I. “Who you wanna hate now? Pretty soon you gonna hate me”: Andy Kaufman, Lil Peep, and the Art of Inviting Hatred
I’d say Andy Kaufman is why I love comedy, but Kaufman hated being called a comedian as much as he loved to be hated. His most famous bits seemed designed to confuse and frustrate. There was his exceptional Elvis impersonation of an Elvis impersonator, lip-synching to old children’s records on Saturday Night Live, and even a stand-up routine in which he read the whole of The Great Gatsby in a phony English accent to an increasingly frustrated audience, kindly requesting that they save their boos because, at 150 pages, “we have a long time to go.” The promoter Bill Graham once likened the regretful night that he booked Kaufman to “the night I had to throw some guy out of my theater for pissing in the middle of the dance floor.” Kaufman made the familiar freakish, the comforting irritating. He didn’t care if you laughed as long as you had a reaction.
As his father Stanley reflected, “Andy’s very passive. When he was five or six, he had a friend, Jimmy, who used to beat up on him, and Andy wouldn’t fight back. I got so mad once, I said, ‘Goddamnit, Andy, why don’t you hit him back?’” But there is a certain space where lack of dignity and complete curiosity intertwine. What if I do the opposite? Just for fun? What happens then? You can always go further. Kaufman knew that.
When I was being bullied around age 12, I’d already had enough experience in losing my ego. I tapped the biggest bully on the shoulder during track racing on the fields. “What do you want?” she asked, so repulsed that I already felt a shocking sense of pride.
“I want you to push me over as hard as you can.”
Kaufman would have been proud. I see myself deeply in his anti-comic acts. In hurting yourself for your own amusement, or getting others to hurt you. When you lose your dignity, you can do amazing things! As a kid, this meant shitting myself in public and farting in class. Later on, it meant unsuccessfully attempting suicide. Then there was last summer, when I had taken to burning myself in order not just to “feel something” (the clichéd explanation for self-mutilation), but to have something to focus on. A hobby? A crush? I’m not sure what the right word is. But to pinpoint your pain to one particular raised, red part of yourself can give you a sense of order.
This is the art—or maybe just act—of inviting violence and of cultivating villainy. Though Kaufman made his name in the 1970s sitcom Taxi, he had no interest in easy laughs, or any desire for roles like National Treasure, Boy Next Door, or Family Man. The artifice of the sitcom is, after all, a part of its charm. Canned laughter and reused stage sets are comforting. Like with old friends, you know what you’re getting. But Kaufman’s interest was in destabilizing these borders of personhood and entertainment. As comedian Carl Reiner put it, “How brilliant a characterization can he do? It’s so full and so clean nobody can see past the edges, where the character begins and he ends.”
Such creative character building can be traced back to Kaufman’s childhood love of professional wrestling which, as both a sport and an art form, blurred the lines of reality in their pantomime villains and choreographed fights. “You know all that stuff is fake, right?”—the unofficial slogan of its critics—wrongly assumes that careful curation detracts from, rather than enhances, this craft. In his 1957 essay “The World of Wrestling,” written years before the frenzied world of 1970s arena wrestling, Roland Barthes is keen to emphasize “the spectacle of excess” that is the foundation of this performance art. Barthes observes that this genre of entertainment deviates from the traditional dichotomy of winners and losers, because “the function of the wrestler is not to win: it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.” In this sense, the role known as the “heel” exists to be destroyed so thoroughly that his only option is to return to repeat the routine all over again.
Kaufman loved watching the bad guys of wrestling as a kid, especially Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers, who later became Kaufman’s own personal wrestling trainer. As his brother Michael recalled in Phil Berger’s book The Last Laugh, “Everybody hated Buddy Rogers. I hated Buddy Rogers. But Andy saw past that. He saw how fantastic it was to have everyone hate him.” This was no Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, building a brand on feminist platitudes, heart emojis, and flexing his muscles on Instagram. Andy picked fights with women during a particularly energized time for American feminism, creating the character of the “Intergender World Wrestling Champion.” Talk about an anti-hero! Offering a $1,000 bounty on his head for any woman who could pin his misogynist character to the ground, we can see him ranting on his 1981 Midnight Special that “scrubbing the potatoes, washing the carrots, scrubbing the floors, raising the babies—these are all the things women are good at.” As Andy explained, embracing evil was a part of his myth-making as an artist and an actor:
“When I do the wrestling, I’m playing the role of a villain. It’s just like any actor who plays the role of a villain in any movie or TV show. I’m playing the villain and what I’m trying to do is get the people to dislike me, just like they would any villain, so that they’ll root for the woman I’m wrestling and so that they’ll really dislike me and hope that I’ll lose and get really excited. Whenever I play a role, no matter if that’s a good or bad, an evil person or a nice person, I believe in being a purist and going all the way with a role. If I’m going to be a villainous wrestler, I believe in playing, in going all the way with it, and not breaking character and not giving away to the audience that I’m playing the role. I believe in playing it straight to the hills.”
“Who you wanna hate now? Pretty soon you gonna hate me,” declared the late Gustav Elijah Åhr, better known by his stage name Lil Peep, in “Benz Truck,” the opening track of Call Me When You’re Sober. This body of artwork intimately explores the tensions of the comic and the catastrophic. (“I used to wanna kill myself / Came up, still wanna kill myself” functions as much as a joke as it does a hook.) It is unsurprising then that Åhr, like Kaufman, grew up watching wrestling. In an interview with Pitchfork, he likened the creation of a music persona to professional wrestling, saying that “everyone has to be a character.” And the “SoundCloud rapper,” with his dyed hair, facial tattoos, and countless samples is, as Åhr himself admitted, an identifiable heel. As his brother Oskar stated to the press, following Åhr’s death in November 2017,
“It makes me laugh to think about the days we watched WWE together but [Åhr] mentioned how being a hip-hop artist is like being a pro-wrestling character. You have to be an actor. He gets paid to be sad. It’s what he made his name on. It’s what his image was in a sense. My brother didn’t take five Xanax pills every day, but he would take them and then post on Instagram about it. I wish it would have paid for him to be a little safer, but the world needed him to have superlative problems that he dealt with in superlative ways. Gus dealt with these problems much better than Lil Peep did, but people didn’t know Gus, and there’s a reason Gus doesn’t sell.”
It’s easier to consume creative work around painful subjects like mental health when it’s mediated by the invention of a character. It is easier to voice my own pain through a character; to make self-deprecating jokes about wanting to die on Twitter instead of sharing my small triumphs and good days. In 2015, it was easier for me to share a thinly veiled suicide note behind 100 layers of irony and a Twitter username of “Sad Adam Sandler” than to admit that not only do I deserve to be happy, but that it is essential to acknowledge my happiness when it occurs, however fake or trite it might look online.
It’s a truth I forget periodically. I get ill and then I get desperate. I want to kill myself. I want support, but I do not know how to express it. I post some shitty joke about suicide on social media like the response from people is going to save my life. In that moment, it achieves the short-term goal of distracting me, of helping me regain some agency in this dehumanizing state. Long-term, I don’t know if it’s the best medium of expression for a cry for help when I’m only inviting responses like “LMAO” and not “Are you ok?” But hey, any alternative to hurting yourself is a good one, even making cringey jokes. Anything to not follow through with those horrible, intrusive, hurtful thoughts. That’s something, right?
As Lil Peep sings, “Isn’t life comical? I think that life is comical.”