Song-and-dance man Andy Kaufman, as portrayed in Box Brown’s graphic biography, used a patchwork of influences to put on a show. His love of wrestling, Elvis Presley, conga drums, cartoons, and transcendental meditation put him on a performer’s path that encompassed live performances, movies, sitcoms, wrestling shows, and musical numbers, and sometimes several formats at a time. He particularly enjoyed playing the audience for fools, often subverting their expectations or making their reactions to a situation the actual punchline.

Where does a child find and develop such an instinct for performance and the stage? Brown dives into Andy’s childhood experiences and sources of positive feedback for answers; putting on cartoon shows for birthday parties as a tween, sharing his fandoms with friends from childhood through college, a school visit from drummer Babatunde Olatunji, and making quick friends with co-conspirator Bob Zmuda, meant Andy was never at a loss for risky ideas and creative outlets for testing them. A showy Elvis impersonation gets buried inside a weird accent to blow up comedy clubs; a fetish for wrestling women becomes anti-feminist villainy that fills stadiums. Every time, Andy found a way to mold his own interests to fit an entertainment format and gain notoriety. As the narration explains about his Elvis routine, “The show had been performed a million times in Andy’s basement.”

Brown’s use of dot eyes and outlined noses almost gives his subject’s faces a Muppet-like look, making Andy’s antics appear particularly playful, even when focused on his escapades in wrestling. “Andy could lay on this innocent child act. Like a poor babe in the woods,” the narrator says to describe how Andy talked his way into meeting Elvis, and many of Andy’s performances are based in twisting an innocent act toward a silly end. Sometimes he’s the hapless celebrity wrestler from Hollywood who’s also severely prejudiced against the South, other times he’s the unwitting acquaintance of his and Zmuda’s alter ego lounge lizard, Tony Clifton. Audiences could rarely predict which persona Andy was going to strut out, and Brown portrays them all as playful scamps.

A similar sensitive touch is used on a recurring subplot about Jerry Lawler’s origins as a pro wrestler, eventually crossing paths with Andy and having a blast fooling millions in the arena and on TV. For a palette limited to black, white, and gray, this story is full of colorful tales. Andy’s drug use (and later sobriety) is plainly stated: “Andy experimented with drugs. Weed every day. Acid. DMT. Dexedrine.” A swear-filled rant against Jerry Lawler on David Letterman’s show has the swear words blacked out, but with enough of the letters showing that one can figure out what was said.

In a biographical story that incorporates Andy’s parents, grandmother, and brother, one wonders at the omission of his out-of-wedlock daughter from a high school romance who was put up for adoption. Perhaps the topic doesn’t bear enough on Kaufman’s creative process, or maybe Brown’s bibliography (listed in the back) didn’t address the issue in much detail. Then again, readers are informed of his drug habits, comfort with hiring prostitutes, and having to conceal erections while wrestling (and simultaneously hitting on) women. How would an estranged daughter or closer examination of his home life be too much information compared to those details? For that matter, his role on the sitcom “Taxi” is limited to a couple of brief mentions. Of the book’s 257 pages, nearly half have something to do with wrestling. While there are snippets of Andy’s musical and comedic acts, readers looking for insights about his time on Taxi or Saturday Night Live will likely echo a woman in the story who declares, “Sheesh! Do you nerds talk about anything but wrestling??”

Readers who enjoyed the behind-the-scenes perspective of Box Brown’s previous graphic biography, Andre The Giant: Life and Legend will probably feel as privileged to peek into Andy’s formative years as Andy did sneaking into Elvis’s postmortem bathroom. Andy was several kinds of celebrity, and each variation deserves an origin story. Was he more like the cover’s conga-playing dancer, the master Elvis impressionist, or the arrogant “Women’s Wrestling Champion of the World?” The book commands, “Believe it!!!” over a design made of torn pages, each scrap of identity giving way to the next.

Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman
by Box Brown
ISBN: 9781626723160
First Second, 2018

  • Thomas

    | He/Him Teen Services Librarian, Richland Library

    Features Writer

    Thomas is a teen services librarian at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. While studying for his MLIS at the University of South Carolina, he won an award from Thomas Cooper Library for his curation of the works of “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka. He has spoken about manga, graphic novels, teen programming, and podcasting at NashiCon, DragonCon, ColaCon, New York Comic Con, and American Library Association conferences. He has been on on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels For Teens selection committee, written articles for Public Libraries, The Hub, Book Riot, and Library Trends, and reviews for School Library Journal and Kirkus.

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