In 2002 I discover Andy Kaufman, or Jim, on a DVD we rent on a rainy day on holiday. In Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey is Kaufman. I first see the iconic Mighty Mouse routine through Jim Carrey’s impersonation. His colossal eyes, blinking, bulging, as he moves between phases of Kaufman’s career, life—his face an even more obnoxious moon with bigger teeth. I first see his Foreign Man imitation melding into his Elvis impersonation and back, through Jim’s imitation. I first see him wrestling women, wrestling actual wrestler Jerry Lawler, wearing a neck brace for year afterwards like a dirty collar. I first see him reading The Great Gatsby on stage. I first see him taunting Bob Zmuda as the lounge lizard Tony Clifton, a character of Andy’s, pouring water on his head, through Jim.
I first see him dying at age thirty-five from lung cancer, even though he didn’t smoke.
I look up the real Kaufman after the holiday. When I see him, I am disappointed by his pudgy cheeks, his retreating hairline—his more human qualities. I watch his videos on YouTube. Kaufman irl is charming, sedate. He is an arsehole, but he is in control of his actions in a way that Carrey’s imitation isn’t.
I realise, that in Milos Foreman’s biopic, Kaufman’s trajectory is adjusted to fit a suitable Hollywood redemption narrative.
|Things that happened in the movie||Things that happened IRL|
having wrestled women and his own career into the dirt
Perhaps Foreman designed the ending as he did because he wanted to make his story slightly less depressing. Perhaps he did it because he was orchestrating his own Kaufman-esque manipulation: ameliorating Kaufman to the audience before his death so we love him again. Charming us back to him so we don’t storm out and miss the ending.
Ladies and gentlemen, so far everything I have ever done for you, really I’m only fooling. This is the real me and we’ll be right back.
Now, thanks to YouTube, we live in a reality with a Kaufman who was always on—who never stopped. The myth of his unperforated performance can be true because we never get to question it. In these online apparitions he transitions from persona to persona, bit to bit. He is the bombing loser from the island of Caspiar located in the Caspian Sea (the character that was optioned by the sitcom Taxi), transitioning from tears into a drum solo into a dead-set Elvis routine. He is a wrestler, intergender champion of the world, in tights grappling with women before eventually being wrestled down by a pro and having his neck broken (another bit). Each twist and turn reveals the previous one to have been in jest, but there is no end to the chain, no end to the act.
I become obsessed with the idea that my selfhood transcends gender in a way that is more to do with internalised misogyny than any kind of latent non-binary identification (though how could you extricate the two). I wanted to be Kaufman—shrouding my self-hood in performative layers, so the real me is never revealed.
I was a teenage Kaufman
In 2003, I am hair-bleached, at Flinders Street, smoking Winnie Blues, drinking Jim Beam and Coke under the Four Palms. A waste/wasted. I am Courtney Love. I am Kurt Cobain. I am wearing my sister’s friend’s old denim jeans so loose and dirty and ripped that they look like second flesh pulling away from my body, my fish-netted knees popping out through the holes. Eventually she gets them back off me and throws them in the bin.
In 2004, I discover emo music and cut my hair into a side fringe. I can’t find black tight-legged pants in my size, so I get a pair of men’s straight legs tailored, but they don’t bring in the crotch so it hangs down like a nappy. I do lots of pictures of Kaufman, Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain in my bedroom and put them on DeviantArt.
In 2006, I make a full-size, hand-painted effigy of Andy Kaufman for a Year 11 art project, replete with checked op-shop jacket and leather shoes, with the encouragement of an art teacher who is overjoyed to have a student choose not to paint watercolour portraits of her acned boyfriend. I drag the Kaufman figure around with me one day and take photos with him, enlivening the rumour that Andy faked his own death. A young boy asks me if he can take a photo of us, and I agree. I keep the figure until 2016, when I move into a house that is too small for it and I leave it on the street. It is picked up within half an hour. I am surprised by how sad I am.
Andy did you hear about this one?
In 2009, I get very obsessed with social media. A boy I like very much, who will very soon pull my heart out and mash it under his boot, chats to me on fb messenger. We write on each other’s walls like monkeys spraying excrement at each other. I am living in Montreal and each morning I lie in bed and will him to contact me. Talk to me. Pay attention to me. Poke me.
I am getting very good at being someone else on fb. I use face-morph to make myself into different people. I am Mickey Rourke. I am Little Edie Beale. I do costumes, I am The Fly. I am Elaine Benes. I am whoever he wants me to be. We have sex; he stops messaging me.
The withdrawal feels like death. I am a ghost in the notifications tab waiting for a sign from him that never comes.
I am very sad for a time. I do not tell my friends about it because then I will be vulnerable. He continues to hang around like a bad smell and I let him because I hope that he’ll love me again. He does not. He borrows three hundred dollars from me. He does not pay it back. I push whatever I feel down and put on a different face.
It’s 2011 and I don’t know what I am doing with my life, not for the first time, not for the last. After a long time of living with my parents with no/ne of my own money and riding from their house in East Brighton to parties in Northcote and riding down the highway very, very fast and drunk, I decide to do my honours. I’m writing a piss-poor honours thesis about Andy Kaufman and how his performances tied into the anthropological theory of liminality (academic pointlessness at its least convincing and most nefarious). At some point, I figure out that my supervisor maybe doesn’t know who Andy is.
I make a weird cut-out of Frankie Muniz just so I can put it on fb.
I’m still writing about Andy Kaufman and at the same time working at the Army Barracks in the city. I am living in Seddon. I have a crush on another boy. I put all my eggs in his basket.
