Rooftop comedian (and super bestie for life) Robert Buscemi blogs for us from the Andy Kaufman Awards!
Report from the Road: The 2009 Andy Kaufman Awards, NYC
I made it to the semifinal showcase of the 2009 Andy Kaufman Award Contest on Monday, November 2nd, so I planned to give it my best, watch all 24 of my peers on the bill, and soak up the weird. I had my curly blond wig, my billowing poet blouse, my black tights, and my death-lemon ready to roll:
Chicago was heavily represented (I live in LA now, but did comedy in the Chi from 2002 till earlier this year), so it was a bit of a reunion for the seven of us in the show, plus another four Chicago stand-ups had made a roadtrip of the occasion to watch and support erstwhile Chicago comedy legend Shawn Cole, our own Andy Kaufman. Executive Producer and Andy’s best college pal Al Parinello and Andy’s brother Michael Kaufman went out of their way to welcome us 25 acts and thank us profusely. It was clear they were fiercely proud of Andy’s legacy and excited to have us on board.
The opening video montage of Andy’s most famous TV moments had me clapping at the screen. When Andy’s foreign-man stage-fright whimper morphs into a bongo chant, it’s so good I could cry. It’s unrepeatable and beyond brilliant. And it was wonderful to watch Andy killing it in full Vegas-era Elvis regalia (Andy apparently worshipped the King and did that impression before almost anyone), singing and strumming an unironically gorgeous “Blue Suede Shoes.”
The show began. I performed 6th, and I gave it my all, feeling a gratifying pick of brow-sweat as I took my bow, and I knew I’d left some art on the stage. The 24 acts that preceded and followed me were the cream of the crop among an overwhelming number of video submissions, and each gave an inventive set in honor of Andy’s memory. So I felt in good company.
Alas, Monday was to be my first and final performance, at least this year. But I’d had a blast and seen my idiot poet character come back to life (and then back to death), so I felt good. Parinello complimented my act the next day and hugged me once I arrived to blog the finale show, and Michael Kaufman went so far as to say we were all now part of the Kaufman family. And I honestly am a big Andy fan, so it was all quite touching.
Oh, and icing on the cake: scene-stealer nonpareil Kristen Schaal, the 2005 Andy-Kaufman-Award Winner, was in the house both nights, and went out of her way to compliment several of us and give us big hugs, and every one of us had artistic crushes (at the very least) on the apple-cheeked bad-ass cutie-pie superstar.
With legendary manager George Shapiro in the Caroline’s audience as well as a producer from the Andy Kaufman bio-pic Man on the Moon in attendance, the stage was set for magic as the finale show commenced.
The big celebrity host: Tony Clifton (was it Bob Zmuda? Was it ANDY? No one knows …) came out to host and stank up the joint like rotten, wet socks. You really got mad at the bastard. He told about eight truly vile, unrepeatable jokes up top and riled the hell out of people as only Clifton can–racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and massively obnoxious. He threatened the crowd and was crude, odious, and unctuous to the core. He called people names, heckled the contestants, and yelled back and forth with Michael Kaufman and Parinello.
I was in heaven. Clifton pulled no punches, and props to Mike Amato and Red Bastard (Eric Davis) for fending the cretin off while they did their acts. The man brought the rude, and clearly no one had told him if this was to be a only a harmless victory lap. He raised hell. I did a bit of whooping both for and against him. Big, big fun.
Without further ado, the six finalists were:
1) Edinburgh Fringe Fest one-man-show vet Mike Amato. He said he’d been experimenting with oxygen deprivation, and he duct-taped a 13-gallon white kitchen bag over his head and said he’d timed his act to finish before the oxygen ran out. I got that old tingle of alarm–it was genuinely scary to see someone tape a bag to their head. Naturally he kept mistelling jokes, wasting time on crowd-work and digressions, meandering, and putting the fear on me that he’d not get through in time. He reported a “film of moisture” inside and began to lurch through the audience, then rave and grow incoherent, calling out to some dead aunt as he wandered out of the showroom to die alone like an animal, clearly in trouble.
