A bizarre press conference mirrors an enigmatic real life

Andy Kaufman would have been proud. At the recent press conference for his coming biopic "Man on the Moon," about the late comic's life, megastar Jim Carrey turned on some mighty fine outrage when Kaufman's alter ego, the fictional, foul-mouthed Vegas lounge singer, Tony Clifton, broke up the event.

Carrey never dropped his "fury" throughout the brief melee, which included a wrestling brawl that sent reporters' tape recorders flying and spray paint on the wall - even when "Clifton," performed by Kaufman's real-life writing partner, Bob Zmuda, was thrown out. Carrey felt the need to cap his own performance by stomping out in disgust. The ground troops at Universal Studios confessed complete ignorance of the stunt (despite the fact that Carrey's publicist was spotted laughing throughout the event).

Comic Kaufman, the subject of this Milos Forman film (opening Dec. 22), was renowned for taking pleasure in his fans' confusion.

Will this ambiguous public altercation bring positive publicity (translate: ticket sales) he hopes for? As with Kaufman himself, it's hard to answer that question. Some diehard Kaufman fans have suggested that even his death at the age of 35 was a form of performance art and that his silence in explaining himself was part of that act.

According to the film, this is one of the great lessons Kaufman learned during his career. In one scene, he asks a Buddhist holy man what is funny. The reply is "silence." The film depicts Kaufman's life as yielding two big chestnuts of wisdom that would change the course of comedy. According to the comedian's real-life writing partner, Mr. Zmuda, Kaufman "was the first to say, 'Don't worry about being liked by the audience,' which was unheard of."

The other was the realization that "you didn't have to be funny. You had to be interesting, you couldn't be boring, but you didn't have to be 'ha-ha' funny."

Kaufman "challenges people's beliefs," says Carrey, who generated publicity during the filming of "Man on the Moon" for his refusal to break character off-camera. Kaufman "was so committed to what he did that people thought he was sick. [The role] totally consumed me," Carrey conceded at the press conference. "It had to because [what he did] totally consumed him."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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