This DVD set has one of the most amazing hours of television that I’ve ever seen.
If you’re not familiar with the life and career of Andy Kaufman, you’re missing out on one of the most interesting, controversial and bizarre public figures of the last few decades. Kaufman was a rare public figure who gloried in controversy, but not in the way that your favorite drug-abusing, sex-tape-creating, mindless paparazzi-baiting star does.
No, Andy Kaufman was different. He was a man who liked to challenge people’s ideas of what they thought was funny. In an era when the media was annoyingly homogenized, Kaufman was an oddball, appearing on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live to play the Mighty Mouse theme on a tiny record player,
sometimes challenging women to wrestling matches,
and in between starred in scenes as the beloved Latka Gravas on the popular ’70s and ’80s sitcom Taxi,
When Kaufman appeared on the late night sketch comedy series Fridays in 1981, it was reasonable to expect pandemonium to happen – and it most certainly did. Kaufman rocked the joint, delivering an hour of television that still has fans pondering intentions and circumstances thirty years later, in an episode that feels even more vital and compelling than it felt back then.
Fridays was ABC’s newer, hipper counterpart to NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which at the time was in the worst stretch in its history.
The producers of Fridays knew they had lightning in a bottle. With a cast that included Michael Richards and Larry David, they had a show that was smart and gutsy, with interesting musical guests and a mind for surrealism and musical comedy that’s unique on TV.
Surprisingly good as the rest of this DVD set is, the Kaufman episode alone makes this set worth buying. Kaufman is brilliantly playful and dismissive in his episode. Rather than tell jokes during his monologue, Kaufman deliberately messes up his delivery and intentionally subverts the idea of a TV guest star by laughing like a hyena at his nonexistent jokes and mocking everybody who tries to get him on course. It’s an astonishing performance because Kaufman looks like a guy who simply does not care about being on TV. He’s there because he has to be there and he’ll do what’s expected of him, but Kaufman gives the appearance of just not minding whether he comes across as a completely unlikeable lunatic or a great comedian. It’s a rare TV moment that feels thoroughly fresh and wholly unexpected, where viewers have absolutely no idea how we’re supposed to react.
In two other scenes, Kaufman shows the same oddball apathy. In one, an absurdly silly point/counterpoint sketch, the comedian takes both sides in a fictional debate, cracking himself up at the absurdity of the way he’s appearing in front of the camera. In another, he interacts with a magician in a mask, giving away magic secrets and acting like an ass. Both are wonderful, transfixing television that left me slackjawed.
But the most famous scene from this episode, and the sketch I’ve obsessively watched over and over, is one of the most amazing moments in television history. A sketch about people at a restaurant starts out like almost every other sketch before becoming thoroughly transfixing.
In the sketch, cast member Maryedith Burrell wanders off to the bathroom to pretend she’s getting stoned; when she returns, it was supposed to be Kaufman’s turn to do the same. So he wanders away from the table and then quickly meanders back, with an annoyed look on his face. “I can’t… I can’t… I can’t… I can’t play stoned”, he mumbles. Burrell bursts out in stressed-out laughter at Kaufman’s behavior, actress Melanie Chartoff looks at Kaufman with a look of pure fear on her face, while Michael Richards obviously becomes furious with Kaufman. For a moment, everything pauses. Richards’s face grows red, Chartoff looks like her career is coming to an end, and Burrell keeps laughing hysterically. Finally not able to handle his anger any more, Richards dashes to the cue card man, grabs the cards and slams them on the table directly in front of Kaufman. The tension builds as Kaufman tries to decide what to do before he bounds out of his chair and fings a glass of water at Richards. Pandemonium ensues – the showrunner and crew jump on stage, Kaufman throws a punch at the showrunner, someone yells fade to black –
And then when the show returns for good-nights, Kaufman is being held back from punching again and everybody on the screen looks completely stunned. What the hell just happened?
To add even more mystery to the story, Kaufman returns the next week, looking absolutely serious and contrite. This incident has gotten all over the news and Kaufman’s career and personal life are in a shambles, as he reports. His wife is threatening to leave him, he may lose his gig on Taxi, and to make matters worse, as Kaufman tells his story the audience laughs uncomfortably. Is this all real or is it some odd made-up prank? To this day nobody knows.
It’s an astonishing hour, one I’ve now watched five times in the last week, thoroughly absorbed in the puzzle that Kaufman has left us. I’m absolutely convinced that the sketch was a surprise to all the actors – the looks on Burrell’s and Chartoff’s faces are too genuine for that – and that Kaufman was excited with the idea of blowing things up on TV. He was having so much uninhibited fun earlier in the episode that he simply wanted to push the joke to see how far it could go before it blew up.
You really should get this DVD set to make up your own mind.
The thing is, the other four disks in this set are pretty amazing, too. After a rough start on the first disk, Fridays quickly settles into a very funny groove. David and talented mimic Bruce Mahler star in a hilarious series of sketches as two rabbis who are obsessed with their matzoi. In different episodes, David and Mahler escalate this silly premise to film-like levels, doing an Even Knieval-type stunt, a James Bond takeoff, a kung fu parody and more. These characters had legs, and if Fridays hadn’t been cancelled it’s possible that David would have been known for his portrayal of Rabbi Feinberg instead of for his work of Seinefeld and Curb.
The show was also known for its amazing musical comedy sketches. One episode has a full 18 minute skit that casts Ronald Reagan as Frank N. Furter in an amazingly faithful sendup of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Andy Kaufman episode also features the brilliant “Moral Majority Comedy Hour,” a great tribute to whiteness (“and there are no gays in our crew”) as imagined during the early Reagan administration.
Yeah, as you might have guessed, a lot of this show does feel a bit dated today. I could have happily lived without more jokes about Jimmy Carter in my life, though the cast does pull those jokes off with charm. There’s no doubt that this show reflects the time it was produced, between 1980 and 1982.
But that also means that Fridays got some amazing musical guests. The Clash kill in their first North American TV appearance, Graham Parker and the Rumour deliver some spectacular new wave thrills, the Stray Cats are incredibly exciting, The Cars are fantastic, KISS appear in one of their final appearances in makeup, and an impossibly young Tom Petty rocks the house.
I can’t recommend this set highly enough. It’s given me more manic TV thrills than anything I’ve watched in a long time.