2) Then Red Bastard (Eric Davis) came out as a MASSIVELY bloated, evil-faced fiend straight out of the Yellow Submarine and Monty Python cartoons. Red Bastard realized that nightmarish quality exquisitely and did absolutely gorgeous physical work. He taunted the crowd, raved and bounced maniacally, and moved and hopped like a scary troll. He threw a drink at Tony Clifton, and I was on my feet shouting for blood. The Red Bastard had stuffed those huge bouncing balls with the handles that children sit on under a huge red one-piece unitard thing, so he could bounce onto his stomach and bounce right back up. His face was maniacal and he moved like a speed-weasel. It destroyed me.
3) Next came Stinky Marceau. Dressed like a mime, Stinky fell asleep on the stage floor, so Clifton saw it as his cue to kick into overdrive. You genuinely couldn’t tell what was real, because Clifton was heckling BAD. It got way uncomfortable. I was confused. I was mad at Clifton, so points to the old Vegas troll and to Andy Kaufman for getting a rise out of me. Parinello paid Clifton to leave, called security, and replaced him with another host. Stinky was suspiciously missing from both the first evening’s contest and the second-evening contest program.
4) Sasha and The Noob (Steve Gadlin and Paul Luikart) are Chicago comedy staples, the demented children’s-show style hosts of Chicago’s long-running stage mega-hit “Don’t Spit the Water,” where comedy-characters try to get audience members to laugh and spit bottled water from their mouths. (Full disclosure: My character “Earl LaRue” has been one of those comedians like 50 times.) They’re very Kaufman-esque, with Sasha playing an indeterminately Eastern European show-biz star and Noob playing his sidekick, who’s mute because, as Sasha explains while making a knifing movement, “When the Noob was leetle boy he watched his father keel hees mother. Right, the Noob? Remember?” The Noob gives a frightened, helpless wince.
5) Blaine Kneece, sporting a mustache and silver sparkle suit, asked for a suggestion so he could improvise a song. He claimed to have heard “wiffleball” and proceeded to play an improvised INSTRUMENTAL song “about wiffleball.” Good times. Then he started having fun with a video camera, playing back his opening a few times, then showing himself on film leaving Caroline’s via subway, soft-shoeing on the street for money, then taking the subway back to the club. He falls asleep on the train and gets robbed and gets a dick drawn on his face. It was definitely high-concept–he “improvised” his way back and forth through time and ended up back in the club.
6) Robby Roadsteamer, looking like a homeless street performer and ranting incoherently and seemingly improvisationally, taunted Clifton and showed off the loot he’d stolen from the green room: a stapler, a pint glass, a coffee cup, and Clifton’s flowers. Then Roadsteamer sang a song called “Creepy Dickhead Eyes” directed at a guy in the audience with, well, those kind of eyes. In my favorite bit, Robby got a volunteer from the audience and placed her behind the curtain for a future entrance, then whispered to us that he’d done that just to get rid of her and didn’t plan to bring her back out at all. He did indeed leave her back there.
7) Harrison Greenbaum was as close as the evening got to stand-up, as he rattled off some great bits, but also went out of his way to taunt Clifton and smash a few glasses. He told me later off-stage that he was hoping Clifton would take his bait more, since he had some baby doll with the name “Tony Clifton” drawn onto it that he planned to murder on stage or something. I didn’t get all the details. The point is, Greenbaum was there to make his mark, and he did.
Kneece won the trophy and a check for $2,500 at the end of the night, clearly impressing the judges–Michael Kaufman, Kristen Schaal, and George Shapiro–with what amounted to fully realized, sophisticated, film-auteur hijinks. He is this year’s king.
I said my goodbyes and ascended the stairs out into the night.