19 August 2020

Transcendence, Limited

There are moments out of time and place, where a person stands transfixed by something unexpected, something transcendent, something unbelievable. There was a picture I saw once at the Maryhill Museum, depicting a still life scene of inexplicable objects—all of them exquisitely detailed, all of them familiar in a dreamlike sort of fashion, but none of them recognizable—being surveyed by a small girl in a mask seated on a throne. It was breathtaking in its ineffability—and while I noted down the artist’s name, I lost it before getting back home, and have no idea now exactly what it was I saw, or who was responsible for it. On another occasion, at a performance of Richard III at the Old North Church, the actor who played Buckingham stole the show with a depiction of such shameless bravura that it took my breath away. But as far as I know I never saw the guy again, and the performance only lives in my memory.

Similarly, early in the seventies (probably the summer of 1972) I saw something so inexplicable, so amazing, outside of the familiar continuum of events as we know them, that it burned itself into my brain. I was watching a show on tv featuring—if I recall correctly—bands playing then-current music. Probably some particular band I wanted to catch was performing, but such mundane details have become misty with the passage of time. During a pause a stand-up comic came out to entertain us. Space filler. Something to pass the time between performances, maybe.

The guy was absolutely horrible. He could not tell a joke to save his life. He would reach a punchline, look around hopefully, waiting for a laugh—and when none came his face would fall, but he would metaphorically pick himself up again and soldier on, apparently convinced that the next time he’d be sure to nail it. It was absolutely excruciating to watch. At one point he reached the end of the joke—realized that he had left something out, and filled in the missing detail—and waited hopefully for the laugh that didn’t come.

One of my brothers came by while this was going on, looked at the screen, and asked what the fuck was going on. I said that I didn’t know. I visualized a scene backstage when the real comic failed to show up, and somebody suggested they put on that crew-member whose jokes were so funny during the breaks—and now he was freezing in front of a real audience. My brother said something about how it was good to have a place where aspiring comics could try out their material and headed off to bed.

On the screen the train-wreck continued. Something happened—I don’t remember what—that distracted the guy, and he stood there for a moment, obviously floundering. He’d lost his place, he said accusingly, and would have to start over from the beginning. And start over he did, giving a perfunctory version of the painful routine we’d just witnessed—and it abruptly dawned on me that I was watching art of a high order, meta-art maybe, that the hideously inept comedian was a mere puppet of a fucking genius, no ordinary stand-up comic but a master of the art of humor who transcended the rules with mind-blowing aplomb. What had been painful to watch now became sublime comedy and I was transfixed.

So was the audience. As the laughs came the guy never broke character; the hapless would-be comic observed plaintively that he felt the audience was not so much laughing with him as laughing at him, which from the character’s perspective was no doubt correct, but from the artist’s perspective was entirely the right response. As I recall he finished off with a bit where he stood by a record-player occasionally lip-syncing to the words on a record, but by that point he had the audience—including me—in the palm of his hand, and could do anything he goddamn felt like.

I’d missed the guy’s name, and he wasn’t listed in the description in the guide, but I figured a comic of his ability would have to be well-known. I knew a number of people who were much more current on comedy than I was, and I felt confident I would have no trouble running him down.

I was wrong.

I described his act as best I could, and nobody had ever seen or heard of anything like it. One of my step-brothers asked me if I were sure about what I’d seen—maybe I’d just watched a very bad stand-up comic while stoned, and the art had existed only in my own mind. But I knew what I’d seen, and this was no fluke of my imagination. This guy really existed—but for the moment I had to file his performance alongside that extraordinary picture at the Maryhill Museum. A moment out of time and space, “a bird out of season, dropping bright-feathered on my shoulder,” as Guildenstern—or was it Rosencrantz?—put it, “a tongueless dwarf standing by the road to point the way”. Something bizarre and inexplicable, that had to be accepted on its own terms or not at all.

Several years went by, and after a sojourn on the Oregon coast where tv was not to be had I returned to civilization—or to Vancouver Washington, anyway, however close to civilization that might be. I was interested in seeing a new show that NBC had put into the death slot of Saturday night before it disappeared forever like the ABC Comedy News or That Was the Week That Was. I was all the more interested in that Michael O’Donoghue, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner from The National Lampoon Radio Hour were to be featured on it.

It was reruns by the time I got to see it, but nobody seemed to object to seeing the shows again, and various friends were watching it with me when it happened. A name I didn’t recognize was announced—and then there he was. I recognized him immediately. The guy I had seen years before. “That’s him,” I said excitedly (or words to that effect). “The guy with the bad comedian routine I’ve told you about.” “That’s Andy Kaufman,” somebody said. “He’s on the show a lot.” He was doing a different routine, but it was definitely the guy I remembered. I described the bits I’d seen, and people agreed that he had done those very routines on Saturday Night—but he couldn’t have been the guy I’d seen, because Andy Kaufman’s first television exposure was on Saturday Night itself. I had to be mistaken.

And some reference sources seemed to agree. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that they were correct, what had I seen? I mean, I’d seen the routine, I’d described it to other people—that was beyond dispute. It wasn’t some figment of my imagination. Could Andy Kaufman have stolen his routine from some other comedian? It didn’t seem likely; what made the bit funny were mannerisms belonging specifically to Kaufman. Hard-to-reproduce things, not like stealing a joke or borrowing an ordinary bit. Besides, I recognized Kaufman himself when I saw him again. The only alternative I could see was that some rent in time had affected my tv and allowed me to see a broadcast from the future.

Or else that the sources making the claim were wrong. And that’s what I think. With the advent of the internet I have learned that Andy Kaufman did make some appearances on television in the early seventies, and one that seems to fit what I remember was on The Midnight Special of 19 August 1972, forty-eight years ago today. I haven’t seen the footage, or found a description of what he did on that show, but the externals fit my memory well enough. For the moment, at least, I’m assuming that that’s what I saw, and it wasn’t some inexplicable time-warp or even more inexplicable theft of material.

For the moment.

Whatever it was, however, it was an unforgettable segment sliced out of space and time. Maybe not a bird out of season or a tongueless dwarf, but transcendent, nonetheless, in its own way.

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