Review: 'Is This Guy For Real?' Provides a New Performance of Andy Kaufman's Life

What more is there to say about Andy Kaufman? What is there to say about Andy Kaufman? The man was a consummate entertainer who embraced roles as comedian, actor, wrestler, and impersonator, eventually turning large swaths of his life into performance, is simultaneously an irresistible and elusive subject. His very nature makes truth and identity elusive. Films like Man On The Moon and Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond have struggled with biography of Kaufman before. So what more is there to say? Or has anything accurate even been said? This is the conflict that rests at the core of Box Brown’s new biography Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman.

Brown’s presentation of his subject comes with an awareness of what precedes his comic. All of the key elements of Kaufman’s career are present, but it is far from a comprehensive biography. Some points like Kaufman’s tenure on Taxi and Saturday Night Live are used primarily to offer anecdotes or contrast with the comics’ real areas of interest. That interest fractures the comic into two halves: self-discovery and wrestling. The former delves into the most fact-based and least interpretable part of Kaufman’s life, while the latter focuses on the unreality of kayfabe and impossibility of absolute knowledge within the world of wrestling.

Kaufman’s childhood and early adult years function as a point of distinction from what comes next. Every story is verifiable and the facts are often mundane. It’s amusing to see an early impersonation of Elvis, but Brown still depicts Kaufman as a boy dressing up. This stands in stark contrast to Kaufman’s televised performances that would even be recorded by “The King.” Brown understands and emphasizes the elements in this period that best serve to explain Kaufman’s persona as a performer. A childhood injury, wrestling fandom, and experimentation with drugs and meditation all serve as possible origins or explanations for the legendary career just years away. Brown goes so far as to provide a brief biography for Jerry Lawler as an interruption of Kaufman’s narrative. There is an obvious hunger for points of understanding, any elements that can offer a clear understanding of a story where everyone who witnessed it provides a different interpretation.

Is This Guy For Real Review - Elvis Impersonation
(Photo: First Second)

Rather than working to deliver a verdict on Kaufman’s life as performance, Brown attempts to understand how we view that life. Even decades after his death, Kaufman remains a controversial figure whose work is consistently debated and reinterpreted. Even here in a biography, there is a comprehension that both biographer and reader still serve as audience. This underpins the smartest choice in formatting made by Brown as he veers away from comedy in order to focus the comic primarily on Kaufman’s career in professional wrestling. This excision of other material serves a dual purpose. It removes the scattershot effect of a multi-talented performer in which different aspects serves to confuse as much as clarify. And it provides a lens for performance that comes with vocabulary and understanding of how performers and personas become confused.

Lawler, as a point of contrast, offers a more standard career in wrestling. He moves through many of the same points as Kaufman, learning to sell hits and embrace a persona, but doesn’t elevate that kayfabe performance into an artform itself. Understanding Lawler’s story provides grounding points for Kaufman’s own. Calling for an unnecessary ambulance or putting on a chauvinist persona to wrestle women become less shocking when filtered through an understanding of wrestling. A performance that was unprecedented in stand up was merely an extrapolation of what already existed in the ring.

This is how Brown shifts the focus from “what was real?” to “why do we care?” -- a far more valuable question. His caricature of Kaufman from childhood forward is always easily distinguished on the page. Big hair, bold eyebrows, and an unmistakable nose and chin make Kaufman a unique, but deeply human figure with very few lines. When he does the outrageous, the attention remains on Kaufman as a person, rather than playing into the intentions of the performance. Shock and confusion remain, but they are not pushed upon the reader as the most important elements. Brown moves from act to act, never bothering to gild the lily by pointing out just how outrageous or strange any individual moment might be. The emphasis is always on Kaufman, and so readers are able to start perceiving this person.

Is This Guy For Real Review - Wrestling
(Photo: First Second)

Thus Is This Guy For Real? Moves past definition and embraces redefinition. The question of the title is not the point of the book, but the emphasis of the response. Brown avoids making any hard conclusions about Kaufman’s beliefs or values outside of his work. If he has a critical appraisal of the feminist value in his wrestling schtick, he leaves that off of the page. Instead the performance is presented with all necessary context and readers are left to make their own evaluations on how to respond to the art of Kaufman as reinterpreted by Brown. The important element for Brown seems to be that this was art.

In this matter there is a continued thread from Andre the Giant, in which Brown broke down individual matches and pushed elements of craftsmanship and connections to other art forms. His understanding of wrestling both as unique entertainment and cultural touchstone is borne out with the excitement of reading their depictions on these pages. Andre the Giant was beloved, a figure that offered an entry point even to those who might look down on the form. Now Kaufman is made out to be a master of its artifice, a genius who could be discussed with the same levels of criticism and interpretation as any great modern painter or actor.

Kaufman remains up for interpretation at the end of Is This Guy For Real? and that is the point of the comic. Brown’s understanding of his subject provides one concrete thesis: the interpretation of Kaufman’s life was the point of that life. From childhood through his wrestling career, Brown offers a dazzling array of anecdotes and stories that ultimately offers readers a chance to make their own decisions. What the comic does best is offer the vocabulary and context required to unpack a stellar performance told over the course of 35 years. It is a necessary addition to the catalog of Kaufman biographies as it embraces the entertainer’s work like nothing else has.