A huge part of my childhood, was my love of Jim Carrey. When I was young (4 or 5 or 6 years old) I would hide in the doorway of my bedroom, or behind the couch and watch In Living Color, when my mother would be watching it (I am pretty sure it was my just my mother, but I remember watching it more than who I was trying to not get caught by). Then Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber came out, and I was hooked.
Needless to say, I was a Jim Carrey fan, and over the course of the 90’s I made a point to go see every movie that he was in, even the little cameos like Simon Birch, or films that I and the rest of audience couldn’t quite appreciate yet like The Cable Guy. He had a rubber face, and did funny voices, and that was really all I cared about.
During the last year, or so, of the 90’s I would read about the chaos on the set of his new movie. He had got into some fight with a wrestler, and he may have broken his neck. As far as I could tell from the very minimal amount of reading materials I had access to, he was going full blown Hollywood wack-a-doo. I was worried it was the beginning of the end.
Yet, the articles that wrote about these antics didn’t seem to have the same worry that I did. At the time, I chalked it up to the fact that they weren’t as invested in his continued success as I was, and perhaps him crashing and burning was great for them.
In 1999, Man On The Moon was released in theaters, and I couldn’t wait to see it, and see if it was going to be a disaster ruined by his backstage antics. It was rated R, so normally, my parents would not have let me see it, but it was about Andy Kaufman, who they had known as Latka on Taxi in the mid-70’s.
So, I managed to get them to let me watch it. My dad didn’t really like Jim Carrey’s movies, because he was too goofy, so he didn’t watch it with us, but my mother, my sister and I watched, and it affected me. Right now, I will say, this is my favorite film of all time, and while I’m not sure I would have said that upon first viewing, I was immediately in love.
As I watched the movie, I was taken by the fact that it was so unlike anything I had seen with Jim Carrey before. Sure, The Truman Show, and other films had shown us the more serious side, but there was still some of the sweet/innocent goofball in there, but the character of Andy Kaufman was not. That’s not to say that he isn’t likable, but he was—at least in the depiction in the film— purposefully abrasive, and purposefully aloof. Carrey’s other characters never seemed very purposeful.
Living through the seventies and eighties probably gives many people a much different view of Andy Kaufman than I have. He ‘died’ three months before I was born, so Man On The Moon was my first introduction to him. One of the great things about Man On the Moon is that the narrative structure of the film, is done in such a way that it is as if Andy himself would have made it. The beginning is Jim as Andy speaking directly to the camera in his Latka voice, and welcoming the audience to the movie, and telling them how stupid the movie is, and that it’s so stupid and that it is short too, and in fact, it’s over by the end of his monologue. Then, he puts on a record, and the credits begin to play as he stares at you. It’s incredibly awkward, and for those of us unfamiliar with Kaufman, and I assume for those who were only aware of him from Taxi, it was unparalleled in its bizarreness. Then it goes into a more standard narrative once those who ‘don’t understand’ or won’t ‘try to understand’ have been weeded out. Telling the story of his life, and eventually his death. The final scene (spoiler alert) show his alter ego Tony Clifton performing on stage after his death, and we’re to believe it’s his partner and part-time Tony Clifton, Bob Zmuda, but then the camera pans over to Zmuda sitting in the audience watching. The ending wants to leave an ambivalence to whether or not Kaufman is dead, which is absolutely what Kaufman would have wanted.
I’ve gone back and forth on whether I think that Kaufman actually died, and have read up on it, and watched interviews with his brother, and ultimately, I do think that he’s dead. But I still find the ending of the film fascinating, because I cannot remember ever seeing a film that seemed to tell the story the way the main character would see it to such a drastic degree, other than perhaps Memento.
Very shortly after this movie, I began to lose some of my interest in Jim Carrey. I was a teenager, and more subversive and alternative forms of comedy were beginning to appeal to me, and it was also the end of his heyday, but this film transitioned me, not only from Jim Carrey style comedy to more bizarre and cerebral fare, but from Carrey himself to Kaufman. Ultimately Kaufman’s more bizarre and oddball type of comedy doesn’t seem to appear on film or video as often as it does in stories told by others, and it’s become legendary, and perhaps more importantly, it created a legacy.
Each type of comedy dates back to something, and perhaps straightfaced, anti-comedy dates back to Andy. Sacha Baron Cohen sites other influences, but certainly what he’s doing is more similar to Andy’s total commitment style of “it doesn’t matter if I’m the only one who gets the joke”. Nathan Fielder in his show Nathan For You, similarly plays not only with the idea of a character being all encompassing and not necessarily having the comedy come from him but in how those around him react, but he also plays with the form, going on talk-shows as part of his ‘schemes.’
Maybe the best thing I’m most excited for, is that tomorrow, a documentary, “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton”, about Jim Carrey and the filming of Man On The Moon will be available on Netflix. In the previews for the film, they’ve said the studio never wanted the footage to be released, and they are doing the same type of hype that they had done in telling people almost 20 years ago, that Jim Carrey had been in a fight with Jerry Lawler (similar to the fake feud that Kaufman had with him, that wasn’t admitted until the film showed them side by side talking about it.)
In my opinion, Man On The Moon is a masterpiece, and I’m hoping that this documentary captures even a little bit of that magic for me.
Kaufman himself may only appear in the documentary as a character, and to an extant, I think that’s the perfect way for us to remember him.
Eventually, I hope, that all of you will see Man On The Moon, and perhaps, this documentary is just thing to make that happen. If you’ve seen Man On The Moon, let me know what you thought of it, and if you’re excited to see this documentary.