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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 5.0° F  Fair
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Inside the comedian
Being Andy Kaufman is harder than it looks

It's easy to say yes to something that's two months away. Not that agreeing to appear in the Gomers' "Midnight Special" show at the High Noon threatened hardship. But the days leading up to the show melted away like snowmen in the hot August sun.

The Midnight Special was a late-night rock 'n' roll series that ABC posted up in the '70s against a fledgling NBC show called Saturday Night Live. The formats were polar opposites. SNL was comedy with a couple rock performances thrown in. The Midnight Special was rock with a dash or two of comedy.

To Steve Martin and personalities like The Midnight Special's hirsute host, Wolfman Jack, The Midnight Special was beddy beddy good.

Together with these guys and a galaxy of rockers that included the likes of Fleetwood Mac, ELO and Alice Cooper, another comic worked the show. Andy Kaufman.

Marijuana wasn't as powerful then as it is now, and maybe that's just as well. People had to be just so high to get Andy Kaufman - if they got him at all. He created comic tension by forging characters of extreme weakness and vulnerability and then, right before your eyes, transforming them into mountains of overconfidence.

I used to do a mean Kaufman, the idea of which, when I think about it, is overkill because Kaufman was a put-on of himself every step of the way. When I learned the Gomers were looking for someone to portray the pie-eyed comic for their Midnight Special re-creation Jan. 12, I couldn't resist answering the call.

That was a few months ago. Almost immediately after enrolling in the show I got, you know, busy.

Wham. Suddenly there were only three days left to prepare. I had planned to do Kaufman's "It's a Small World" conga routine, but with so little time I fell back on his most famous bit, the deceptively easy-looking pantomime of the "Mighty Mouse" cartoon theme song.

Life is art, but life often resists and gets all up in art's face. My days leading up to the show were filled with unexpected work-related worry and stray chunks of family woe. Nothing explosive, but enough internal flame to burn away the residual concentration needed to, say, successfully amuse a packed bar with a four-minute comedy routine.

As the clock ticked down to Saturday, I did what every unprepared performer does. I started to focus on props and costuming. Once I had my dress and props down - including the vintage record player from which Kaufman played his music - I hunkered down in front of the YouTube video of the original Mighty Mouse bit, which was extremely helpful. If you get nothing else of value from this essay, please watch it yourself. You'll see a study in sheer comic nuance.

Broad gestures are easy to cop and can predictably please beer-buzzed bar patrons. Kaufman was all about small things. The eyes. Slight, false moves. A slow, nervous extension of fingers at the end of a motionless arm. Kaufman also had rhythm, and his greatest trick was making it look like he didn't. If Steve Martin tickled audiences by being out of control, Kaufman baited them by being in extreme control.

The night before the show, punching the "play again" button over and over as I stared at my computer screen, I became very worried. Why do this at all if I couldn't do it well?

For being the city's most celebrated bunch of nut jobs, the Gomers are surprisingly quiet in the dressing room. This added to my pre-show disorientation. Standing in front of the wall-sized mirror was the first set's Wolfman Jack, a bald guy, which was also disquieting. I felt better when he donned a wig and started practicing the Wolfman's graveled voice.

They aren't called professionals for nothing. In the next minute the formerly stoic Gomers took the stage with the dangerous energy of a jack-knifed semi heading for a bridge.

Bass player Gordon Ranney agreed to set up my props center stage when it came time for my introduction. The house was filling as the Gomers mopped up their killer version of "Evil Woman." This was my cue.

"Ladies and Gentleman," growled Wolfman, "Mr. Andy Kaufman!" But Ranney hadn't even taken off his bass, much less secured my props. Off stage, I motioned for Wolfman to stretch.

From that moment on I could no longer understand what Wolf was saying. From the wings I watched his lips move and his arms flap. Without warning I had entered the mental space where entertainers go just before they entertain, the little performer's room in your head that's poorly lit and overheated. The Gomers had been in that room just a few minutes ago.

Wolfman howled on in Croatian, and after another moment I intuitively knew it was my time to take the stage. I did so to the sound of faraway, fuzzy applause.

If I could do it all over again, I'd just do the entrance and the first 20 seconds - which I nailed. It's during that 20 seconds that I journeyed to the heart of Andy Kaufman, understood and channeled his complex charm, and then, no matter how hard I fought it, transformed back into Andy Moore. Even that little stint was exhausting.

The rest of the bit I felt my body parts react to the music cues, the muscle memory from last night's practice doing its job. The audience, much like Kaufman's own, didn't quite know what to do with me. But unlike Kaufman, who fed on the confusion like a shark, I was swallowed whole by it.

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