Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Andy Kaufman Isn’t Funny

Art historian Miriam Katz wants to bring stand-up comedy into the serious world of galleries and museums

Print Email
(Ragnar's Photohalla, Flickr)
Related Content

Brent Weinbach Is Killing Me

He’s one of the most inventive stand-up comedians around. So, why does he sound like a throwback?

Treating fart jokes with erudition might seem, at first, like an easy way to alienate people. But Miriam Katz, an art historian who studies stand-up—and describes interviews with comedians as “studio visits” and stand-up shows as “comic objects”—is as spritely as she is serious, conveying her seriousness about jokes with the energy of someone who could successfully sell an esoteric health product to the harshest skeptic.

Katz began studying stand-up because she’s a fan. She also has a longtime interest in thinking of artists as “spiritual guides”—an interest that dates back to a summer art program she attended in Israel when she was 17. Comedians, she believes, have a lot to teach the world. “If you’re being funny, it means you’re paying attention. You can’t make fun of something unless you know it really well,” Katz told me, as we toured around a West Village exhibit dedicated to life and work of Andy Kaufman, recently closed at Maccarone. Katz has tried stand-up herself a few times. The routine she’s working on now is an extension of her scholarship: a long list of what’s funny (the 1980s and ’90s) and what’s not (marriage, the 1960s and ’70s). Something counts as comedy, she reasons, when it makes someone laugh. Katz has identified different strains of laughter, her favorite being when she laughs despite herself, but she doesn’t consider herself a particularly good comedian. “I mean, I’m fine,” she said. “But I have good taste in comedy. I have a great sense of humor.”

Miriam Katz
Miriam Katz at PS1 (Mindy Tucker)

Katz has made a career out of talking to comedians, whether on “Breakdown”—her contribution to a spate of podcasts like “WTF” with Marc Maron or “You Made It Weird” with Pete Holmes that bring NPR-style reflections to bear on the art of comedy—or for her articles in ArtForum, or for the discussions she hosts at PS1, the MoMA outpost in Long Island City. For “Breakdown,” Katz interviews a combination of comedians and visual artists, including Cory Arcangel and William Wegman. Comedians, she thinks, appreciate the opportunity to talk loftily about their craft. “They’re also more comfortable using spiritual words like ‘creativity’ than visual artists are,” she said.

Andy Kaufman approached comedy with a discipline often associated with visual artists. Kaufman was a comedian all the time, Katz said, not just when he was on stage or on set at Saturday Night Live or The Andy Kaufman Show; he had what Katz calls a “comic practice.” He enjoyed blurring the distinction between comedy and life and taking jokes to epic lengths. At the peak of his career, he took a job as a busboy at Jerry’s Famous Deli, in West Hollywood; most famously, he invited the audience at a Carnegie Hall show to meet him on the Staten Island Ferry the following morning. Before he died, from lung cancer in 1984, he hatched a plan to fake his death and reappear 20 years later. “He was always playing with reality. He created alternate realities,” Katz said. She refers to such antics as “long-form jokes.”

Last week, Katz hosted a panel at PS1 featuring three comedians, Tim Heidecker, T.J. Miller, and Brent Weinbach. Heidecker, who is best known for being one half of the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, announced on Twitter late last year that he had been named editor of Rolling Stone magazine and maintained the hoax for more than a week. (“meeting with Taibbi was intense,” he tweeted. “needless to say we don’t agree on much but i respect him! will find a way to make this work!”) T.J. Miller starred in Yogi Bear 3D and said that he went after the role, in part, because he thought it made for a great joke; he insists that every host at every comedy club include the credit in his bio. Most people think the credit is a joke.

At the exhibit, Katz was eager to show me artifacts that showed a more “genuine side” of Kaufman. There was a letter he wrote to his father—in 1971, while Kaufman was working as a truck driver—in which he thanks his father for being caring and supportive and promises to make him proud one day. “I want you to know that in all seriousness I do plan to become a very accomplished performer,” he wrote. There was a will Kaufman drafted the night before his bar mitzvah—his belongings were to be distributed equally among all of his relatives, including his grandparents. He wrote several dark novels, none of them published, with eerie, abstract titles like The Hollering Mango. As seen through these artifacts, Kaufman seems solemn, affectionate, and eager to please. He turned to transcendental meditation, Katz told me, because it helped him tune out his detractors.

