andy kaufman

Credit: Andy Kaufman as Tony Clifton

Obsessiveness is what causes artists to go deeper.

Listen to me read this piece below:


On Unmistakable Creative, host Srini often finishes his interviews with the same question.

Though he’s switched it up since then, the question used to be this: What makes some artists rise to acclaim and fortune, as opposed to those who don’t? When it comes to unmistakable artists, he asks, what creates the common factor?

In 1995, NBC released A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman, and I’d forgotten that documentary until I found myself streaming the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon on my laptop — which then had me reading the Wikipedia page on Andy Kaufman — and voila! Here was an adolescent memory of watching that 1995 film in the living room, and the recognition of a seminal moment in my development, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

There was, for example, Tony Clifton. Kaufman insisted, in his contract for “Taxi,” that his old friend — a bawdy, obnoxious lounge singer — be given spots on the show. Tony appeared for years in many places, including on TV and in nightclubs, where he’d insult the audience and wail off-key; few people knew that Tony was actually mild-mannered Andy in disguise, though at times Andy and Tony appeared together, given that Tony would sometimes also be portrayed by a friend in the same disguise.

After Andy died of cancer, Tony reappeared a year later — performed by a friend, with permission — and convinced folks that Kaufman’s so-called death in 1984, as with other things in his life, was a performance and a sham. The truth of who Tony actually was, in those post-mortem appearances, wasn’t revealed till 1995. Tony had been Kaufman, and he hadn’t. Tony Clifton had become a creature of his own.

Watching that documentary was the first time that I can remember seeing the sort of obsessiveness that plagues the unmistakable. There was no line between art and life — the art was the life, the life was the art. Kaufman was committed to his body of work as an oddball “song-and-dance man,” as he called himself. Yes, he was on a hit TV show, but he was also “voted off” of “Saturday Night Live” — in part due to his boorish behavior as a misogynistic wrestler (another drawn-out goof, which involved a very real-seeming feud with a brawny pro).

At twelve, at thirteen, I picked up on that obsessiveness, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time. I did call myself obsessive, because I was — an obsessive personality, is what I called it, and I channeled it through useless things until I discovered that I could be obsessed with writing and reading. I could make language my backbone. It could, and would, keep me safe when little else was capable of keeping me safe. It could stick me together when I was shattering.

And speaking of Andys — I watched Rivers and Tides recently, a film about Andy Goldsworthy, upon the recommendation of Victoria Prozan and her extraordinary Creative Ambrosia membership — and of all of the art-making and building, there were a handful of seconds that pierced me. Andy stands in his kitchen, among his wife and rambunctious, beautiful blond children, and he’s not paying attention to any of it. He’s staring into space in a way that I recognize: it’s the look of the writer who’s thinking about the sentence that won’t rearrange itself into the right configuration; it’s the look of the painter who’s considering the unspeakable concept.

The capacity for a single-minded pursuit is, I think, a hallmark of creators who wind up differentiating themselves. But it’s not the actual single-mindedness that does it — though work helps, because doing the work helps get the obsession into a form that others can appreciate.

Obsessiveness is what causes artists to go deeper. Without going deeper, there’s only surface — and surface can create an impact, but it won’t be a lasting one.


P.S. If you enjoyed this piece, it debuted a few days ago on With Love & Squalor. I don’t often push pieces from WL&S to the site, but this one asked to be shared — in the meantime, consider signing up for WL&S for mini-essays like this one, as well as the links round-up that used to appear on Saturdays.