III. The Masked Man: Jim & Andy & Me
From the script for Man on the Moon, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski:
(Courtney Love as Andy’s girlfriend) Lynne: I brought you Haagen Dazs. Chocolate.
(Jim Carrey as) Andy Kaufman: I don’t deserve Haagen Daz. I’m a horrible person.
Lynne: Andy, you’re not horrible. You’re just…complicated.
Andy: You don’t know the real me.
Lynne: Andy…there is no real you.
(An astonished silence. And then…he slowly smiles.)
Andy: You’re probably right.”
The 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic says more about Jim Carrey than it does about Andy Kaufman. Jim Carrey: the boy who set out to be “the man of a thousand faces,” the green-skinned god of chaos in The Mask, the tape-faced clown in Yes Man, the bearded philosopher, the painter, the dramatic actor, and the political satirist, who has no qualms calling out Trump on Twitter but has yet to address the horrific transmisogyny that forms the plot in one of his most well-known, highest-grossing movies, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. (Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler are also guilty of this kind of discriminatory, dehumanizing humor.)
“You’re insane! But you might also be brilliant!” says Danny Devito as Andy Kaufman’s manager to Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. It feels more like he’s addressing Carrey than he is acting. Probably because Carrey seemed to never stop acting. In the 2017 documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, Carrey talks about how he disappeared into the role; how easily his imitations become much more. But if Kaufman was trying to escape personhood, Carrey wanted to expand it: not only his ego, but multiple egos, of multiple people. At one point in the documentary, he even says, “I wonder what would happen if I decided to just be Jesus.” Alluding to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Carrey tells the camera:
“It’s as if I went to a fugue state and Hyde showed up. I have a Hyde inside me that shows up when there are people watching. When there’s a thousand people with their eyes on me and they hand me a microphone and Jim goes away and Hyde comes out. You know it’s a good Hyde. It’s not a hateful Hyde. It’s a loving Hyde that just wants everyone to party and have a good time. But it’s a Hyde nonetheless, and I feel like afterwards, ‘Damn, I lost control again. To him.’”
In The Mask, Carrey’s character insists, “When I put that mask on I can do anything. Be anything.” But masks do not make you someone else. They bring out who you are, making the internal visible, and activating the more possibly frightening forces within.
We can see this in Carrey’s most recent role as the lead of Michel Gondry’s TV show Kidding. He plays the tortured star behind a beloved children’s television show called Mr. Pickle’s Puppet Show. Evocative of PBS classics like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the show has Carrey singing about the color purple and telling stories of kindness and comfort, with the help of his friendly puppet pals to his millions of viewers. His job is to be fixed in time and on the screen, with his same weird haircut and old-fashioned outfit. He cannot change or his empire will be destroyed.
But there’s a real person behind Mr. Pickles, a man named Jeff, and Jeff is grieving. His son died in a car accident and the first anniversary of his death is fast approaching. In the wake of this devastation, he finds himself distanced from his living child and living in a gloomy dorm room instead of his nice suburban family home with his beautiful wife. Of course he doesn’t want to sing another silly song or promote Father’s Day cards. He wants to address real life, real pain. He wants to talk about death and loss and all that other bad, scary stuff you’re meant to hide from children. But of course he can’t, because sad children’s TV hosts don’t sell any better than happy emo idols do. His producer imparts to him, like a warning:
“There’s two of you.
There’s Mr. Pickles, the $112-million licensing industry of edu-taining toys, DVDs, and books that keep the lights on in this little charity of ours.
And then there’s Jeff, a separated husband and grieving father who needs to hammer out a few dents in his psyche.
And trust me, never the two should meet in order to prevent the destruction of them both.
I want you to heal.
But Jeff needs to heal.
Mr. Pickles is fine.”
As Fiona Sturges writes, “Having a grieving actor who has spoken of feeling imprisoned by his goofy screen persona playing a grieving actor imprisoned by his goofy screen persona brings an undeniable frisson here. Carrey is extraordinary, wearing pain and disappointment as a second skin. Meanwhile, the push and pull between maintaining the familiar public face and revealing the man underneath is keenly drawn.” Like Sandler’s tribute to Farley in 100% Fresh, Kidding is as much about the passing of time as it is the brutal nature of comedy and of fame. Or, in Michel Gondry’s words, “When [Carrey] started, he had a rubber face. He could imitate people, contract his muscles, just amazing. But as you get older, the skin gets a little more dry, so when he moves you see what’s underneath. He doesn’t really like to see himself like that, but I see little glimpses of sadness, loneliness, and I bring them out.”
Why do we fix entertainers in time? Expect them to always play the heel, or the sad sack, or the family man, or the goofball? Maybe our imaginations fail because we can’t imagine extending such compassion to ourselves. Comedy is the mask we wear as a coping mechanism for our tragedies. It can save us, craft us into characters bigger and braver than ourselves in order to carry us through painful times, and challenge the powers that cause such pain. Reliving this pain for laughs or for profit is tricky business, as is being a spectator of pain-filled comedy. But stopping there ignores the complexity of comic creation, its function as both cruelty and catharsis. I could not have understood my trauma without understanding my love of comedy, and I could not have expressed the pain I was feeling without drawing on inspiration from comedians like Adam Sandler and Andy Kaufman. Yet a new tragedy announces itself when we wear the comedy mask for too long and find that it’s fused to our skin. When we see mental illness and trauma as fixed scripts with self-destruction as the inevitable ending. To find our way in this world, we must make room for all these contradictions—in our experiences, ourselves, and our heroes. We cannot stick smiley faces on some folks and sad faces on others. Our lives don’t fit into genres, and we are not fixed characters. ♦