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 lets them see 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 for commentators. 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 has 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 an 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:
The analogy would be apt, except that Andy Kaufman was never brought on Meet The Press to discuss foreign policy, much less serve as a popular and recurring commentator on a “news” channel or asked to speak at fundraisers and official party functions. Coulter may be doing schtick, but her schtick is presented as analysis by “serious newspeople”. Maybe that’s Fox News’s problem and not hers, but either way she’s dangerous in a way Kaufman never was.
Michael Moore may be a slightly better analogue, only Ann Coulter is much more intelligent.
Nick, that’s an important point. She’s constantly presented as someone with a valid point of view – and not just by FOX. I’ve seen her on the othere nets, though not as often.
The Kaufman comparison is a bit awkward.
I have read only one of her books, and found her to be detailed with supporting references. Could you be clearer on Coulter presenting misinformation? I don’t know if she has, but I do find her entertaining.
You’ve hit on a great point that goes to the heart of what I’m saying.
Coulter’s art isn’t outright lies, it’s deception, and that’s where the comparison to Kaufman is so perfect. Let’s do it this way.
Go find proof for me that Andy Kaufman was actually being honest about Tony Clifton. Or better yet, prove to me that Kaufman is actually dead (he insists he’s not). Then I’ll prove to you that Coulter is lying when she says McCarthy was a hero. Going through that exercise (and failing) should shed some light on what Coulter does for a living.
As a more direct answer there are efforts like this, http://mediamatters.org/research/200901040002, to catalog the distortions, but I think they miss the point. You can’t “catch” someone in a distortion. People who are inclined to believe a distortion won’t be persuaded by the weight of evidence against it.
There’s an art to what she does. It’s dark, it’s damaging, but it’s still impressive.
When I watch her, I think I detect other aspects – hysteria and barely vieled anger. And those, I think, are real.
I totally disagree with the comparison to Kaufman . Of course I agree with most of her views . I believe she is sincere . She is willing to be the only Conservative on shows and be attacked by 3 or 4 Liberals who hate her guts . I believe she makes Liberals reveal who they truly are . Instead of disproving what she says, they go after her personally or try to stop her from speaking entirely . Such as when Liberal students in Ottawa formed a human barricade to keep her out of the University .
It’s an effective technique to shut up people you don’t like . Or just declare what you don’t like to be hate speech.
I far prefer Coulter’s writing over her public speaking. I saw her on “Real Time w/ Bill Maher” last week and I think she got owned by the rest of the panel. Plus, her constant half-laughs and looking away when she’s challenged are incongruent with the point she’s trying to make.
What she’s saying may be correct, but I think she’s best when she has uninterrupted time to say it, as she does in her writing. I put her public appearances at 90% schtick and 10% content, and her writing as exactly the opposite. Based upon that, I do see the comparison to Kaufman. As for the comparison to Moore, I think he’s ALWAYS 90% schtick and 10% content (maybe even 99% and 1%).