The Death of Andy Kaufman

The Death of Andy KaufmanSynopsis: The Death of Andy Kaufman takes on the many mysteries and theories surrounding Andy Kaufman’s death, and through exclusive interviews with family and friends, rare performances by Kaufman, and the filmmakers own personal investigation, we are brought closer to understanding mind and myth of one of the most celebrated and mysterious performance artists all time, often with unexpected results.

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The Death of Andy Kaufman 6.75

eyelights: the fascinating tale of Andy Kaufman’s death.
eyesores: its lack of substance. its extremely low-budget quality.

I’m no great fan of Andy Kaufman. I never knew him during his lifetime and he was barely on my radar afterwards, having never watched ‘Taxi’, his most popular vehicle. In fact, I only really got to know him with ‘Man on the Moon‘, the biodrama starring Jim Carrey.

I didn’t really get his quirky humour and found him far too belligerent to be entertaining; I’m sure that, had I been aware of him at the time, I would have disliked his abrasive and divisive public persona. Still, you’ve got admit that he’s a fascinating character.

Even more fascinating is the story of his death: by 1984, when he succumbed to lung cancer, Kaufman already had an entrenched reputation for being a hoaxer, having pulled stunts on live television and during some of his performances. He liked to push buttons.

So it’s hardly surprising then, that people started to wonder about his death after countless discrepancies surfaced in details about his illness, treatment and funeral. Fans and non-fans alike began to speculate that perhaps Kaufman had been faking his death all along.

‘The Death of Andy Kaufman’ is an 80-minute low-budget documentary by first time writer-director Christopher Maloney. Released on home video in 2008, it purports to explore the theories surrounding Andy Kaufman’s death as well as his enigmatic persona.

Inexplicably, it starts with a full routine of Kaufman lip-synching “Old MacDonald” with the help of four guests, who are each prompted to do cues in the song. There are no credits, explanation, or even a narration. It’s just there, in crap VHS quality, with digitized sound.

This would be a recurring theme with ‘Death of Andy Kaufman’, which was produced on a shoe-string budget with the aid of public domain interviews and performances, some of which were no doubt downloaded from Youtube. It just doesn’t look or sound very good.

It’s also put together in a very amateurish fashion, beginning with its dull narration from a young man who mumbled weakly, as though he’d just gotten out of bed. The editing is also problematic, with some audio drops, and some cuts being inserted seemingly at random.

If anything, in many instance, this looks like an elaborate home movie.

It does try it best to cover its subject, however, taking a quarter hour of its time (incl. the opening routine) to introduce us briefly to Kaufman, quickly describing his comedy style and rise to fame and notoriety before tackling the subject of his cancer battle and apparent death.

It was interesting to hear many claims from friends and associates that Kaufman would be the very type to fake his death; he had apparently consulted with Alan Abel (who is interviewed here), a hoaxer and friend of Kaufman’s who had already faked his own death in 1980.

Some of the evidence supporting the claims that Kaufman is still alive include:

  • A script of the Tony Clifton movie Kaufman wanted to make five years earlier sets Clifton’s death as exactly the same as his own: same illness, same place and same age (based on the fake age Kaufman used in public).
  • It is said that Kaufman paid the medical bills of a cancer-ridden Vietnam vet named Nathan McCoy, who in turn doubled for him.
  • Supporting this claim is the fact that Kaufman’s rare type of cancer didn’t require chemo, and yet he “lost” his hair – but retained his eyebrows and body hair.
  • Kaufman’s casket was open at his funeral. Jewish tradition requires a closed one, so it gives the impression that it was left open on purpose, as “proof” of his demise.
  • He was not buried under his actual given name, Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman, but under the name he was known by, Andy Kaufman.
  • His Social Insurance Number isn’t in the Death Index (whatever that is).

There are even accounts of people who claim to have seen him around the world, most of whom say he was a homeless person. And Maloney goes to the Lama Foundation, a sanctuary, where it is said Kauman is supposedly hiding out, to get closer to his target.

But there’s no sign of him.

There are  a number of flaws in Maloney’s very loose detective work, however.

  • For instance, he doesn’t ask about McCoy’s disappearance. If he and Kaufman had actually done a switch, McCoy would be missing. Wouldn’t someone (family/friends) be out looking for him, unaware that he’d gone into hiding as Kaufman?
  • Wouldn’t it be easy to confirm Kaufman’s death, at the very least by opening up his casket? Why isn’t that avenue explored? Perhaps he can’t get it done himself, but he should at least have checked to see if anyone else had done that already.

Maloney does eventually provide some counterpoints, such as the fact that McCoy was apparently a name that Kaufman used for years to protect his privacy. There is no proof of that, much like there is no proof that McCoy ever existed. This is all based on hearsay only.

He does point out how grim Kaufman’s tone had gotten by the end, however, and notes that Kaufman seemed to be putting his affairs in order in his final year. He even showed an interview Andy did on TV with a psychiatrist, as himself for once, not as one of his many personae.

Naturally, taking care of business is part of knowing one’s death is imminent.

So, a third of the way, Maloney concludes that Andy’s simply dead and decides to pay tribute to him for the rest of the film, instead of digging deeper into his initial premise to support and counter his points. It leaves us with a very inconclusive end, even if he is convinced of Andy’s death.

At least this produces a lengthy interview with Andy’s brother Michael for the last part of the film. It’s filmed on low-grade video and is poorly lit, but at least it provides us with another perspective on the matter, with Michael telling us all about his brother from his point of view.

Still, in the end, we are left more teased than fully sated with ‘The Death of Andy Kaufman’. It’s great for die-hard fans who want to see plenty of archival pictures and video (albeit all of the crappy public domain variety), but there’s not much here that you can’t find online.

And more in depth.

Date of viewing: August 2, 2015

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