The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 5

Welcome to Part 5 of The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from number 8 to number 5. Please visit Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 for more of this series. So, to continue…

8. Andy Kaufman (1949-1984)

Andy Kaufman

You know how comedians like to rip humor out of thin air? In unscripted routines they always try to one-up each other with jokes or put downs. You have to be very quick-witted to pull that off. But that’s how Andy Kaufman was all the time. He never, ever stopped looking for The Funny. “He was always on,” a friend once said. Even those who knew him weren’t always sure if he was putting them on. Therein lies his genius, and his weirdness. “Where is the real Andy?” they’d ask. The answer was never clear.

Welcome to Part 5 of The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from number 8 to number 5. Please visit Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 for more of this series. So, to continue…

8. Andy Kaufman (1949-1984)

Andy Kaufman

You know how comedians like to rip humor out of thin air? In unscripted routines they always try to one-up each other with jokes or put downs. You have to be very quick-witted to pull that off. But that's how Andy Kaufman was all the time. He never, ever stopped looking for The Funny. “He was always on,” a friend once said. Even those who knew him weren't always sure if he was putting them on. Therein lies his genius, and his weirdness. “Where is the real Andy?” they'd ask. The answer was never clear.

Andy Kaufman found ways to make people laugh that no one had ever imagined before. His schtick, if you can call it that, would typically involve assuming some bizarre yet wholly original persona who attempts some kind of ill-conceived performance art…and fails miserably.

KaufmanPersonae

Foreign Man (i.e., Latka Gravas from Taxi), with his excruciating naiveté and his pathetic “eemeetations” and his “Tenk you beddy much.” The “Inter-Gender” World's Wrestling Champion, with his flagrantly chauvinistic taunts and his “I'm from Hollywood” claims and his farcical feuds with professional wrestlers. Tony Clifton, the shrill, obnoxious and phenomenally untalented nightclub singer with his appalling salmon-colored tuxedo, uninterrupted stream of crude insults, and his wholly unsubstantiated delusions of grandeur. The list goes on.

Kaufman would even appear before audiences as “himself”, unshaven and forlorn, bemoaning his career misfortunes and his recent divorce and then panhandling the audience for pocket change.

Andy Kaufman on skid row
Andy Kaufman on 'skid row'

His idea would be to bomb and bomb and bomb some more, and then, when the audience couldn't possibly hate him any further, he would kill. He would do a spot on imitation of Elvis, or something devilishly clever with the congas, or speak gibberish to the audience for 8 minutes and make it work. “You're funny, kid,” Johnny Carson once told him. “I don't know how you do it, but you're funny.”

Neither do we, Johnny. Neither do we.
Neither do we, Johnny. Neither do we.

Of course, it wasn't really Andy. But when was it ever really Andy? On or off the stage, Andy Kaufman stayed in character no matter what. As Foreign Man he'd ask a string of inane questions before a long line of people while ordering ice cream. He'd walk around in his wrestling tights under his clothing. As Tony Clifton, he antagonized his Taxi co-stars to the point of being forcibly thrown out off the set. He would pick up girls in character and spend entire weekends with them never once letting on. Andy Kaufman never let on.

Somehow this must have had a cosmic connection to the Transcendental Meditation movement, which Kaufman joined as a youth. He would spend hours mediating every day. He once hectored the Mararishi himself about comedy and sex.

Noted Comedy Philospher and Concupiscence Pontificator
Andy Kaufman’s personal comedic philospher and concupiscence pontificator

Kaufman also subscribed to an odd “macrobiotic” diet of fruits and grains and vitamins and whatnot. This was perhaps why he was so confident the cancer in his lungs wouldn't kill him. The first thing he wanted to do after the diagnosis was to go on television and brag about how he got cancer for Christmas.