One day my thesis supervisor looks at me puzzlingly, and asks: “So what are you going to do after this?” like my academic life is already doomed and over and I’m not going anywhere. So I decide that I’m doomed, not going anywhere. I finish uni, do drawings of Kaufman and other characters. Decide to go to Japan, become someone else for this other boy who doesn’t like wearing condoms “because of the way they feel”, and come back after an unbearable bout of depression.
It is useless to think in hypotheticals and yet I do it: if I had been a man I would…if I hadn’t been born a girl I would…
These ifs hang in the air like dumb question marks. They are an insult to my female ancestors who wanted better for me. Who wanted me to become an artist, to achieve what they were not allowed. But how can I be the best version of myself, when I don’t know who I am? I am the woman who built her identity on sand, on ephemeral slabs of self-doubt, on pretending to be one of the boys. I am sinking.
I want to be adored. I want to be sedated. I want to be the girl with the most cake. I am lying, dying. I am a good white girl. Like Alex Mack I can pass into any form I choose. I can wear pants or a dress. I can dress to impress. I can be thankful for a friendly world. In moralistic black-and-white. Even if it isn’t like that. I can do it. For a while.
I don’t know if Jim and Andy is supposed to be about Jim Carrey being an arsehole
There is a Netflix doco about Kaufman with an egregiously long title: Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond with a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Jim Carrey is now an anti-vaxxer, has a big white wise beard and a self-satisfied smugness to him. He talks about the process of method-acting as Andy in Man on The Moon. He waxes like a 20-year-old philosophy bro:
At some point, when you create yourself to make it, you’re going to have to either let that creation go, and take a chance on being loved or hated for who you really are. Or you’re gonna have to kill who you really are, and fall into your grave grasping onto a character that you never were.
He spouts some ideas that sound like they’re from The Secret. They give me the heebie-jeebies. He sounds very lost, like the movie made him lose the thread of his authentic self. Every movie I’ve gotten in my life. Trace any movie, and I could tell you, somehow, how that was the absolute manifestation of my consciousness at that time. The movie shows Carrey causing havoc on the set, crashing a convertible, spray painting walls as Tony Clifton. The ‘absolute manifestation’ of Carrey’s consciousness, in this instance, is a punk kid who wants to prove his complete disregard for the establishment, which, in this instance, is the role feeding him, creatively and otherwise.
It is impossible to imagine a woman doing what Andy did. It is also impossible to see a woman behaving in the same way that Jim Carrey did on the set and not be exiled from Hollywood à la Lindsay Lohan. To say something like “eat my body, drink my blood”, quoting Jesus, and not have it end up on a blooper reel. It is male privilege indeed, to be an arsehole and to be able to call it art.
In this friendly, friendly world with each day so full of joy why should any heart be lonely?
Lana Del Rey has a song named Ride, the one with the film clip where she bangs bikers on a lost highway in cheap motel rooms. Bathing in past blue-ribbon light. The video clip begins with cheesy, spoken word:
Without a moral compass, she is a limp doll. She finds freedom in complete submission, falling into men like warm beds. She sings: they have no idea what it’s like to seek safety in other people. She sings: I just ride.
In some ways, Del Rey is a true heir to Kaufman’s construction of persona-as-myth. Her initial fame achieved through her embodied ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ character—a woman who lived in a trailer park, with natural bee-stung lips, with homemade videos referencing Old Hollywood, dripping in indie authenticity. Of course, when it was ‘discovered’ that Del Rey was in fact Lizzie Grant—middling singer-song-writer who had released unpopular albums, endorsed daughter of a millionaire, studio creation, bee-stung lips paid for—she was torn to shreds in ways I cannot fathom happening to a man. How dare a woman be inauthentic. How dare a woman make art that isn’t literal. How dare a woman spin gold out of something other than her own vulnerability.
Del Rey’s construction of identity was something unprecedented. Creating something that was both her and wasn’t her. Embodying Del Rey as a symbol, she was creating a mythology, literally constructing herself out of shadows of the past. A mirage of a woman, the way Kaufman was a moon-man. People were more comfortable with the idea of Lana Del Rey as a sad girl who lives through her relationships with men than a legitimate artist birthing herself.
Men plunge onto women, seek them out like life rafts and deflate them. Kaufman was looked after by his girlfriend, by sex workers, his mother, and his grandmother before them. Kaufman wrestled women, groping them to make an ironic joke about toxic masculinity. What might his life have looked like without the female supporting cast? What would the lives of the women he wrestled have looked like without being groped “ironically” by the comedian?
What would my life have looked like if I’d sought safety in something other than men? And so and so forth, back through all the women in my family, back through all recorded time.
Sometimes you get stuck being someone else and people like that version of you so much better you try to be it all the time. You want to be the rock star and the rock star’s girlfriend at the same time. You want so much to be loved. You want it all.
Andy didn’t care about that. He wanted to alienate everyone. Even when he sings that he is “thankful for this friendly friendly world”, he does so with the twinkle of a wink in his eye, subtly out of tune. Even when he wanted everyone in the world to love him, he risked having the whole world hate him.
Jim Carrey couldn’t commit to that. I couldn’t either.
These days I try not to get lost in other versions of myself. I stick to the one that I have. I write about my life, I cut close to the skin. It is both the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m kind enough to myself now to see myself as I am. To look at the woman in the mirror, to walk on the surface of the moon.
Eloise Grills is a comics artist, essayist, poet, photographer, zine-maker and editor living in Melbourne. Her work has been published by CHART Collective, Filmme Fatales, LOR Journal, The Age and VICE, among many others. She currently edits memoir for Scum Magazine, tweets and grams from @grillzoid and uses Patreon to cover her arse.