Inspiration for songs can come from the most unexpected quarters of the mind; however, some are easier to understand than others. There is something undeniably captivating about Andy Kaufman, and it instantly makes sense why R.E.M. used him as the guiding light for their track, ‘Man On The Moon’.
If you’re not familiar with the work of Kaufman, he was a comedian but in the absolute loosest use of the word imaginable. He didn’t tell observational comedy about his musings on society, neither did Kaufman recount hilarious anecdotes from his personal life. Instead, he was just Andy Kaufman, who was an enigma incomparable to anybody else and acerbic to his core.
“I am not a comic, I have never told a joke,” he once explained. “The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him. My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can.”
He was often described as the world’s best ‘anti-comedian’ and spent eight years on SNL before being let go in bizarre circumstances in 1983. Kaufman remains the only cast member to ever be voted off the show after bosses thought it would be funny to have a referendum on his fate, and a sense of dread filled the studio when the audience got rid of him.
Tragically, Kaufman died just two years after this incident, aged 35, and his presence is still mourned today. In 1992, R.E.M. took it upon themselves to write ‘Man on the Moon’ as a tribute to the comic, with the song’s lyrical output featuring an array of references to the wild, madcap stunts that he pulled throughout his ever so short career.
“Andy Kauffman was a performance artist,” Mike Mills from the band once recalled to NME about his love for him. “He wasn’t a comedian; he wasn’t a comic; he was a performance artist. Some of what he did was funny, some of it was annoying, some it was irritating – but it was always provocative. As such, as someone that you couldn’t really pin down in terms of what he was and what he was not. Was he dead? Was he faking?
“He’s the perfect ghost to lead you through this tour of questioning things. Did the moon landing really happen? Is Elvis really dead? He was kind of an ephemeral figure at that point so he was the perfect guy to tie all this stuff together as you journey through childhood and touchstones of life.”
There was an otherworldly charm to Kaufman, which gave him this unique allure. For the band, it felt like he was this source of wisdom that had been dropped down from another planet that was impossible to comprehend fully. On this occasion, he proved to be the necessary spark needed to get R.E.M.’s creative muscles flexing, which led to the birth of one of their most adored songs.