Andy Kaufman, Experience Design, and Caring About Your Audience

Andy Kaufman was an American entertainment marvel most active in the 1970s and 1980s. He is famous for his quirky sitcom characters, his on-stage gags involving co-conspirators from the audience, for wrestling a number of women as well as Jerry “The King” Lawler (pictured), and for dying of cancer at a very young age. Aside from his work that has been immortalized on film, he was portrayed by Jim Carrey in a biographical movie called “Man on the Moon”.

Although he was most often referred to as a “comedian” in his day, the truth is that Kaufman’s various characters, pranks, and acts are part of something that is far deeper than comedy. Indeed, although many of his endeavors were meant to be humorous in some way, Kaufman’s “jokes” included faking violence against co-conspirators, faking the death of an old woman, breaking script on live television, and many other things that would elicit feelings of confusion, shock, horror, sadness, or grief as well as laughter.

Wikipedia has since granted a number of labels to Kaufman, leading with “actor” and ending with “performance artist”. Although I don’t disagree with any of Kaufman’s job descriptions, I submit that a new title be added to the list: “experience designer”.

Because of how radical many of Kaufman’s acts were, the fact that many of them seemed to be inside jokes known only to him, and the range of negative emotions they could generate in audiences, it is easy to assume that Andy might have either disliked his audience, or cared more about his own amusement than theirs. I do not think this to be true.

Consider: some of the things that Andy did, such as wrestling women, could have resulted in him being attacked on the street in that time period. Well-meaning audience members might have physically intervened in some of his pranks involving plants in the audience. He got thrown out of places by security. His work was, in some ways, dangerous. Although it is possible he did this for self-aggrandizement, the level of thought and consideration that goes into experiences that generate negative emotions is something that most people do not experience in their lifetimes.

For example, in my own work as a speaker and educator, I often find myself taking audiences on journeys somewhat similar to Kaufman’s, although not as extreme. For example, I once ran a workshop based on the Prisoner’s Dilemma where I essentially predicted the outcome of a game in advance, using $300 of my own money as collateral. The group of about thirty people failed, this was made known to them, and combined with a pointed delivery style in a Gen Z context, ended up being fairly shocking.

The workshop itself was a volunteer thing, not paid, and took about two months to think of, plan, and develop. There is no possible way that I could have taken that audience on that particular journey if I disliked them, and also no way that I would have bothered doing it in the first place if I didn’t care.

Another example of this is Nordic Live Action Roleplays, which involve “players” either fully or partially acting out their character over an extended period of time. People have gathered in an actual castle for a Hogwarts-inspired “wizarding school”, and also to portray rival factions of vampires striking a peace accord, complete with Hollywood-level makeup and experienced actors in key roles. People have also subjected themselves to refugee-like conditions in a simulated war zone, cried tears while experiencing the loss of in-character friends to the AIDS epidemic, and much more.

When I look at Andy’s work, I see similar logic in action.

“I am not a comic, I have never told a joke. The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him. My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can.”

– Andy Kaufman, in an interview

Further consider: it is well-known that many people rank public speaking alongside death as their worst fears. It is extremely difficult to get up in front of an audience and amuse or interest them, much less do things that might provoke confusion, shock, or even anger. In some ways, doing this is like exposure therapy in the sense that careful consideration must be paid to what an audience member might experience, the range of emotions potential audience members might be able to bear, and how to conclude or “debrief” the experience. In Andy’s case, he used comedy, and in one case milk and cookies.

Ultimately, many things that Andy did, in my opinion, were beyond performance art as they created experiences for the audience. He took his audiences on journeys, some involving comedic catharsis. His word for this was entertainment.

Many things can be seen this way. Books take us on journeys and have satisfying conclusions. Any public speaking engagement is an experience for the audiences. Video games, board games, and puzzles are experiences. Movies are experiences.

Unfortunately, lots of people didn’t like Andy’s journeys. Indeed, he was voted off of SNL by the audience. Perhaps there is something to be said for the audience’s perspective here, however it is arguable that the mainstream has a very narrow idea of what “entertainment” consists of and is unwilling to trust performers to do their best work. It is a blessing that Andy’s genius was able to break through, gain traction, and inspire newer generations to explore the full range of human emotion, as well as the limits of human experience.