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Andy Kaufman: Wrestling with the American Dream

By By Florian Keller

Review by Mary Elizabeth Ladd

Reviewed January 21, 2007

Andy Kaufman, Wrestling with the American Dream attempts to redefine the work of Andy Kaufman, to show he was not simply an avant-garde comedian and provocateur, but an artist working to subvert the theory of the American Dream.

To define Andy Kaufman, Keller starts by differentiating between two types of aggressive comedy, that of transgression and that of over-conformism.

The comedy of transgression works to push the boundaries of acceptable performance. This might involve socially unacceptable language or behavior. Think Lenny Bruce, often arrested after his lewd (for the 1960s) performances. Keller’s book argues that transgressive comedy seeks not to defy the law but instead begs (or dares) the law to come into play. After all, Lenny Bruce failed to bring down society’s structures with his provocations (well, at least immediately anyway). This book argues that this type of comedy or art exists to make sure society’s authorities still work. Therefore, as a revolutionary art strategy, transgression is really “an empty gesture” at best, a “neurotic plea for punishment” at its worst.

On the other hand, Andy Kaufman employed “over-conformism.” He was an over-orthodox artist. Think The Colbert Report where Stephen Colbert apes ultra-conservates like Bill O’Reilly. Keller argues that over-conformism is a perfected form of subversion, unlike transgressing, because the artist slyly reveals imperfections in the ideology that is being aped (all under the guise of buying into it). Think Borat as the super jew-hating Kazakhstanian. His hyper-conformism reveals the ridiculousness of his anti-semitism.

Keller attempts to make the case that Kaufman’s act was primarily an over-identification with the American Dream and is therefore a critique of American Dream ideology at its core.

Keller defines the American Dream as a successive reinvention of one’s self for the prospect of fame (or immortality – the prevention of one’s spiritual death). Keller does not focus on other aspects of the Dream, the desire to immigrate to America, own a house, educate your children and live not necessarily a life of fortune but a comfortable middle-class existence. This non-fame tract of the Dream is still sought by millions of Americans and immigrants who never apply to become contestants on American Idol.

But Keller’s entire thesis seems to rest on this stardom aspect of the American Dream (which is by no means a small avenue to the Dream), which he calls our “collective daydream” to become someone else through fame. Here is where the Dream becomes problematic, Keller says, for what this reinvention of the self does to the self. The self becomes vacant, a very post-modern death of the subject occurs. Who are we if we continually desire to become someone else?

Keller’s arguments are steeped in avant-garde theory (Eugene Ionesco, Luigi Pirandello, Marcel Duchamp) which is heavy handed at times. Keller is also tiresomely repetitive in setting up his case (there are pages on the comedy of transgression in order to describe what Kaufman is not). And Keller is highly dismissive of his fellow theorists with comments like: “beyond this somewhat trivial analogy…” and “clearly, this is nonsense.”

But after all this verbiage, I’m still not convinced Kaufman was an over-conformist. His signifiers were so vague and the results so ineffectual. American Idol itself does more to challenge the ideals of the American Fame Dream with its sincere over-conforming teenagers tripping over their legitimate failures than Kaufman did with his faux-failing comedy acts.

I also feel the American Dream is a much larger construct than Keller admits here. The Dream means not just immortality via stardom; it means middle-class home ownership and the ability to earn a disposable income.

Thirdly, I believe the “self” is much more fluid than Keller suggests. His definitions make self-improvement seem like a game of imposters. We are still who we are if we decide to change certain aspects of our selves. We change naturally, whether we want to or not. This is not an idea of the American Dream but of familiar Eastern ideologies as well.

I would have loved to see the book explore more fully the facets of Kaufman’s work and alternate theories of his strategies, which I believe are much grander than an experiment on subverting the American Dream. It’s more likely he had a desire to subvert the constructs of comedy and theater. Kaufman’s refusal to succeed in many aspects seems to undercut this idea that he was an over-conformist anyway. His failutre to signify, his refusal to be funny, his tests of his audience’s endurance, his “faithful re-enactments of rhetorical gestures,” his refusal to “fill the space with expected content,” and other “suicidal performance gestures” described in Kellers book are not acts that fit into over-conforming. They are direct challenges.

My issue with Andy Kaufman himself is that he gave us no delineation of art from the artist. Because he refused to break character, refused to create any distance from his work, provided no underlying point of view or identifiable subject, his acts were just another experiment in dehumanizing the artist. We never knew who he was. And his art refused to communicate Andy Kaufman to us either. In fact, his art willfully blocked that understanding. Nice trick but so what. Art is still communication between humans. If there’s no human at the other end, we’re left with a clever human lab experiment.

Wikopedia's definition of The American Dream

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