Book Review: Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown
Comedian and performer Andy Kaufman’s resume was impressive—a popular role on the beloved sitcom Taxi, a high-profile stand-up career, and a surprisingly successful stint in professional wrestling. Although he was by all accounts a sensitive and thoughtful person, he’s ironically best remembered for his various contemptible personas, which were so committed and so convincing that all but his closest family and friends were completely taken in.
Why would someone so gentle-natured and sensitive build an entire career seeking the hatred of his audience? What drives a performer to solicit that reaction? With the same nuance and sympathy with which he approached Andre the Giant in his 2014 biography, graphic novelist Box Brown takes on the complex and often hilarious life of Andy Kaufman.
Last May, Box Brown was at Teen Lit Con, an amazing event I am lucky enough to keep getting asked to speak at. My son, a huge fan of comics/graphic novels, and I went to Brown’s session, which was when I first heard about this book on Kaufman. I have been desperately waiting for it ever since. (Side note: If you haven’t read any of Brown’s books, you should fix that. His book on Andre the Giant was phenomenal.)
I had a pretty good working knowledge of Kaufman going into this. At 40, I was too young to witness any of Kaufman’s actual fame/antics, but I certainly grew up seeing lots of reruns of things with him and hearing about his personas and ways of messing with people (and, of course, wondering, like everyone else, if maybe he faked his death). Brown takes us back to Kaufman’s youth, showing his interest in Mighty Mouse, Elvis, and wrestling. Kaufman loved to imitate his heroes and always rooted for the bad guy. We see how he became a party entertainer at a young age, his interest in drumming, and his growing interest in subverting expectations and screwing with reality. Kaufman believed in being in character offstage as well, a move that helped him confuse the heck out of people who eventually could never tell if he was putting on an act or being serious. Much of the story is focused on Kaufman’s wrestling career, with Brown taking us through Kaufman arch-nemesis Jerry Lawler’s backstory, too. Throughout it all, we see Kaufman as not just a larger-than-life character who wrestled women and befuddled viewers, but as a sensitive guy into yoga and transcendental meditation. Kaufman, who blurred reality and enjoyed blowing people’s minds, loved playing the negative, hated characters. It was just more interesting to him.
Fans of the absurd will enjoy this book, whether they’ve heard of Kaufman or not. For an older audience, for anyone who looks at this and can immediately picture Kaufman lip-syncing to the Mighty Mouse theme, or Tony Clifton, or Latka Gravis, this look at Kaufman will be a real treat.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: First Second
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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