So last week, I took a jab at a personal mythology among my friends and I. I tend to feel such superstition and conspiracy talk deserves a couple good jabs. I laugh about these things because if you don’t, you’ll believe them. The 9/11 truthers may have no facts, but damn are they able to insist. Vaxxers include exactly zero respectable medical experts (except those respected by vaxxers to Admit The Truth), but they will swear their opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s facts. My own sister believes the moon landing was faked. I’m pretty sure respectable science says otherwise, but hey, sometimes a high school teacher and a husband just know more than the whole of astronomy. It’s like when Vanessa Williams suggests “sometimes the sun goes ’round the moon.” Who’s gonna doubt the former Miss America, right?
“But oh,” says the hoax believer, “that is what they want you to believe.” Sure, there were reasons that the government would have wanted to lie, but the stakes were so high at that moment, what good would that lie have done? At worst, it could have been the trigger to that nuclear war we were fearing. But OK, there are reasons, if no educated proof. Conspiracy and superstition, however, need no proof! Just belief! Is it possible a hoax could have been committed? Sure, except for the part that everyone’s in on it if it was. If someone were to step forward tomorrow with undeniable proof, proof that would stand up to the massive scrutiny it would be given, that the moon landing didn’t happen, or that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim who was not born on US soil, or that Jimmy Hoffa and Elvis are gay lovers in Atlantis, or whatever, then fine, it’s an outrage, it’s the biggest cover-up of all time! And yet, those of us who believe it (again, that includes everyone who is an expert in such things) would still have been more intelligent through being wrong than anyone who guessed it was despite their correctness. Right now, the evidence does not exist that would prove it. These folks are clinging to the hope that such evidence will come to pass that proves what is otherwise easily disproven conjecture. It would be like your spouse cheating on you because you became obsessed with trying to catch them cheating on you. The end result proves your hypothesis, but it doesn’t prove you right.
“Man On the Moon” addresses a number of these conspiracies. It confronts religion (arguably myth in and of itself) and science (Newton and Darwin, two perennial favorites to not be believed in). It promises an “agit for the never-believer,” a shake-up, suggesting that there is nothing to be gained in skepticism. Skepticism on which side? Stipe is classically cryptic. Sure, he says if “there’s nothing up my sleeve, then nothing is cool,” but the specific references he uses suggest this itself is a snipe at the conspiracist, as though they need to hold on to hoaxes to keep themselves entertained. That said, however, it also is, ostensibly, an homage to what might be the most believable conspiracy theory out there.
Andy Kaufman died of lung cancer, as far as we know, nearly 30 years ago. Even so, there has long been speculation that it might have been one final joke on the world, and that he may have never died. Kaufman was known for pushing comedic envelopes, even when the comedy wasn’t conventionally funny. This is a man who would read The Great Gatsby to an audience expecting a comedy routine, and who is possibly best known for his bizarre episode in pro-wrestling. Faking his own death would ice the cake for a man who loved to confuse and anger and shock and overall dismantle the expectations of his audience. After all, hasn’t his alter-ego Tony Clifton continued to make appearances long after Kaufman’s death? “Man On the Moon” is about Kaufman more than anything. Framing his story along side these other references makes clear that there is a controversy around him that parallels the moon landing.
Why talk about this? Why believe this one? Just last week, Kaufman’s brother introduced a woman claiming to be his daughter. Nearly thirty years later, it sparked the same rumors, and while all evidence states that it, too, was a hoax, it says a lot that Kaufman’s brother believed it. Kaufman had a long history of claiming he would fake his own death to go along with his history of unpredictability. Unless Kaufman’s brother is in on the daughter hoax, perpetuating the idea that Andy may still be alive and well somewhere, it adds one more layer to the mythology. Again, Kaufman’s brother is an expert in the field here. If he’s believing the hoax, it’s either very, very good, and based in possible truths, even if the woman is an actor, or else he is part of it himself. There could be no more fitting tribute to his brother.
That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? Those who believe hoaxes have to believe that people always have “something up their sleeve,” because if they’re right, someone did. Right now, it is equally possible that both Kaufman brothers’ sleeves are full, if you’re the sort who buys into this particular conspiracy. Here’s the problem, though: it doesn’t take long for things to be refuted in this day and age. Even old hoaxes can be confirmed for what they are, and this particular attempt at bringing Andy Kaufman back to life is proof: you can have a story airtight enough to fool people, and within a week it can be picked apart and proven false. For the myths of our time to be true… the 9/11 Truthers and the Birthers and the people who still buy into Area 51 and Bigfoot and especially the Moon Doubters… there would need to be a lot of covering up, and simply masses of people in on the lie. Consider that just years after the moon landing, Nixon’s Watergate scandal was uncovered. Even back then, huge cover-ups could be cracked easily. Andy, well, it’s smaller potatoes, with fewer people who need to keep mum, and it fits his MO way better than Elvis being alive and well would fit the King’s (not to mention better than lying about a moon landing would fit the US’s MO of not getting bombed to bits for lying to Russia if it was found out). It is a mythology which perpetuates, and likely will perpetuate decades more, because of the unpredictability of the character in question. Governments are a lot more predictable. Science is pretty rule-governed. If a famous provocateur can’t do better than keep disbelief suspended for more than a week, how can he have done so for 30 years? It’s to Kaufman’s honor that we want to believe, that we can justify believing… but in the end, it is no different from any other hoax. In reality, the man’s legacy is still just as cool without anything extra up his sleeve.
I once dreamed my father came back to life. He pulled into the driveway as he did every evening, and walked through the back door nonchalantly. In the dream, a friend was over, and I had the bizarre honor of introducing the two, tears in my eyes. I feel that moment, that heart-wrenching intersection of two different, powerful feelings, more honestly than I feel the real interactions I’ve had in the wake of his passing. There’s something about “Man On the Moon” that is haunting and uplifting all at once, just like that image… the joy of reunion and the anger of the lie and the fear of so unreal a situation. Perhaps it is this which made Michael Stipe once admitted at a concert I attended that he had just recently learned the words to this song without needing a lyric sheet (I had presumed “…End of the World…” was up next, and was pretty baffled that a much simpler track had stymied Stipe for so long), but I would think this quality would make it all the harder to forget. Whatever the case, I doubt he’s forgotten it since. After all, like the theories surrounding Kaufman’s death, the song endures decades later, and shows no signs of flagging.
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