Brilliant, delightful and gently insane, "Andy's Fun House" escapes from the vaults of Television Past tonight after 20 years in hiding. The special, originally produced in 1977 and rerun in 1980, stars and epitomizes Andy Kaufman--conceptual comedian, performance artist and one of the most untamed comic minds ever to run riot on Le Tube.
Kaufman found humor where others dared not even look for it. Surely then he'd be amused at his own current rebirth on television and in the movies. When Kaufman died in 1984 at age 35, he was so established as a hoaxer that many people thought reports of his death were part of his own practical joke.
Perhaps Andy, Elvis and Jim Morrison will all come back together someday from wherever it is they've been. Alas, the odds are against it.
Spearheading the outburst of neo-Kaufmania is the release of "Man on the Moon," a movie biography that opens Wednesday at a theater near me. Though not near enough. Probably at one near you, too.
At the same time, cable's TV Land, sister network to Nick at Nite, is staging a marathon of Kaufman's TV work today through Wednesday. "Andy's Fun House," Kaufman's only starring network special, is part of that. It airs at 9 tonight, again at 1 a.m., then again Wednesday in prime time at 9. Most of the rest of the marathon consists of episodes from the hit sitcom "Taxi," on which Kaufman played the innocent immigrant mechanic Latka Gravas.
Danny DeVito, mean Louie on "Taxi," hosts the marathon. In October, editors of TV Guide idiotically chose DeVito's Louie as TV's "greatest character ever" in one of those infernal lists they're always making. By rational standards, Louie would be in the Top 20 at best, and Lucy of course would be No. 1.
Anyway, DeVito appears in "Man on the Moon" and his company, Jersey Films, produced the picture. So yes, in a way, it's all a big gimmick to promote the movie. But it is also a chance to see Andy Kaufman, Comedian of Mystery, working without a net once again.
"Andy's Fun House" begins with Kaufman sitting in an easy chair in front of a TV set and explaining that ABC gave him $100,000 to produce a TV special but "I went on vacation with the money and now I have nothing left." Thus, he says, the entire special will consist of him watching TV. He looks thoroughly ashamed of himself.
Even this special has its own little myths. When first aired, it occupied a 90-minute late-night slot, part of a series ABC called "The Wide World of Entertainment." The subsequent airing in prime time was only an hour. Rumor has it that what got edited out was nearly 30 minutes of Andy staring at the TV set, intentionally keeping the joke going far longer than it should have. But spokespersons for TV Land say no, not true. Whatever was cut out to make the one-hour version, it wasn't half an hour of Andy staring.
It's this short version that TV Land is airing. Its actual running time without commercials is 54 minutes, whereas on cable and now even on broadcast TV, "hour-long" shows only amount to 44 minutes of program material. So TV Land will let Andy's special slop over, as it were, past the one-hour mark.
Now at the risk of boring you--oh, I already have! But isn't it appropriate that a piece about Andy Kaufman also be pointlessly excessive? After all, there's lots I have left out. "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth," for instance. That's relevant to the story at hand but judicious self-restraint and years of experience in journalism resulted in it being omitted. Also, some horrid editor would have taken it out anyway.
You'd read much more about editors except that they edit the stories before you see them.
Oh--Andy Kaufman. Right. He was awesome.
Kaufman didn't just entertain audiences, he made them complicitous in his goofy ruses. On "Saturday Night Live," where he first got national attention, he would repeatedly leave viewers wondering where "the act" ended and reality began. He would offer some lame piece of naive comedy, break down crying when the audience didn't laugh, then cry more loudly when they laughed (more loudly) at his crying, then turn the crying into a rhythmic chant that became part of a musical number.
For Andy Kaufman, apparently, all of life was his act, even private moments. If he was "crazy" as the word is usually used, he was able to channel that craziness into not just entertainment but art.
Once "Andy's Fun House" gets moving, Kaufman does a monologue in which all the jokes have punch lines so unfunny they're funny ("Wait for the punch," he tells the crowd). He does impressions of Archie Bunker and Ed Sullivan meant to look amateurish. But then he launches into an impression of Elvis Presley singing "Treat Me Nice" that is masterly and inspired.
When the impression ends, Andy--now wearing a T-shirt embroidered with "I Love Grandma"--tells the audience with his usual disingenuous charm: "So far, everything I've done for you--really, I was only fooling." That also goes, however, for everything that follows, including an adorable interview with Cindy Williams, then starring on "Laverne & Shirley." He insists she sing "Mack the Knife" even though she doesn't know the words.
The highlight of the hour is when Andy sits down for a chat with his childhood idol, the first image he ever remembers seeing on TV, Howdy Doody, superstar marionette. It's heavenly, sublime, off the wall and yet just right, a fated rendezvous radiant with resonance.
"Andy's Fun House" was like nothing else on the air when it was first shown in 1977. It still is--madness and greatness from beginning to end.
CAPTION: The inspired lunacy of Andy Kaufman's 1977 special is revealed on the TV Land cable channel.