For a fan of alternative comedy, seeing a young Andy Kaufman humiliate himself on stage is like showing footage of the Big Bang to a theoretical physicist. As Kaufman creates an awkward silence with a series of lame jokes that quickly give way to a spot-on Elvis impression, you can see everything from the intentional rigidity of Neil Hamburger to the madcap cultural pastiche of “The Eric Andre Show” forming before your eyes. Kaufman set out to make a mockery of the rules of comedy, but ended up building a new sandbox that his medium’s most exciting performers return to again and again.
Alex Braverman’s new documentary “Thank You Very Much” takes viewers on a linear journey through the highs and lows of Kaufman’s career. From his subversive stand-up sets at the Hollywood Improv to his successful run on “Taxi” and provocative turn as a faux-misogynistic wrestling heel through the untimely death that fans refused to believe was real, Braverman paints a comprehensive portrait of a man who viewed his entire life as a canvas for cringe comedy.
The film largely focuses on Kaufman’s professional achievements — something many interview subjects tacitly admit was unavoidable, as Kaufman’s insistence on turning everything into a bit made it difficult to separate the man from his comedy. But the film’s most noteworthy moments come on the rare occasions when it probes his psyche.
Kaufman’s closest friends suggest that his parents’ ill-advised decision to shield him from learning about death by crafting a narrative about his late grandfather leaving for a never-ending vacation created a life-long fear of abandonment. The argument is so compelling that it’s tempting to reduce Kaufman’s life to a linear narrative about a man who resisted intimacy by staying in character. The lack of additional anecdotes might be proof of the theory’s validity, even if the film never quite satisfies the urge to learn about the man behind the characters.
“Thank You Very Much” is still a serviceable overview of Kaufman’s career that should satisfy both novices looking for an introduction and diehard fans hoping to revisit his greatest hits. But there’s something ironic about making such a glossy film about an artist who spent his life rejecting showbiz conventions. On multiple occasions, we hear Kaufman say that his primary goal as a performer was to make audiences uncomfortable by showing them something new. Paradoxically, Braverman’s film presents that ethos in a format that looks exactly like every other recent documentary about a beloved comic or rock star. A stacked lineup of aging A-listers pay tribute to Kaufman, with many admitting that they didn’t quite “get” his unclassifiable brand of humor right away. But they all eventually heap praise on him, and it becomes clear that comedy’s original outsider is now a legend that’s beyond reproach.
The juxtaposition of Kaufman’s disregard for comedic boundaries against the film’s safe format is a reminder that true counterculture is always unsustainable. When an artist positions themselves as a deliberate rejector of the current zeitgeist, their career can only end in two ways: joining mainstream culture or burning out and disappearing once the winds of changes shift. In a way, Kaufman did both. He relished the opportunity to turn his professional demise into a work of performance art after his public exile from “Saturday Night Live” and the cancellation of “Taxi.” But his influence on comedy made it inevitable that he’d be immortalized with the kind of fawning praise that’s reserved for entertainment godfathers.
It’s a testament to Kaufman’s undeniable genius that we’re still so fascinated with him nearly half a century after his death. Braverman’s documentary is merely the latest in a long series of tributes to the oddball comic, and it certainly won’t be the last. Had he lived to see them all, Kaufman may have been more interested in the two R.E.M. songs written about him than films like “Thank You Very Much.” But with this new documentary making its way to the Lido, it seems equally plausible that he’d crack a smile at the idea that Tony Clifton is still finding ways to infiltrate polite society.
“Thank You Very Much” premiered in the Venice Classics section at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.