The Truth About Kanye West: He’s Andy Kaufman (Video)
David Letterman and Kanye West’s 2019 interview is available to the public. The highly-publicized My Next Guest Needs No Introduction episode includes footage filmed at West’s California home as well as an on-stage conversation before a live audience. Notably, during the revealing interview, the MC/producer/fashion designer makes a striking self-comparison to a late celebrity that Letterman knew well, Andy Kaufman.
“I think I use art as a super-power to protect myself in a capitalistic world, and then I give it as a gift to other people. Then, I also use it to make money,” Kanye admits to Letterman at the 18:00-mark. In the exchange, the two are in a room that houses West’s clothes. He helps give the comedian-turned-TV host a fashion makeover.
Moments later in the episode Kanye describes more of his thoughts and inspiration. “I just take everything literal. Literally. Like how Andy Kaufman just started literally being a wrestler; it wasn’t a play. [He broke] his arm—everything,” West says with a chuckle. Kaufman, who gained fame for his unique brand of comedy, was hospitalized during a late-career foray into wrestling.
Letterman, who hosted Andy 11 times on his 1980s late-night show, asks what the late comedian does for ‘Ye. “He gave me courage.” West continues, “How do you deal with the media? He’s an example: I’d far rather be an Andy Kaufman than the majority of the way [sic] people are letting the media like push ’em around. I’m in front of the joke. The joke is on everyone else.”
Kanye finishes his thought. “It’s alternative sources of energy. You can take—especially coming up from the South side of Chicago—you can take your energy from people telling you [that] you can’t do stuff. Even like working on fashion, everyone was like, ‘You can’t do clothing,’ and it just gave me more energy.”
In the 1970s, the New York native comedian Andy Kaufman became a rapid-rising sensation, especially after a featured performance on Saturday Night Live. He also appeared on Van Dyke And Company, Dick Van Dyke’s variety show following acclaim in the New York comedy community during the early ’70s. Kaufman famously defied the conventions of comedy, integrating suspense, surprise, and the absurdity into his performance act. However, he became a hit with an array of audiences, especially after taking on the mainstream-facing role of “Latka Gravas” on Taxi. Andy created the Eastern European immigrant character, and played versions of him in stage shows since the early 1970s, and on TV previously.
However, just as Kanye evolved from the 2000s into the 2010s well beyond his original Rap medium, so did Andy. He and a team of close friends created a character, “Tony Clifton” an off-putting lounge comic, who would sometimes appear instead of Andy at gatherings and events. During a 1979 string of Carnegie Hall performances in New York, Kaufman paid an actor to fake a heart attack on stage. On another night, he abruptly ended a show and chartered buses for the audience, taking them out for milk and cookies. On a 1981 episode of the live improv show Fridays, Kaufman refused to say his lines amid a live sketch with would-be Seinfeld star Michael Richards. Richards left the shot, returned with cue cards, and dropped them on the table in front of his scene co-star. Andy responded by splashing water in Richards’ face in what appeared to be a botched moment. Producers later revealed that the public mishap was staged. On another episode of the fledgling series, Kaufman announced his engagement and conversion to Christianity. Both proclamations were later confirmed to be hoaxes.
A reported fan of studio wrestling, the relatively lean Kaufman also moved his energy to the ring during the early 1980s. At the same time his Taxi tenure was closing, Andy began wrestling women, and offering sums to challengers who could defeat him. This endeavor eventually led Kaufman to face Continental Wrestling Association star Jerry “The King” Lawler. After incidents in the ring in Lawler’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee (which led to Kaufman’s hospitalization), the two men had an altercation on the set Late Night With David Letterman. Lawler slapped Kaufman (10:25), prompting an on-set rant.
In his 2002 memoir, Lawler revealed that the televised altercation was staged at Andy Kaufman’s direction, even though the actor-turned-wrestler’s subsequent injuries were real.
In mid-1984, Kaufman died from a form of lung cancer. Many have speculated that the death is Andy’s most elaborate public prank, as referenced in the R.E.M. lyric used for Kaufman biopic, Man On The Moon.
At a time when Kanye West’s politics, comments, and public antics are driving the media cycle, Andy Kaufman is an interesting choice for inspiration. Notably, in the My Next Guest Needs No Introduction exchange (available on Netflix), Dave offers an anecdote from his time with Andy. During the string of early ’80s appearances on his talk show, Andy—once beloved by many in the ’70s, made disparaging remarks about the physical strength of women, southern Americans, and more. He had adopted a villain persona. Letterman recalls that off-camera, Kaufman would joke about forwarding any resulting hate-mail from those memorable appearances.