Ironically it was Elvis himself who pegged Andy when the two met in the early 1970s. “Man, this guy’s got a weird mind,” said the King of the Knave. For Andy Kaufman, all the world really was a stage, and he never left it. Except he did. And when he did at such a tragically young age, many thought it was just another one of his ingenious pranks. Only Andy Kaufman would be brilliant enough, and weird enough, to fake his own death. He actually had done that. In the early 1970s, he once bombed so badly that he put a cap gun to his head and pulled the trigger, to his audience’s horror. So it was understandable if people saw his cancer as just another prop in the ongoing comedy routine that was Andy Kaufman's life. And in some ways they were right. Andy Kaufman did fake his own death since the comedy he gave us will never die.

7. Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)

PhillipKDick

Philip K. Dick has established his own place within the pantheon of science fiction writers by basically asking two questions over and over: what makes us human? And what is real? He explored these issues in his stories while touching upon elements of theology, metaphysics, dystopia, paranoia, schizophrenia, transcendental experiences, and drug abuse. This all sounds pretty weird because it is pretty weird. But what makes Dick a weird guy rather than merely a writer of weird stories is that he lived all these things. In a sense he was a very autobiographical writer. To him, his themes were real. In his own life he really didn't know whether [insert science fiction trope A here] was really [insert science fiction trope B here] and how this would affect [insert science fiction trope C here]. It's a tough way to live. Despite what one would think about his chosen genre, there was nothing fanciful about Philip K. Dick.

Mind-bending, yes. Fanciful, no.
Mind-bending, yes. Fanciful, no.

Dick wrote 44 novels and 121 short stories over a 30 year career. But his star really began to shine towards the end of it and beyond with the large number of cinematic interpretations of his stories. Blade Runner, Total Recall, and other popular and lasting films as well as standout novels such as The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said make the emphatic argument for the man's greatness. Also, in his best works his themes throb bloody hot without ever becoming too obvious. Take his later work, VALIS, in which the protagonist is convinced a young girl is the Gnostic Christian Messiah. When the girl dies, we're never really sure if this is true or if the protagonist is suffering from delusions. Any story in which a hero embarks on a strange journey in which he finds the truths he holds close to his heart to be challenged and twisted, often in cruel and inexorable ways, owes a great debt to the unparalleled imagination of Philip K. Dick.

But, oh, was he weird. This was a guy who would obsess over his dead twin. The poor thing, named Jane, died at two months. A frequent sufferer of panic attacks, Dick visited his first psychiatrist at 6 years old. He was agoraphobic and had fears of certain kinds of food as well. His paranoia is legendary.

At least he wasn't superstitious
At least he wasn't superstitious

He also was an amphetamine fiend, which no doubt fueled his prodigious drive to create. He had secret prescriptions to all sorts of medications. One of his wives discovered this only after their divorce….when she received the equally prodigious pharmacist's bill!

This was the same wife Dick pulled a gun on in a fit of ugly paranoia.

Good thing you didn't zap your wife, Phil
Good thing you didn't zap your wife, Phil.

He also experienced amazing visions which often burned brightly in his fiction. He once claimed he saw an evil, metallic face in the sky, which inspired him to write The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Most famously, when a woman came to his home, sunlight flashed off of her Jesus Fish necklace and left him spellbound. After that he claimed he was clairvoyant.

Have you noticed how artists never seem to run out of ways to visualize the work of Philip K. Dick?
Have you noticed how artists never seem to run out of ways to visualize the work of Philip K. Dick?

Was Philip K. Dick insane? If he wasn't, then he was real close. For example, when his home was ransacked in paramilitary fashion in the early 1970s, he was actually relieved. Why? Because now he could justify his long-standing paranoia. He really did have enemies. And who were these is enemies? Depending on the day, Dick would blame the FBI, the KGB, the Black Panthers, the Nazis, drug dealers, and God knows who else.

Philip K. Dick: With enemies like mine, who needs friends?
Philip K. Dick: With enemies like mine, who needs friends?

But none of that mattered. How much of the truth can we really know anyway? How much of reality can we really trust? These were questions Philip K. Dick never stopped obsessing over. In the end, however, the only realities about Philip K. Dick we can trust are that he was a great writer, and that he was really, really weird.

6. Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

 michaelJackson

No-brainer here. This is one entry that practically writes itself. The “King of Pop,” Jackson is considered the most successful entertainer of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records. He's won 26 American Music Awards, 46 Billboard Awards, 13 Grammies, and many, many others adding up to a whopping total of 495 music awards. He was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as part of the Jackson 5 and once as a solo artist. He is the only pop star inducted in the Dance Hall of Fame. He's sold over a billion units worldwide. His 1982 album Thriller is still the number one selling record of all time (and is at least 15 million sales in front of the second place seller) and is widely considered a classic. He has five albums among the top 75 biggest selling records of all time, including two in the top ten.

Michael Jackson's Mighty Handful
Michael Jackson's Mighty Handful

From 1987 to 1989 his Bad tour spanned 15 countries, reached 4.4 million people, and grossed over $125 million. It was the most-attended, highest grossing tour of all time.

No musical artist is more famous than Michael Jackson. No musical artist has been nominated or awarded more times than Michael Jackson. Indeed, no musical artist has ever been more successful than Michael Jackson.

King of Pop
The King of Pop in his early 1980s heyday

And no major musical artist is weirder than Michael Jackson. The corrosive facial rhinoplasties, the gradual paling of his skin, and the rumors of anorexia were fodder for tabloids and mainstream news for decades.

It seems MJ felt that less was more
Michael Jackson: 1970s to 2000s. The 'Less is More' tour

Neverland Ranch, his personal residence in California, with its private amusement park and exotic petting zoo as well as the giant floral clock and statues of children everywhere, wasn't exactly a bastion of normalcy either. Let's also not forget his ridiculous charges of racism against Sony, his record label, in 2002 which even his attorney Al Sharpton didn't want to get behind.

Then, of course, there were the children. Aside from dangling his newborn son (nicknamed “Blanket”) out of a 4th story window in 2002, Jackson was notorious for his sleepovers with young children. He would fly whole families thousands of miles to his home and go on trips with them and spend hours on the phone with their children. And he would sleep with them. Whether or not he was truly guilty of molesting them remains unclear. In 1993, he was sued for sexual abuse of a minor and then settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. In 2005, he was acquitted of 7 counts of child molestation and 2 counts of giving an intoxicating agent to a 13-year old boy. Since then two jurors say they regret their decision. So who knows?

It's a long way down, Mike.
It's a long way down, Mike.

Perhaps Michael Jackson's intentions all along were noble. Perhaps he never had sexual interest in children. But it was all the hand-holding, and the cuddling, and the intense, intense attention that he gave them (along with all his other excesses) that makes him, well, weird, even with the benefit of the doubt. And consider this: Michael Jackson better be weird. Because if his claims of innocence are not true and he really did molest those children, he wouldn't be merely weird, he'd be a criminal.

Numerous times the man was called the artist of the century. To his credit, he deserved that distinction. The numbers are impossible to deny. Further, he had a tremendous artistic impact on the world of pop, merging R&B with rock in a very singular way, and, in so doing, unifying millions through music. But like his greatness, Michael Jackson's weirdness was impossible to ignore. Consider the Google searches below, which was performed on February 24th, 2013. Apparently many others feel the same way.

MichaelJackson_WeirdVsNormal 

5. Jack Parsons (1914-1952)

jackparsons

Philosopher Thomas Kuhn described the history of science as undergoing periodic “paradigm shifts.” As anomalies persist within a normal science paradigm, certain bold and creative individuals begin to promote a competing paradigm which may eventually replace the existing one. A classical example is the Copernican Revolution, in which scientists finally accepted that Earth revolves around the Sun. A more recent revolution occurred in rocketry in the 1930s. The bold and creative individual responsible for it was Jack Parsons. Well, in this case, “bold and creative” is just a polite way of saying “really, really, weird”.