Kaufman had plenty of detractors. Stunts like taking a nap on stage or reading aloud from the The Great Gatsby often bored and angered his audience. He had an extended bit about wrestling women and named himself “Intergender Wrestling Champion of the World,” which earned him enough hate mail to fill an actual book—Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts! (Kaufman might have enjoyed the fact that his girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, wrote the introduction.) But there was a lasting purity to Kaufman’s theatrics. “There was nothing corny, nothing telegraphing that he was kidding,” Weinbach said during the panel. “There was no winking to the audience.”

All three PS1 panelists, meanwhile, have a Kaufman-esque, absurdist kind of humor. “I want to make people laugh and make them say ‘what?!’ at the same time,” Weinbach said. The night before the panel, Miller did a show in Traverse City, Mich., and came on stage soaking wet—no explanation. None of the panelists have much interest in revealing, autobiographical humor in the vein of Louis C.K.; they’re experimental in the most concrete sense of the term—inventing strange situations the way Kaufman did and seeing if they make people laugh.

But by the end of the evening, the panelists got restless reflecting on their craft with Miriam Katz. “I’m going to be funny,” Heidecker said. They started doing crowd-work, undressing a young man in the audience whose question went on for too long; Miller performed a monologue about the inevitability of death. “You think it’s important to make money, to achieve something, so your parents can be proud of you right before they’re dead,” Miller hollered. “No one’s fucking talking about that. Instead we come here and we’re like, ‘Hey, Bret, is that a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a Velociraptor?’ ” They insisted on finishing the panel with the lights off. In the dark, some people laughed. Some people got nervous. Some people went, “What?!”


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

i’ll pass this on to my wife who was in high school with Andy at great neck.

Habbgun says:

Andy Kaufman had the one quality that the great comedians have. He wasn’t afraid to fail. Not every joke, not every sketch is a winner. Sometimes some things work with one audience but not another. In a genre like comedy where the comedian gets such an immediate response it can be hard to live through the rejection but thats how these guys come up with things only they seem to be able to do.
Having done sales I can only imagine what it takes to do comedy when things don’t seem to be working

Laila Rasheed says:



Mutt lived in a cave for 9 months. He was happy &
content in there, but one day, out of the blue, he was evicted. He kicked up and
screamed as they pulled him out of the cave & then someone slapped him on
the arse for good measure. “Fcuking cunt, you”, Mutt muttered to himself, “I’ll
get back in some day”! Mutt was distraught & angry as he made his way out
into the world. Mutt felt rejected & wandered about looking for a new cave.

He tried cow caves, camel’s caves, sheep caves, goat caves
& even chicken caves. He was desperate, and sad to say, he became the butt
of a joke & the people called him “cave-boy”!

An old crone who knew about Mutt & his need for a cave
called him one day & told him that she had an old cave & would he like
to see it. Mutt was delighted & said YES! “Come home with me & I will
show you my lovely cave & you can be my toyboy, oh I mean, my cave-boy”!

Mutt thought all his birthdays had come together! For the
first time in years he felt happy & contented. When they reached the old
crone’s house, she told Mutt to have a shower & meet her in her bedroom
& then she would show Mutt her cave. Mutt showered quickly & ran to the
bedroom, where the old crone was standing there stark naked. She pointed to a
BIG, BLACK, BUSHY CAVE between her thighs that scared the shit outta Mutt.

“Come on “Ali Baba”& enter the lovely cave” she croaked.
Mutt was nervous, so he peeked inside with his Willie! He could see nothing; it
was pitch black & then the walls of the cave closed in on him & nearly
squeezed the life outta his Willie. Then outta the blue a snake-like creature
attacked his Willie & thumped the life outta him. It seemed to be saying

Mutt didn’t know how long the horrible experience lasted,
but he swore an Oath, “I will NEVER, EVER again enter a BIG, BLACK, BUSHY CAVE
again, so help me Allah”!