At the 30:00 mark, Kanye opens up about the real events of the last three years. In 2017, his The Life Of Pablo Tour ended abruptly, with the rapper being hospitalized in restraints. “I’m starting to research these things, because the experience of when you go through an episode—if you actually go to the hospital—there’s a moment that I have to talk about publicly that has to be changed,” West says.
He opens up about his symptoms and internal perceptions. “When you’re in this state, you’re hyper-paranoid about everything. This is my experience; some people have other experiences. Every one now is an actor. Every thing is a conspiracy. You see everything; you feel the government is putting chips in your head. You feel you’re being recorded. You feel all of these things.” He continues, “You get taken, and you have this moment: you feel everyone wants to kill you, you pretty much don’t trust anyone. They have this moment where they put you—they handcuff you, they drug you, they put you on the bed, and then they separate you from everyone you know. They don’t do that to pregnant women. That’s something that I am so happy that I experienced myself so I can start by changing that moment.” West, visibly choked up, gets a moment of applause from the live audience. “When you are in that state you have to have someone you trust. It is cruel and primitive to do that. Here’s another one that they love to do when you get the stigma of ‘crazy’: they love to write you off. They love to cut your sentences off, halfway. What you say doesn’t mean as much. Sometimes, for me, I think it’s a form of protection from me. Because if I’m peepin’ somethin’ that people don’t want me to think about or know or say out loud as a celebrity, ‘Aw, he’s just crazy.’ And then I go home. If they didn’t think I was crazy, it may be a problem.”
Letterman asks Kanye, “What is the mechanism that is malfunctioning or taking a break in your brain?” He replies, “I wouldn’t be able to explain that as much, just ’cause I’m not a doctor; I can just tell you what I’m feeling at the time. And I feel a heightened connection with the universe when I’m ramping up. It is a health issue that has a strong stigma on it, and people are allowed to say anything about it and discriminate in any way. [Points to head] This is like a sprained brain, like having a sprained ankle. And if somebody has a sprained ankle, you’re not gonna push on him more. With us, once our brain gets to the point of spraining, people do everything to make it worse. They do everything possible [laughing]; they got us to that point, and they just do everything to make it worse.”
West states that for eight months he has been without medication, but admits that his condition is episodic. “That’s exactly what it is. Like Snoop [Dogg] said, ‘’bout to go to the next episode.‘” Pointing to audience applause for being free of meds, ‘Ye makes a point to clarify something. “My form of mental health, I think, is the luxury version of it. Like, when people are schizophrenic, and they have deeper forms of that, people can’t function without medication. So I’m not advocating [treatment without medication], I’m telling you my specific story.”
Letterman (who also says that he has worked to not use medication in his life and career) asks West if some of the mood swings and mania is integral to his art. Kanye professes, “If you guys want these crazy ideas, these crazy stages, this crazy music, and this crazy way of thinking, there’s a chance it might come from a crazy person. [Laughs]”
At 40:00, Kanye does touch on one of his most controversial career choices, wearing and defending the 2016 Trump-Pence “Make America Great Again” campaign, in addition to meetings with the elected official. “When I wear the hat, it’s not about politics; it’s not about policies,” he says. “For me, once again, fear. I got people that I work with [who are] Black, female, all different types of people that I work with that love [Donald] Trump, voted for Trump, [and are] scared for life to tell anyone.” Dave asks Kanye if he voted for Trump in 2016. West states that he has never voted. Letterman responds that West gets no say in the matter. The guest, apparently bothered with audience applause to the point, retorts, “But who says who has a say?”
At 52:30, there is footage from David Letterman attending one of West’s 2019 Sunday Service concerts. Amidst a band, West says into the microphone, “[There are] basically two buttons in this game called life: love and fear. Some of us are just programmed to be more scared than others. But I represent that overcoming fear, and still being here. ‘Cause they say ‘you can’t do that,’ ‘you can’t do this,’ ‘you can’t do that,’ ‘you’ll lose your career.'” He breaks back into song, “But I’m still here. I’ve put my hands—keep my hands on the stove. Let me bleed. Let me bleed. That’s when I’m free.“