A Lesson On The Lightbulb Moment From Andy Kaufman

What the heck does Gilbert Godfried have to do with playing guitar?

As many of you know, a key interest of mine involves exploring things that interest me and then adapting them to things that I do.

(I talk about how critical I think this is to developing an individual voice in this article (linked here) which manages to reference Ludwig Wittgenstein and my awkward exit from the guitar major program at my undergraduate institution all in same article.)

One thing I’ve been listening to every week has been the “Gilbert Godfried Amazing Colossal Podcast” (you can find it on iTunes or here).  Be forewarned while it is generally NSFW (the Danny Thomas stories alone are not suitable for any location outside of Gomorrah) – Gilbert and co-host Frank Santopadre’s encyclopedic knowledge of the golden age of television and film is endlessly fascinating and (to me at least) endlessly entertaining.

Recently the show featured Bob Zmuda, the comedian who started comic relief, was a writer for (and co-conspirator with) Andy Kaufman and often subbed for Andy as one of Andy’s most despised charaters – Tony Clifton.  On the show Zmuda talked a lot about the early days with Andy and revealed this story which sparked the fire for this blog post.

It appears that Andy was attending a two year college (“Grahm Junior in Boston – it’s not there anymore and it was the only one he could get into”) and was smitten with another student at the school.  She was in a bind and, having had another act back out at the last minute, asked Andy if he’d ever done stand up.  “Sure”, he said, “When I was like 11”. (Andy had been performing since he was 9 years old.)  She asked him to do it and at first he was resistant to the idea because he didn’t want to do the same set that he did as a kid.  Finally, he relented and was shocked that the audience loved the set.  It was the light bulb moment for Kaufman and Zmuda went so far to say, “Without that (moment) – you never would have had Andy Kaufman.”

So what’s the lesson here?

I think there are several.

1.  He had guts.  Not having been at the event, I can’t speak with certainty, but I think that it worked for Andy because he did everything all in and completely earnestly.  I think that Andy Kaufman was one of the few people who could pull off making an audience buy into the idea of an adult doing an infantile act without it being creepy.   What was great was that he had the guts to be willing to take a risk and look foolish but had the sincerity to (somehow pull it off).

2.  He saw opportunity.  It takes a person of vision to see beyond an audience reaction and see opportunity.  I think where he succeeded artistically was in recognizing how to leverage his delivery with material and ultimately create a completely unique voice artistically.

3.  He took it all the way.  I think Andy’s genius was in taking his ideas and pushing the boundary of them to the point of breaking.  Just as important,  every when he did break it he continued on and rolled with the punches.

You never know when or where a light bulb moment is going to come from but it’s never going to happen if you don’t step out of your comfort zone and leave yourself open to experience something new. 

It’s like the Tom Robbins quote,

“I show up in my writing room at approximately 10 A.M. every morning without fail. Sometimes my muse sees fit to join me there and sometimes she doesn’t, but she always knows where I’ll be.”

(The podcast also features a story about the lengths Jim Carey went to to get the Kaufman role in Man in the Moon which is pretty much a master class in what it takes to be competitive at that level in Hollywood (or anywhere).)

That’s it for now!  As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

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