And that dear friends is the reason Mohammedan women today have
to shave their pubic hair & are circumcised. Mohammedan men prefer small, hairless,
circumcised vaginas & so did Mohammed after his terrible experience.

Sahih Bukhari:Volume 7, Book 62, Number 173:

Narrated Jabir bin ‘Abdullah:

The Prophet said, “If you enter (your town) at night (after coming from a
journey), do not enter upon your family till the woman whose husband was absent
(from the house) shaves her pubic hair and the woman with unkempt hair, combs
her hair”

Allah’s Apostle further said, “(O Jabir!) Seek to have offspring, seek to have offspring!”

Five practices of fitra

1. Circumcision;

2. Shaving pubic region;

3. Clipping nails

4. Cutting mustache

5. Removal of arm pit

Mohammed ordered that ALL Mohammedan women:

(1) Always keep their vagina shaved!

(2) Be circumcised

(3) And that the Mohammedan men have the hoody of their Willies removed, so they can see where they’re going & see if there is a snake-like creature in the cave.

Islamic Law on Female Circumcision

The following quotation is taken from Reliance of the Traveller, Revised edition, amana publications, Beltsville, 1997.


The Arabic actually says:

Circumcision is obligatory (for every male
and female)

by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male,

but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the clitoris

(this is called HufaaD).

The Arabic word bazr does not mean “prepuce of the
clitoris”, it means the clitoris itself (cf. the entry in the Arabic-English Dictionary).

The deceptive translation by Nuh Hah Mim Keller, made for Western consumption, obscures the Shafi’i law, given by ‘Umdat al-Salik, that circumcision of girls by excision of the clitoris is mandatory. This particular form of female circumcision is widely practiced in Egypt, where the Shafi’i school of Sunni law is followed.


That is if it can fit in or be grabbed, the Muslim can have sex with it, if not expressly
forbidden. Restrictions apply:

A man can have sex with animals such as sheep, cows, camels & so on. However, he should kill the animal after he has his orgasm. He should not sell the meat to the people in his own village; however, selling the meat to the next door village should be

Khomeini’s book, “Tahrirolvasyleh” fourth volume, Darol Elm, Gom, Iran, 1990


If one commits the act of sodomy with a cow, a ewe, or a camel, their urine and their excrement become impure, and even their milk may no longer be consumed. The animal must then be killed and as quickly as possible and burned.

The Little Green Book,
Sayings of Ayatollah Khomeini, Political, Philosophical, Social and Religious,
ISBN number 0-553-14032-9, page 47

I presume Khomeini thought the word “marry” was just a euphemism.

BBC News, Feb. 24,2006

A Sudanese man has been forced to take a goat as his “wife”, after he was caught having sex with the animal.

The goat’s owner, Mr Alifi, said he surprised the man with his goat and took him to a council of elders.

They ordered the man, Mr Tombe, to pay a dowry of 15,000 Sudanese dinars ($50) to Mr Alifi.

“We have given him the goat, and as far as we know they are still together,” Mr Alifi said.

More Facts @ & t

Well, I realize that the discipline of art history has been in decline for many years (suffering, as it does, from the french disease, but Ms. Katz has succeeded in finding a new depth of fraudulence and farce. While there is still a theater department at wherever she plies her trade, perhaps she could take her skills there.

I understand Cezanne was a laugh riot when you filled him full of absinthe.

Bill Hicks was Brilliant his ideas and He REALLY DIDN’t Give a shit


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Andy Kaufman Isn’t Funny

Art historian Miriam Katz wants to bring stand-up comedy into the serious world of galleries and museums

More on Tablet:

Obama: Denying Israel’s Right to Exist as a Jewish Homeland is Anti-Semitic

By Yair Rosenberg — The president draws a line in the sand in his latest interview