Roland Wulbert made a query that sounded to me like a rhetorical question. He wanted me to compare Andy Kaufman’s first appearance on Saturday Night Live, which occurred some twenty-five years ago, with Numa Numa, which in recent weeks has gone viral on You Tube. The question seemed to me rhetorical because Kaufman’s is so clearly the superior comedy performance, but I took the question as straight, as a literal question about establishing the relative quality of the performances, and so here goes.
Kaufman's is clearly the superior piece, a genius bit of invention, while Numa Numa is only You Tube silliness, people getting in the limelight by making fools of themselves and knowing they are making fools of themselves for the purpose of getting into the limelight, as if that were the sole purpose of life. Notoriety is all, and if all you have going for you is that you are willing to appear silly, then that is what you do. The guy in Numa Numa knows he is fat and has no voice but sings something bouncy anyway and it gets him on You Tube. Everything is given away; nothing mysterious or secret, except why humans crave adulation, which is a question not for this specific bit of fluff but one which could be generated from any of the many similar things that appear on You Tube or, for that matter, on so many vaudeville contest shows like. The question is not what is the insight offered up by the "art", but what are the forces that lead to performances that are so unartful. Medieval Punch and Judy shows had more life than the present day crop of acrobats and ten year old singers that appear on such programs as “America Has Talent”. With Numa Numa, as with those television shows, one does sociology rather than criticism.
Kaufman, for his part, on the other hand, is up to something. All he does in his three minute piece is mouth the words to part of the Mighty Mouse theme song, something well known to people of his and an earlier generation, and therefore something that sets off, at first, only a medium range insight of the sort that makes you laugh. How could anyone take the theme song seriously? The audience remembers it, and that is a jolt that can provoke a laugh. It also feels good to remember the song, and that provokes a bit of sentimental feeling that passes as humor. It is entertaining to notice someone else drawn back to a youthful pleasure, the same thing that happens when one chortles with other fathers at a Daffy Duck cartoon the assembled children are watching. But there is more to the Kaufman performance than that.
Notice that Kaufman never says a word and that he doesn't do all that much else. Three or four times, he mouths the same key line in the Mighty Mouse song. That is all. During the rest of the time, he stands to the side anxiously awaiting his next moment to perform. He sips water. He twiddles his fingers. He gets ready to get into the rhythm. He is like a member of an orchestra waiting to tinkle his triangle, and so there is a parody here of all performance. He also puts the needle arm on the record, which is only a further bit of business but it does intensify an insight allied but not the same as the performance itself, which is that this is a self-enclosed performance, generated out of skimpy resources and so perhaps to satisfy himself even if is also a public performance in that he is turned towards the audience. (Noma Noma is clearly turned only to the camera that he has set up just the way the camera is set up by all the other self promoting people who appear on You Tube.)
Kaufman is earnest rather than self-consciously silly. He is pathetic but also operating beyond pathos, clearly certain he is on to something that the audience may or may not appreciate while the Noma Noma guy is merely pathetic and is using it. Kaufman’s face is what makes that happen. The audience does not know whether the role Kaufman plays is to be taken seriously, as that of a person beyond conventional bounds of what constitutes art or even beyond what an audience thinks or even, and this is most scary, is not a role, but what Kaufman is, so it is he rather than a character that is hanging out there for an audience to mock or just possibly applaud-- and applaud for what? Was it his seriousness or was it his insight into the power of the Mighty Mouse jingle? Has he helped us discover that the Mighty Mouse jingle is art and therefore turns topsy-turvy our idea of art?
Few comedians are as capable or were as capable of breaking through the wall so that you thought you were actually watching people being foolish rather than watching a performance where a foolish person was being imitated. None of the great television comedians, neither Sid Caesar, nor Jackie Gleason, nor Lucille Ball, did that. They all operated within the confines of sketch comedy and situation comedy, though they were so effective at it that I, for one, couldn't watch The Honeymooners because it was as lacerating as real life. (Roland Wulbert reminds me that you could not tell in her early movies whether Judy Garland was acting or was just being herself.)
Sarah Silverman can do that too, and she, like Kaufman, is only sometimes appreciated as having something close to genius. If I remember his biography correctly, Kaufman was supposed to have difficulty telling the difference between his roles and his self, but I don't know if that was actually the case or a press agent's report. Some comedians are like that. Jonathan Winters was at least once locked up for impersonating one of his characters on a non theatrical occasion and not knowing how to turn it off. Jerry Lewis achieved some kind of apotheosis by making himself into a telethon figure who could manipulate people by having real life kids with tics and spasms draw attraction to his spiel for money when what he had done in his previous television routines was to get laughs from his imitations of kids with tics and spasms. Lewis also threw in his show business cynicism to get businesses and unions and the celebrities of two generations to give their time and money. Lewis could have run a major corporation. His being just this side of cynical most of the time was the cutting edge of his mature humor, just as Kaufman's dead pan, scary and oblivious seriousness was the cutting edge of his early humor. That was before he became a sitcom star and had to tone it so much down that he just became a funny character, though a much funnier one than most sit com characters. Remember Latka's duos with Carol Kane, who played his girl friend? They really got humming.
Wulbert proposed a fill in question as well as a request for a free response. “Using the difference between the two videos as a symptom, fill in the blanks of this specification of Marx's correction of Hegel, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic comic schticks appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as _____, the second time as _______.” My answer to the Marx question is as follows: Comedy schticks appear first as existential irony and come back as only pathos.
Any other literary queries out there?