Ignore all the debate about whether Andy Kaufman is alive: Of course he is. He’s spent more than a decade hiding in plain sight as Sacha Baron Cohen.
Cohen is kind of like Kaufman with some rough edges shaved off, and slightly more streamlined jokes. Like Kaufman, he likes staging wrestling matches and plays characters who are themselves playing characters. He’s probably a genius.
Kaufman’s brother, Michael, gave a talk Monday at the annual Andy Kaufman awards that ended with him saying his brother is still alive, in hiding, and has a 24-year-old daughter. Michael Kaufman introduced a woman purporting to be her. (The Smoking Gun has since exposed her as an actress, describing it as “news that should shock nobody.”)
Kaufman continued a tradition started by his later brother’s confidante Bob Zmuda, who has long hinted that Andy Kaufman may still be alive.
But these kinds of proclamations are kind of a bummer, because they feel like Kaufman-esque routines by people who can’t do Kaufman as well as Kaufman.Where’s the joke? We believe them or don’t. And we know almost nothing would be less funny than the eventual emergence of an old man claiming to be Kaufman, submitting to DNA tests that may or may not be real, answering probing questions from David Letterman, possibly in on the joke — ick. If he faked his own death, he should stay fake-dead.
The magic of Kaufman’s jokes was how they twisted reality. He fought pro wrestler Jerry Lawler for real, sustaining nasty-sounding injuries in the process. That’s comedy, if we accept Mel Brooks‘ definition: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
For it to be really funny, we have to really believe the comedian is falling. Or — better yet — that other people really believe he’s falling, while we know he’s not. Or is he? We don’t know.
Cohen is great at that. It’s hard not to read the wrestling match as the climax of “Bruno” as an homage to Kaufman. If anything, Cohen takes commitment even futher than Kaufman — unless Kaufman really did fake his death, in which case he gets the grand prize. And no one will ever know for sure.
Cohen commits by putting his character not just in danger of a pro wrestler who may be in on the joke, but in the line of fire of human variables: armed homophobic hunters, angry cops, rabid wrestling fans.
His latest Kaufmanesque stunt was his straight-faced killing of a Charlie Chaplin co-star at the BAFTA awards. Brilliant. He caught the audience off-guard by starting with a lame Chaplin routine — poor Sacha, we thought, his best years are behind him — before slipping and pushing an octogenarian to her apparent death.
Cohen has taken some of the knottier aspects out of Kaufman’s routines — we know that he, at heart, seems quite sane, though we still don’t have a read on Kaufman — while amplifying the slapstick and social commentary. While not as groundbreaking as Kaufman, he’s building on what Kaufman did in the best possible sense. (Let’s not talk about “The Dictator.”)
There’s a dash of Kaufman in “Bad Grandpa,” too. And all the “Jackass” projects. And the absurdist humor of “Mr. Show,” “Conan,” and every other comedic outlet that knows how to bend reality and make it a lot funnier. If Kaufman is alive, he’s managed to subvert the most brutal reality of all, death.
Our not knowing is the most Kaufmanesque possibility of all.
Watch Cohen at the BAFTAs: