Imagine a comedian so obsessive about pulling pranks that when he tells people he is dying of lung cancer, they think it's a joke, and when he actually dies, his friends, still disbelieving, wait for some kind of punch line.
That should provide some sense of the bizarre life of Andy Kaufman, a comedian who died (really) in 1984 at age 35, at the peak of a career filled with antics that left even his friends wondering where his performances ended and his life began.Now imagine trying to write a coherent script for a movie based on the life of the comedian, best known as Latka on the television show "Taxi," and you have some idea of the task confronted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
The two said writing the script for "Man on the Moon" was a struggle. The title comes from a song written by the rock group R.E.M. for Kaufman, who also did standup and frequently appeared on "Saturday Night Live," "Fridays," and late-night shows, including "Tonight." Milos Forman is directing the movie, which begins shooting in a few weeks. And the lead role will be played by Jim Carrey, who is such a fan of Kaufman's that he owns a set of his bongo drums and was willing to audition for the part.
The screenwriters said they wanted to capture both the contrived chaos of Kaufman's life - which included everything from impromptu fistfights onstage to a dizzying array of voices to appeals that his female fans wrestle him - and the soul behind the zany fictions he created, all the while keeping the story comprehensible.
"This was a guy who wasn't happy unless he was challenging all perceptions of the reality around him," Alexander said.
Karaszewski commented: "Andy didn't really consider himself a comedian. His routines weren't about jokes. He just wanted to bend reality. When he died, people poked the body to make sure he was dead."
The writing pair certainly have experience with stories of odd characters. Their last script was for the movie "The People vs. Larry Flynt," and before that they wrote "Ed Wood."
Still, "this was the hardest thing we ever did, by far," Karaszewski said. "We initially rejected the idea, because Andy's life was completely formless. His life was all disinformation. It was a hellish experience trying to make sense of him."
The trick, the two said, was not just to present a string of Kaufman's performances, but also to use those antics to find the man who was hidden somewhere deep inside the characters he created.
But that meant coming to terms with Kaufman's unpredictability.