Andy Kaufman is remembered as a comedian, but that’s only a default label. We haven’t coined a term for what he did for a living. His most popular role was the one he hated most, playing the lovable Latka Gravas on the 70’s sitcom, Taxi. The rest of his career was dominated by a bizarre brand of somewhat humorous stunts.
Kaufman played games with the notion of real and unreal in a performance. He would stage injuries or on-stage fights or other incidents that took him out of character only to have him become another character in the process that we assumed (incorrectly) to be himself. He sometimes played the smarmy lounge-singer Tony Clifton who opened for Kaufman’s show. Kaufman as Clifton railed about how much he hated Andy Kaufman and hurled insults at the audience before “Kaufman” took the stage.
You could never tell whether to take the act seriously. Like Kaufman, I don’t think Coulter is faking exactly, though she certainly isn’t playing us straight. She’s just doing what comes naturally while the world around her struggles to catch up. In both Kaufman’s and Coulter’s acts, the joke turns on the audience’s willingness to take it seriously.
Coulter is an Ivy League East Coast elitist who blames America’s problems on Ivy League East Coast elitists. She once said that the world would be a better place if women didn’t vote. She’s an attractive woman with an engaging smile who debates with the decorum you’d expect from a prison shower brawl. Coulter plays a fierce conservative and in that role she has perhaps has done more lasting damage to the Republican Party than any single individual since Richard Nixon.
Coulter is a commentator, but she has transformed that role into something previously unknown. At a time when other commentators couched their statements and felt embarrassment or shame if they were caught in an error, Coulter broke the rules. She would take a shred of a fact and shape it into something a hair short of slander. The rules that once stifled the world of punditry prevented anyone from calling her out on her tactics. They were playing checkers while she was playing football.
Coulter’s day job now is to wake up in the morning and answer the question, “What could I say today to shock someone?” But the act is more complicated than just being offensive. She knows how to craft just the right outrage; the thing that will take her audience to the crumbling ledge of acceptable political discourse and let them sees what’s down there. It is art, pure and simple.
And she entertains liberals just as much as conservatives, perhaps more. How? People love horror. If she tried to make a living being loved by conservatives she would be lost in the punditocracy. The magic comes from being loved by conservatives and sweetly loathed by the left. It is a refined yet gruesome artistic effort.
She’s dancing on our gullibility, our willingness to take seriously anyone who’s been granted access to our televisions. Along the way she’s playing key roles in both the destruction of journalism and the collective suicide of the modern conservative movement. She’s probably not doing either by design. Just like Kaufman, she’s doing what her inspiration tells her. She’d probably be doing the same thing even if it didn’t make her rich.
Is she politically relevant? Not anymore. Pressing that shock button over time delivers a diminishing marginal return. And as the atmosphere around her catches up to the innovations she introduced her act is becoming much more complicated to maintain. The forces she helped set in motion are racing beyond her.
Her rise was based on twisting facts and stubbornly refusing to apologize, but that’s become the mainstream in commentating. Plus, the new generation of ranters and conspiracists have evolved beyond the need for any facts at all. Her appearance last year at Homocon, the gay conservative political convention, highlighted the growing threat of a kind of ironic implosion, where the act and the person collide in an unchoreographed disaster (see Kaufman’s wrestling injury).
By contrast, Limbaugh can do this forever. He hasn’t personalized his act to the degree that Coulter’s done. He doesn’t engage with the same consistently ad hominem style. He makes a living playing the obnoxious uncle at Sunday dinner and in that role he’s almost likeable. Glenn Beck is demonstrating what happens when a lesser professional tries to pull off Coulter’s routine. Ad hominem is a volatile tactic because it puts you in play right along with your target.
With the rise of the Tea Party we may be seeing the whole far-right wave of the past generation beginning to crash onto the rocks. That has some alarming implications for the professional ranters. Coulter is good, very good, but still it’s not clear how long she can keep up this act.
And she’s running out of material. The title of Coulter’s new book is “Demonic,” suggesting the degree to which she has mined-out the polemical potential of the English language. If the dance continues she’ll soon have to borrow titles from Russian or the dreaded Spanish (¡Liberal Cabrones no Tienes Cajones!). Or she could just give her books titles like ‘S&*theads’ or ‘A$$*les’. If this far-right orgy is ending then maybe she’s timed the peak of her career well. All good things have to end, just ask all those aging bankers who were at Woodstock.
Andy Kaufman rounded out his career by faking his own death from cancer while at the same time dying of cancer. That’s a tough act to beat on so many levels. I don’t know how Coulter intends to top that, but I like her odds. More likely she’s waiting for her Joe Welch Moment, the incident in which someone finally and irrevocably calls her out on her cheap schtick. Going down like her idol, Joe McCarthy, would give her career a dark moral arc that she probably craves.
But there aren’t any Welches anymore. More likely she’ll just end with some stunt, perhaps a move to Communist China following a elaborate marriage to a box turtle. I don’t know, I’m not an artist.
Till then I’ll keep watching her appearances and admiring her work. It may be cheap and low, but it beats watching Nancy Grace.
Enjoy footage of Andy Kaufman on the Merv Griffin Show explaining his feud with “Tony Clifton” and tell me this doesn’t sound exactly like an Ann Coulter appearance: