The sound quality will remind you of lectures you taped in college with your own microcassette recorder. The rhythms range from casual moments to elaborate put-ons in the manner Kaufman favored. You can hear Kaufman pretend to have an angry dialogue with what might be a squealing pig. You can even hear him debriefing a woman he just slept with, and her disbelief that he actually wants to record what she has to say about his performance.
"You didn't even look like you were enjoying it," he tells her. Later, he asks, "How would you feel if I put this on a record?"
The 17-track, 48-minute record is also an oddly compelling thing. It's another window into the man who would lip-sync to children's records on stage, throw himself into the role of a pro wrestling bad guy and, in his most mainstream persona, play the immigrant cab mechanic Latka on the sitcom "Taxi."
On the record, Kaufman taunts a cop giving him a ticket: "You know I'm not gonna pay it. … I'm gonna make a fool of you." And he has one apparent girlfriend call another, after trying to stir up trouble between them. Another woman then accuses him of trying to provoke fights "so you can put it on your tape recorder." It is, she says, "all for the tape recorder."
Yet the man who culled through the 82 hours of recordings Kaufman made between 1977 and 1979 says that what's most striking about them, as a whole, is that you never saw a version of Kaufman that stood at a remove from his art.
"The weirdest thing was that the view of him that I hoped was true was actually confirmed," says Vernon Chatman, himself a comedy provocateur whose TV writing and producing credits include "South Park" and "Louie." "I always had this nagging feeling that at some point the real Andy, a person who's a little more cynical or calculating, is behind there. But there was never any sense of cynicism."
And somehow this held true, Chatman contends, whether Kaufman was talking to his grandmother about making tapes, his sister about having sex or a hooker about trying to take her out on a date.
"My guess is he just never got to this point of cynicism. He had this arrested sense of wonder," Chatman says. "The engine of what he was doing he kept pure."
Chatman came to the project because of his comedy chops, because he was a Kaufman buff and because Drag City had put out, as a DVD, "this strange film I made called 'Final Flesh.'" Says Chatman in the liner notes to "Andy and His Grandmother": "I was so offended at how disrespectful and impossible the very notion was that I immediately agreed to do it."
Drag City, whose most popular artists include Bonnie "Prince" Billy, got involved because of friendships between its executives and the people who run Process Media, a West Coast publishing house with a reputation for spotlighting quirky hidden histories. In 2009, Process put out "Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts!" a collection of letters Kaufman received after he taunted women over what he claimed was their inability to defeat him at wrestling.
In the midst of talking to Lynne Margulies, Kaufman's girlfriend and chronicler, for that book, Jodi Wille of Process Media learned about the box of microcassettes.
"And Jodi suggested (Lynne) pass them on to us," says Rian Murphy, Drag City's sales manager. "Not only were we big fans of Andy Kaufman, but we're a record label with a little bit of experience in terms of putting out comedy, unconventional things."
The project "took the better part of three years, and a lot of the time there was work being done," Murphy says. "There were three or four versions of it that at any given point were suggested as the record.
"What we were all listening for was that flavor of outrage and non sequitur that typified Andy Kaufman, the ability to find often the very black comedy in moments where no one had looked before. Awkwardness and wrongheadedness, all of those things people ended up calling anti-comedy."
Chatman, based in New York, never saw the actual shoe box, he says. He worked with digital copies of the recordings and says he felt fortunate that on the very first tape Kaufman discusses his new microcassette recorder, a cutting-edge technology at the time, and how he intended to make an album with it called "Andy and His Grandmother." Some of that became the record's first track, and Kaufman's attachment to the recording device is a unifying thread for the record.
One whole track is a compilation of various women telling him, in various ways, to "turn that thing off."
The last track is Kaufman and confidant Bob Zmuda discussing one of the comic's provocations of a woman: "Wouldn't it be great if she kills me and you have the tapes?" Kaufman says, then adds, "It would be better if I were more famous." And then they discuss how Kaufman might, in the end, be immortal.