Ever since his Andre the Giant and Tetris: The Games People Play, writer and artist Box Brown has become better known for his documentary-style, full-length graphic novels. Due to his thorough investigative work, Box seems to provide more insight than even previous documentaries of the same subjects. All the while maintaining his own small press comics publisher, Retrofit Comics, Box has kept himself thoroughly busy with his latest documentary piece, Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman. Following the life and exploits of the famous, eccentric, and often controversial comedian Andy Kaufman, this latest graphic novel published by First Second has been given the same in-depth investigative treatment as his previous works. I was fortunate to share a few words with Box about this book.
Where did the name of your book come from?
It’s something a lot of people said about Andy. His comedy styling were so bizarre people were often dumbfounded as to whether he was serious or not. In my research I’d find people saying this about Andy over and over.
What influenced you to write a book on Andy Kaufman?
I didn’t really learn about Andy until the late 90s. Around that time Comedy Central started showing his old stand-ups and Johnny Legend’s documentary films on his pro-wrestling career. I was a huge pro-wrestling fan and I think that’s why I was drawn to him originally. But, his comedy was completely weird and unlike other things I’ve seen. I remember trying to describe his Foreign Man into Congo Drum into his Elvis impression and it made absolutely no sense. You really had to go through the whole routine to explain why it was funny.
I was too young to experience Andy Kaufman while he was still alive, but I still got to know him through years of “Taxi” reruns, “SNL” highlights and various documentaries on him. Even in death, he seemed at one point everywhere. Why do you think Andy Kaufman held such appeal?
His performances were unlike anything else. After watching lots of them I kind of started to dissect them. He would first start by doing something completely absurd like come out in a ridiculous outfit and start dancing around like a lunatic. Then slowly it would move into something actually spectacular and impressive, like he’d do an actually difficult dance routine or yoga pose (in one performance), then he’d warm your heart at the end by performing something beautiful like a song. Compare that to like Bob Hope or something, or even George Carlin, it’s just totally a different thing. Some Steve Martin bits were absurd like Andy, but Andy was the most absurd.
How long and how involved was the research behind this book?
Research always starts slow and ramps up and then becomes an obsession and continues throughout the creation of the book. There’s a handful of books about him already and there is a TON of footage of him. The pro-wrestling timeline was somewhat difficult to follow and I needed help from a Memphis Pro-wrestling historian named Mark James. Part of the research involved also going to a live speaking engagement with Pro-wrestling magazine magnate Bill Apter. Lots of digging.
To adequately explain Kaufman’s life, you also gave readers a peak into the inner-workings of organized wrestling. Do you think this will draw any ill-feelings from those within the industry?
I don’t know, maybe. I think if this book came out in the 80s and I was revealing all of this stuff it would have made a bigger stir, but it’s all out in the open now. Jerry Lawler himself wrote about how he learned it was fake in his own book. When I wrote the Andre the Giant book I was afraid some big wrestler would come beat me up if they read it but really I’ve had a bunch of big bad wrestlers tell me that they liked the book. Wrestlers themselves are fans, too.
From books on Andre the Giant, to Tetris to now Andy Kaufman; it seems you have a focus on pop-culture in the 70s and 80s. Why do you think that is?
I grew up in the 80s. I was born in 1980. The whole decade is burned into my brain, but also it’s a little fuzzy. I was a little kid when this happened, but I have memories of it. Finding out more about this stuff scratches this itch where I’m finding out more about my own life.
It appears you were able to get in contact with Andy’s younger brother, Michael. How was that experience?
Wonderful! Michael was very generous and willing to talk about his brother and I’m glad I was able to incorporate his story into the book. His voice kind of sounded like Andy and he clearly was very, very fond of his brother. It was really a touching experience for me.
Other than his brother, were you able to contact anyone else who knew Andy in life?
Yes, a handful of people mostly from the pro-wrestling side of his life. My favorite interview was with Jim Cornette, the famed pro-wrestling manager. It was the funniest most surreal interview I ever did I’m thinking about playing it on my book tour. I also was able to speak with Bob Zmuda who was also really, very generous and willing to talk about Andy. He was also extremely funny. These professional entertainers really know how to entertain!
To you, what was one of the most outstanding facts you discovered in your research?
The look into Andy’s sex life was quite weird and interesting. Andy had a wrestling fetish which gives a strange window into his performances. That was something I wasn’t aware of going into the research and then uncovered it. Everyone has a kink I guess.
So, what’s your personal stance? Is Andy gone or pulling the ultimate, “Gotcha?”
He’s dead. I wonder what he would have been like in the 90s? I bet he’d have been at a Wrestlemania or two.
Do you foresee yourself covering another pop-culture icon from the 70s and/or 80s?
Yeah probably. I’m definitely working on two books right now that occur in the 80s. I’m addicted I guess. :D
Be sure to check out Box Brown’s and First Second’s Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman when it comes out February 6th.
Nicholas Eskey is an avid reader and writer. When not contributing to The Beat, he works on his personal projects, the latest being a fantasy novel called “My Personable Demon.” He lives in San Diego, California, and is frequently bossed around by his cat.