There are those who “got” Andy Kaufman and those who didn’t. The line wasn’t gray. One of the most polarizing comedians of modern time is laughing from beyond the grave as his inspired creation, the paunchy, racist, foul-mouthed, third-rate lounge singer Tony Clifton, packed the house at Chicago’s Lakeshore Theatre Oct. 12. Kaufman and his partner in crime, Comic Relief founder Bob Zmuda, regularly traded duties portraying the leisure-suited Clifton, baffling talk show host David Letterman and terrifying the late Dinah Shore by pouring eggs over her head. The bit never aired, but the legend grew. Both Kaufman and Zmuda vehemently denied their involvement in creating Clifton, which is beside the point. Clifton is a living, breathing, behemoth of anti-comedy, his persona so foul and antics so outrageous that one is left slack-jawed at the sheer audacity of his being. Clifton’s live show is a throwback to Rat Pack-era Vegas Revues, the stage filled with his Katrina Kiss-My-Ass Orchestra and his backup singers and dancers the Cliftonettes. Presented by Comic Relief as a benefit for displaced artists of Katrina, Chicago got over four hours of Clifton (set times vary, depending on Clifton’s inebriation) and the audience was bombarded with extremely racist, sexist, and hilarious jokes, lit cigarettes, and cocktails. After the show, I was whisked backstage for an exclusive interview with Clifton, and began by asking what prompted his comeback, and what he had left to prove.
“I’ve seen it all, my friend,” barked Clifton in his nasally register. “I got arrested down on Bourbon St. and they threw me in jail. Comic Relief came forward and asked me to front the Katrina Kiss-My-Ass band as a benefit for Katrina victims. The band said to the judge, ‘Don’t put Tony in jail. Let him do community service for the charity.’ So that’s why I’m here. I’ve got 60 hours left in my community service. Believe me; I need this gig like I need a fucking shotgun blast to the face.” When asked where he’s been for the last 25 years, Clifton replied, “I’ve been playing soccer stadiums in Third World countries. I fill ‘em up. These US gigs are small time, bozo shit to me. I heal people in those Third World countries, and that’s a fucking show. These Mexicans roll in on wheelchairs and I place my hand on their heads and pretend to heal them, because they’re stupid there. I don’t charge ‘em much either, and that’s why I fill up the stadiums. In US currency I charge them around 85 cents. They come in, and if they don’t have the change, I tell them to bring canned goods or a young daughter.”
Clifton’s show is an endurance test, both for the audience and for the performers. Speaking with his keyboardist before the show, I learned that several players recently left the band after a Clifton tirade. For what is in practical terms a novelty act, the show is elevated by the terrific backing band, which is a ramshackle collection of New Orleans musicians and Katrina victims. Show-stopping renditions of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” and an epic version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” brought the house down, the latter dedicated to the memory of Gordon Lightfoot, who Clifton mistakenly presumes dead. Add the showgirls, Clifton requested audience ejections and gallons of booze, and the performance took on a nirvana-like transcendence from satire into full-blown extravaganza. “We have 126 songs nailed,” said Clifton. “Talk to anybody who has seen a show and they’ll tell you that we change it up. We put the list together 3 minutes before the show, because I don’t want anybody getting stale. You come see Tony and you get a fucking show. I’ll do anything. I’ll fucking throw lit cigarettes and give out free booze.”
One of Clifton’s on-stage antics involves chasing and groping his “daughter”, the beautiful Keely Smith who Clifton presumably adopted after he picked her up hitch-hiking outside New Orleans. “She’s fucking hot, isn’t she?” growled Tony with a libidinous sneer. “I’m taking her to Hollywood to make her a star. That was my promise to Keely, in addition to banging her every night backstage.” Mauro Di Gioia, Clifton’s artistic director, explained that it takes a strong backbone to work with Tony. “It takes a kind of misfit to run away and be a part of this circus,” said Di Gioia. “They not only have to be great players, but they have to have the right personality. We’ve had several people leave because they couldn’t handle Tony. [Clifton cackles maniacally in the background.] Tony was unhappy with some of the guys and ... it takes people with a thick skin because Tony can get real ... real quick. You gotta be tough and wear your ego on your sleeve.”
Due to the mysteries and hearsay surrounding his past, I asked Clifton to set the record straight about his history and his relationship with Andy Kaufman. “Andy Kaufman died for my sins, and I will not insult his death by not committing 100% in my act, even though he was kind of a fucking little Jew bastard,” said Clifton. “But he put me on the map. In 1969 he came to Vegas and saw my act. Then he started doing an impression of me, and he became famous. After I heard about this, I tried calling Kaufman’s manager George Shapiro, the guy who Danny DeVito played in the Man on the Moon movie, and the guy won’t take my call. About a week goes by and I’m getting nowhere trying to get this Jew bastard to speak to me. So a friend of mine says, ‘You know how to find a Jew? Get another Jew.’ So I hired a big shot Hollywood Jew lawyer to get in touch with that other Jew bastard Shapiro to tell them that Kaufman is using my name to get places by riding my coattails.”
“They thought I was such a fucking loser that they could just steal my act,” sniffled a visibly choked up Clifton. “I’ve never gotten any respect. It’s always been very hard for me. But in the end Kaufman did the right thing. He told Shapiro, his Jew manager, ‘From now on, you book me with Tony Clifton.’ So I would then go on Letterman, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, and they would think I was Andy Kaufman. I’ll never forget when David Letterman said to me during one of the commercial breaks, ‘Andy, if I didn’t know that was you I’d swear it’s someone else.’ Little did that prick know that it was really me! Big fucking sophisticated Letterman who knows everything ... fuck him! He still doesn’t want to talk about it ... talk about egg on the face. Then there was the time I threw eggs over Dinah Shore’s head. That never made the air. She was dripping eggs, and it was like that movie Carrie where the broad had pig blood dripping all over her. Charles Nelson Reilly was the other guest that night, that little gay fucker. He got so scared that he ran back to his dressing room. Jean Stapleton, Archie’s wife, was there as well and she ran to her dressing room and locked herself in. She was terrified. She thought that Tony Clifton, being played by Andy Kaufman, had lost his mind and was killing people. Honest to God, that’s true. It was beautiful.”
After over four hours onstage, it’s clear that Tony has energy to spare. During our interview, he intermittingly hollers and catcalls his dancers, and it is clear that he is relishing every moment of being Tony Clifton. As he gives me a big bear hug on my way out, I can almost spot a twinkle in the eyes hidden behind those dark glasses. “I can’t play by the rules,” said Clifton. “It’s not in my D.N.A. I’m a song and dance man. I do it because I love it. It doesn’t matter if there are two, two hundred, or two thousand people. I perform for my fucking self. I’m working for free. I’ll never take a nickel for performing, unless it’s in a Third World country.”