Before his untimely passing in 1984, Andy Kaufman was putting the pieces together for a planned comedy album. The LP was to be partially culled from the hours and hours of material he recorded using a small handheld tape recorder that he carried with him absolutely everywhere.
These recordings had, until recently, sat collecting dust in Andy’s archives, overseen by his former partner Lynne Margulies. But last year, she approached Drag City Records with them, and the idea of finally seeing the late comic’s vision through to completion.
To do so, the label tapped friend and Kaufman superfan Vernon Chatman to piece it all together. It was a perfect fit too as Chatman has exhibited a similar impish and provocative comedic vision through TV projects like Wonder Showzen and The Heart She Holler and his work behind the scenes on South Park and Louie.
Chatman dutifully listened to all 82 hours of recorded material, pulling out choice excerpts that felt both true to Andy’s spirit and to his hopes for this project. The resulting album, Andy and his Grandmother, is an appropriately unpolished gem that includes recorded interactions between Kaufman and his family members, pranks staged by the comic and his usual foil Bob Zmuda, and tracks that bring to life ideas for the album that Andy laid out in detail (“Sleep Comedy”).
Paste caught up with Chatman, currently filming on season two of The Heart She Holler and sketching out ideas for season four of Louie, to talk about putting this one-of-a-kind comedy album together and the impact Kaufman’s career had on his own work.
: What was your first experience with Andy Kaufman’s comedy?
Chatman: I feel like the first time I really remember, I saw a double feature of I’m From Hollywood and My Breakfast With Blassie. That was the first time that I fully took in Andy. I loved it, especially Hollywood. I’m just realizing how much I still haven’t shaken the influence of that. Right now I’m doing a show [The Heart She Holler] that makes fun of the South in a certain way that’s hopefully not too insulting, and I’ve done a lot things that are annoying people on purpose. Before or after that double feature, I saw things like his Mighty Mouse bit from watching SNL re-runs. Then I just obsessively sought out everything. This was a time when it was VHS tapes that would compile his appearances on shows. I’d track them down and trade tapes with friends. There’s only a handful of things that keep going, that are bottomless. There’s never a moment of saturation.
: How did this project come together then? Did you know about the tapes and bring this idea to Drag City?
Chatman: I didn’t seek it out. I didn’t know these tapes existed. I’d done projects with the label before, and I don’t think we’d ever talked about Andy before. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe the opportunity. And it was a giant undertaking. I don’t like to have such a big assignment on my plate, but it was impossible to say no. It’s almost offensive in its goal to try to make the album that he would have.
: Do you know what prompted Andy’s family to finally get this project going?
Chatman: I don’t, other than that Lynne—Andy’s sort of widow—had these tapes for a long time and hadn’t done anything with them. This was a really big step for her. It was very emotional for her to even decide to do something with this, and to listen to what we did. I’m amazed and impressed and honored that she gave the okay for me to do it. She had a little bit of familiarity with stuff that I had done. One thing I was told is that she was a fan of Towlie, one of the characters I voiced for South Park, and that was the thing that got me. It’s a stupid a reason as should be for something like this.
: What was your process like to cull through these tapes and find the right stuff to use?
Chatman: It was a strange combination of a tedious process and wanting to be very thoughtful about it. Even when it was hours of a muffled noise where he put the tape recorder in his pocket and went to a party and you couldn’t make out anything, I listened to it all. Then there were those great thrilling moments of, “Oh wow…oh my god…this is what he’s doing!” Piecing together the scene that he’s unraveling spontaneously. There was this other thing of being immersed in his life in a weird and limited way. He was interested in immersing the tape recorder deep into his life. Him alone, him with people that he’s just met, people closest to him, people that he’s just meeting for a one-night stand. I can’t really say that I know him any better, but this was the closest you can get to coming to some understanding of what he was really like.
: What was the biggest takeaway you got from that?
Chatman: There wasn’t a cynical level of artifice behind his comedic or creative impulses. It came from a very pure and very lovable place. Even the hateful, mean aggressive stuff came from a very impish place. He kind of doesn’t snap out of that. When he would talk to his parents, it was “Mommy and Daddy.” He nurtured this very childlike thing. I don’t know anybody like that, anyone that highly functional and insanely talented. There was nothing punk rock about it. It was just pure.
: Were there very obviously staged moments on these tapes?
Chatman: There wasn’t anything that was overtly staged. He’d have an idea and be excited about it, and then get himself in a situation to execute it. He would just start toying with people the way he always toyed with people and thought, “Maybe I’ll get some good stuff.” Weird little prank calls. He’d stage a fight on the phone with an ex, and his grandmother would get all upset, and he’d say, “Ah, I’m not on the phone.” And the way his grandmother reacted was, like, “You do this all the time! You did this when you were five!” The other thing that he would do that was manipulative but not staged was he and Bob Zmuda, his partner in crime, would be in a diner or something and would start messing with the waitress. They’d make up stories and build this artificial world of insanity that the waitress would have to deal with.
: Was it very obvious how he wanted to put this together as an album?
Chatman: He would describe some things and act things out. We would sort of produce it and try to give it the life we were guessing that he was talking about. Things came up throughout the tapes. People would ask him, “What’s with that tape recorder?” and he’d say, “Oh, this is for my album. This conversation might be on the album.” Those were the moments he was spelling them out for us.
: Was there any concern about the legality of using the voices of all the people that he recorded?
Chatman: We bleeped name and made sure that people were unrecognizable. I’ll say this: Most everybody had consented knowing that he was taping them. He did very little hidden. He was open. In cases where he was provoking or talking to people…there’s that simple bit where he and Zmuda went to pick up hookers but pretended to be dumb knuckleheads that didn’t know they were hookers, earnestly asking them out for a date, I don’t think that they were recognizable. I don’t think that hooker is going to come around and be outraged by how they were treated 35 years ago and sue. I’d almost like to see someone try.