Ever since Drag City announced that previously unreleased material from Andy Kaufman was being released to the public, the internet has relished the thought of Andy Kaufman’s “first proper comedy album.” The resulting product is hardly a comedy album in the traditional sense, which is appropriate when you consider that Kaufman was hardly a comedian in the traditional sense. In fact, Kaufman resented the designation of comedian and is instead best known for his ridiculous characters and confrontational talk show appearances. Therefore those who go into this album expecting laugh-out-loud humor are in for a jarring disappointment. These 17 tracks are far more committed to portraying Kaufman the person, represented largely through his interactions and altercations with his family, friends and sexual partners. This commitment lends itself to the darkness of Kaufman’s impenetrable persona, providing a warts-and-all portrait of a singular comedic personality.
Vernon Chatman, who was tasked with culling through 82 hours of Kaufman’s micro-tapes, is successful in capturing the layers of Kaufman’s personality. Every track is marked by Kaufman’s goofiness, and the way in which the people around him respond to this behavior is indicative of just how committed Kaufman is to his bizarre craft. For example, on “Andy and His Grandmother Go for a Drive” and “Andy Loves His Tape Recorder,” the “song-and-dance man” incites his family and friends to the point of terror. The most overwhelming and possibly amusing motif is the utter dislike these people have for Kaufman’s brand of humor. It’s not hard to see why; his behavior is just a bit too erratic to be funny most of the time. Beyond goofiness, Kaufman also shifts between desperation and ambition, elucidating the profile of a man who was undoubtedly troubled. This is best seen on the last track, “I Want Those Tapes,” which cryptically delves into the subject of Kaufman’s enigmatic death. These five minutes of conversation are a stunning glimpse into the performer’s heightened consciousness of his audience. It will undoubtedly be the most talked-about part of this album.
Andy and His Grandmother is far from an enjoyable record and it definitely doesn’t lend itself to multiple listens. Yet Kaufman, over the course of his short career, never necessarily set out to inspire enjoyment. He set out to fascinate. Many of these conversations can be meandering and even a little disturbing. It also seems that Chatman could have tried to derive a bit more humor from these recordings. Kaufman was, by and large, a comedic genius, so a recording that bears his name should at least elicit a few more laughs. Despite the lack of laughs and cohesion, this is a gift for diehard fans who want a personal, authentic slice of Andy Kaufman’s life.