Kaufman wasn't simply putting people on. He was as committed to being a wrestling bad guy as he was to lip-synching the "Mighty Mouse" theme song, reading from "The Great Gatsby" until audiences booed, or imitating Elvis years before it came into fashion. Robin Williams and "Taxi" co-stars Marilu Henner and Tony Danza weigh in on how Kaufman's involvement in the fringe sport was seen by others, although all make it clear that Andy was as hard to fathom in real life as he was in front of the camera.
"I'm from Hollywood" is a fun documentary that even non-Kaufman fans might enjoy, but "My Breakfast with Blassie" (1983) is for diehards only. As the title suggests, it uses Louis Malle's film "My Dinner with Andre" as its model, simply showing two people eating and talking for nearly its entire running time. Instead of the witty, cerebral chat between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, however, we get some boasting, sexist observations, and generally boorish exchanges between Andy Kaufman and aging wrestling legend Freddie Blassie, self-proclaimed King of Men.
Sitting in a Los Angeles Sambo's restaurant, this odd pair shares their views on wrestling, fame, fans (they don't like them), hygiene, food, women, and more. There is a memorable confrontation with some women at a neighboring table and a gross-out encounter with a fan. The cast members listed in the closing credits reveal these altercations to be staged, but the strange tension they deliver seems more genuine than anything on so-called "reality television." By most accounts, the real Kaufman was far more likable than the repellent persona he projects here, but it's fascinating that he would present himself in this fashion for a documentary-styled production. Was this Kaufman exploring his dark side, or simply transforming his public image so the private one would remain a mystery?
While it's a rudimentary production technically, "My Breakfast with Blassie" has moments of true, discomforting brilliance. And yes, there are also some laughs for those who appreciate the star's twisted sensibility. Those looking for an easily processed comic experience should look elsewhere.
Both of these hour-long video features are available on a double-sided DVD from Rhino Home Video. "My Breakfast with Blassie" includes some footage of the Los Angeles premiere and an audio commentary (separate from the feature) by filmmakers Johnny Legend and Linda Lautrec.
It's hard to know where Kaufman's career might have gone had lung cancer not claimed him at the age of 35. Moments in both of these programs suggest he could have continued to break new ground in experimental comedy or that he could have just as easily slipped off into total obscurity – the final, one-man audience for the most inside of inside jokes.
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