The Absurd Comedy of Andy Kaufman & Jim Carrey and Christ as a Joke

Chris Smith’s documentary, “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton,”[1] captures Jim Carrey’s channeling of the comedian Andy Kaufman in conjunction with the filming of “Man on the Moon.” Carrey as Kaufman is frightening in that Carrey seems to have killed himself off, at least for the duration of filming, so that one worries for his continued sanity – which as Carrey tells it worried him also. As Carrey describes the process, he gave control of himself over to Andy Kaufman, “I decided for the next few days to speak telepathically to people . . . That’s the moment when Andy Kaufman showed up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Siddown, I’ll be doing my movie.’ What happened afterwards was out of my control.” Indeed, Carrey seems to have lost control as he stays in character – either the character of Kaufman or the character of Kaufman’s Tony Clifton, the aggressively insulting lounge singer, Kaufman would occasionally become.

The documentary is as exhausting and irresistible as Kaufman himself. Carrey describes the relief but also the anxiety of having to return to being Jim Carrey after filming. The difference, Carrey says, is he lost himself so much in the portrayal of Kaufman that he did not need to worry about who Jim Carrey might be.  The documentary accomplishes, much as Kaufman did, the blurring of art, comedy and reality. As with Kaufman, the sweetness and meanness of his characters become such that they cannot be contained within any frame of reference. Are we witnessing comedy, performance art, or reality? Is Carrey/Kaufman’s neck broken, is he really an anti-feminist wrestler, an unrelenting bore? The documentary succeeds where the movie fails in capturing Kaufman’s blurring of performance and reality.  As Richard Brody describes it, “He proved that a joke is, in essence, a floating set of quotation marks; when comedians tell a joke, they are, in effect, quoting themselves (or their writers). Kaufman realized that those quotation marks could be put on any words, any actions, any thing—and turn anything in existence into a joke, opening up a seemingly infinite abyss of put-ons and deceptions.”[2] It is this sense of infinite deception which Carrey points to as the lesson/reality he is left with.

The performer realizes that our characters are a fabrication or performance which life has handed us. When the “Hyde” (Carrey’s description of his channeling of Kaufman) takes over it puts into question the stability of Carrey, the channelor. Ultimately, we distinguish Carrey from Kaufman, but as Brody points out, this was not the case with Kaufman who was “Hyding in plain sight, rendering himself and his characters and performances indistinguishable.”  The obvious question, which Carrey and Kaufman leave us: where does performance end and reality begin?

The documentary illustrates Heidegger’s and Sartre’s notion of a false consciousness which must be penetrated and exposed or Derrida’s notion that we are all constituted by the “text” of the world which has scripted us in.  Carrey points to his own fear and suffering, which assuming the character of Kaufman temporarily covered and relieved. This is Freud’s discovery in regard to language and symbols as he is watching his grandson play here/gone with a spool. The child could manipulate the spool and make it appear and disappear at will. Entry into language gave him a sense of mastery which momentarily relieved the absence of his mother, which prior to his discovery of the game left him inconsolable.  The game with the spool or the game of language is played out over the abyss of absence and the presence gained through the spool is a symbolic fiction.

Jim and Andy expose the fiction and the lives of both performers, like the documentary, is characterized by an abiding sadness which is only briefly named.  Andy tells his friends he is dying of cancer. His life has consisted of fabricated tragedy and emotion so that they only hesitantly recognize reality has now intruded.  Carrey is overcome with emotion when he describes his father, the impetus behind his career. A talented musician who became an accountant, only to be fired from this job late in life; his father died before he could witness the fulness of his son’s success.  The performance of their lives is played out over an absence which bathes everything in sadness.

In a Job like recognition, fame, wealth, and success, are exposed as a momentary distraction from the excess of suffering in the world. “They were borne off before their time” (22:16). Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle my days have passed” (7:6). It is one thing to recognize life passes and death comes but the biblical point of the documentary is the existential recognition that life is a performance of sound and fury temporarily warding off absence. Job’s friends want to explain his suffering as the meting out of justice.  They deny that there is an excess of evil and in this denial, is the difference between the truth of art and comedy and the lie of so much philosophy and religion.

Heidegger and Sartre recommend as cure that one simply face up to the reality of death and nothingness but this seems to simply remove the entertaining element – the comedy – from the tragedy.  Jim and Andy make neurotic suffering a form of entertainment. As Lacan notes, “The truth of neurotic suffering is having the truth as cause.” The comedic element, in this sense, is truer than the false resolution of the philosophers. One cannot contain death or evil in any system which would “make sense.”  The friends of Job would justify God in a religion in which “the system” or the law provides a full explanation within a closed universe.  The comedians do not attempt to mitigate or resolve the reality of this truth. Heidegger and Sartre would stand with the friends of Job.  They flinch before the horror which both Job and Christ would accentuate.

The fear and neurotic pathos of Jim and Andy are on the order of Job’s suffering in clinging to the truth that “normal life” is built upon an error or a fabrication. Disorder and fear may be too much to bear. “All my fears now come true, what I dread befalls me” (3:25). “I hoped for happiness but sorrow overcame me; I looked for light, but there was darkness” (30:26).  As Philip Nemo describes it, however, this tragic insight is the first step in breaking free of the world as a closed system of law and reason: “In the moment that it becomes apparent that the world does not exist by itself, that it does not carry within itself a legitimacy and a necessity to be, but is created, or is not created, according to the caprice of someone, in that moment, the nets of the law fall apart in tatters.”

Job’s suffering causes him to leap to an “absurdity” beyond the law or beyond the imaginings of reason. “This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27).  If the Word of God is to be heard or the presence of God is to be understood it will be a word heard and a presence felt in this clearing that opens up within the being of the soul in its encounter with evil. The art of Jim and Andy, much like the absurdity of the book of Job, draws our attention to this clearing.

The story of Abraham connects this clearing and God’s breaking into it directly with laughter.  Abraham is in the absurd situation of being promised a child and having a barren wife, while he is as good as dead due to his age. We often miss the fact that both Abraham and Sarah respond with laughter – Abraham falls on his face laughing.  The laughter is not simply doubtful laughter at the absurdity of the promise of a child.  They name the child Isaac – “He Who Laughs” – and thus memorialize the laughter as their response to God’s resolution to their tragic situation. Isaac is a type of Christ and it is Christ who breaks into the tragedy of the human plight. In the same way in which the comedic draws us into the clearing opened up by the absurd, He Who Laughs opens up a space in the midst of tragedy. Here though, as with Isaac, God breaks into this impossible circumstance with that which is impossible and unexpected and moves beyond tragedy – which makes for the best sort of laughter and a new genre of joke. Here is the last laugh which will not fade away in the face of the absurd as it is a new form of joyous and thankful laughter.

[1] On Netflix.

[2] Richard Brody, “The Creative Genius That Both “Man on the Moon” and “Jim & Andy” Missed”;  New Yorker, November 20, 2017.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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