Before Parsons rocketry was barely even a science. No university offered rocketry courses. Hardly any scientist took it seriously. Parsons, however, fed almost exclusively on science fiction and equipped with a genius for chemistry that matched his intrepid abandon, decided to experiment on his own near his home in southern California. Working entirely out of the confines of mainstream science (Parsons couldn't afford to attend college), Parsons amassed a body of knowledge that laid the groundwork for the space age. It took an obscene amount of trial and error, which Parsons happily endured. He liked blowing things up, you see.

I'd, uh, stand back if I were you.
I'd, uh, stand back if I were you.

In the 1930s Parsons attracted the attention of the scientists at Caltech, and later, as fascism grew in Europe, the military. He co-founded both Jet Propulsion Laboratories and the Aerojet Corporation, two important scientific organizations still going strong today. He made numerous contributions to the science of rocketry, most notably in 1941 using rockets to assist airplanes during takeoff.

The first US plane to fly on rocket power without a propellor
The first US plane to fly on rocket power without a propellor

After the war, he discovered how to launch rockets using solid fuel. This accomplishment was so revolutionary most scientists didn't even think it was theoretically possible. It led directly to the creation of the Polaris and Minutemen rockets of the 1960s. Without Parsons always thinking outside the box, putting US spacecraft in orbit, let alone the Moon, would not have happened when it did, if ever.

Parsons' colleagues always knew he was eccentric. He'd decorate his walls with swords. He'd wear snakes like scarves. He'd stage “duels” in the desert with live ammunition (the man whose bullet gets closest to the other man's head without killing him wins). Then there were all the sick practical jokes with the explosives. But it wasn't until Parsons joined famed occultist Aleister Crowley's Church of Thelema (called Ordo Templi Orientus, or OTO) when things got really weird.

Before every rocket launch you must recite the Hymn to Pan so not to incureth the wrath of the Dark Lord.
Aleister Crowley: Magick guru and triangular fashion consultant

First, there was the wife swapping and the free love. Then there was the rampant drug abuse. Most to the point here however were the Satanic sex magick rituals which led to some truly bizarre behavior. Summoning a redheaded “Moonchild” from the 4th dimension. Baking cakes with menstrual blood. Incarnating earth goddesses. Reciting obscure scripture in obscure tongues. Impregnating statues with vital forces. Dancing naked within pentagrams. Spraying blood intently within pentagrams. Masturbating intently within pentagrams. Yeah. The less said about this very weird chapter in Parsons' life, the better.

Behold the ancient mystery and Satanic splendor of my moobs!
Behold the ancient mystery and Satanic splendor of my man boobs!

Apparently Parsons' colleagues at JPL and Aerojet felt the same way. A weirdo like Parsons could not be expected to front reputable institutions. After World War II (once rocketry became a legitimate science), Aerojet asked him to sell all his shares. Parsons readily agreed since he was shouldering the finances of his OTO lodge in Pasadena. The FBI also had a file on him and ultimately revoked his security clearance. So no more JPL either.

Jack Parsons was a pioneer of a new scientific paradigm. He did this by always shooting from the hip and following hunches rather than working in tandem with other scientists. Ironically, this very same trait also caused his downfall since it prevented him from getting work once this new paradigm has been established. By the end of his life he was making explosions for Hollywood movies and storing chemicals in his home. This was how he met his untimely end, in a horrific accidental explosion. It was the tragic death of a brilliant and fearless man who was just too darn weird for his own good.

Painting of Jack Parsons by his widow Marjorie Cameron
Imagine this gracing the hallowed halls of NASA. Painting of Parsons by his widow Marjorie Cameron.

Next: Weirdos Part 6.

Author: rcspeck

Hello! My name is RC Speck, and I’m a writer and computer programmer living in Durham, North Carolina, USA. After some experience writing for WCPE the Classical Station and posting on the WCPE blog, I’m finally starting my own blog. The topics will be many, but mostly I will focus on novels, short stories, music, films, and comix. I may occasionally dabble in art, TV, history, or poetry. Also, don’t be too surprised if I hit you with the occasional post on boxing or MMA.

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