Bill Zehme's biography of comic actor/performance artist Andy Kaufman (subject of the feature film Man in the Moon
) is a meticulously researched, eminently readable, and very strange book--this last being perhaps no surprise given its subject. Written over a six-year period, Lost in the Funhouse
is crammed with details gleaned from interviews with the actor's family, friends, teachers, coworkers, and unwitting participants in Kaufman's pranks. In particular, the book provides great insight into Kaufman's early life in Great Neck, NY, his relationship with transcendental meditation, and his first forays into nightclubs in the early '70s. Zehme, author of The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin'
, weaves together multiple narratives from varying perspectives, including passages in which the author appears to have entered his subject's brain. Zehme did have access to unpublished letters and manuscripts (which fans would certainly like to see published on their own one day), but the only person who could legitimately verify the accuracy of these passages is no longer with us.
At its best, the book approaches that apex of artful celebrity bi-fiction, Nick Tosches's Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. The transitions from one perspective to the next are a bit jarring at first, but once the reader gives in to Zehmes's collage of multiple personalities, one is considerably closer to understanding the book's subject. Kaufman was nothing if not a collection of various intense personalities: the young boy continually mourning his grandfather's death; the likable and naive Foreign Man; the talentless and irascible lounge singer Tony Clifton; the bliss-seeking student of TM; the devoted and loving son who never had anything to do with his own child; and world champion of inter-gender wrestling. Lost in the Funhouse is the one Kaufman tome that will please neophytes as well as those with their own Andy Kaufman Web sites. --Mike McGonigal
From Publishers Weekly
Already the subject of Bob Zmuda's recent memoir, Andy Kaufman Revealed, the avant-garde comedian receives more straightforward treatment at the hands of journalist Zehme (The Way You Wear Your Hat). Yet while Kaufman's life may be open to scrutiny, cracking the weird intricacies of his personality and motives is another matter. Growing up in Great Neck, N.Y., the young Andy honed his performance skills by hosting children's birthday parties before striking gold on the New York comedy scene with his creation of Foreign Man, a sweet, bumbling immigrant who would bomb with a series of unfunny jokes ("Tenk you veddy much"), only to veer into an uncanny impersonation of Elvis Presley. The character landed Kaufman a recurring guest spot on Saturday Night Live and a benchmark role as Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi. Eventually, his obnoxious alter ego, lounge singer Tony Clifton, and Kaufman's obsession with taunting and wrestling women audience members spurred Saturday Night Live viewers to vote by a wide margin to kick Kaufman off the show in 1982. A year and a half later, he was dead at the age of 35, the victim of lung cancer. Through the entertaining recollections of numerous friends, colleagues and family members, Kaufman comes across as either a genius or a lunatic, most likely a bit of both. Unfortunately, Zehme's mannered writing style (on Kaufman's part-time busboy job: "Plus, he could do funny things in the course of a shift not to be funny no really") detracts considerably from what is otherwise a balanced portrayal of his tumultuous career. 36 b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Chris Calhoun, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Dec.)
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