Andy Kaufman is dead, but Tony Clifton still wants your applause

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Image Credit: Comedy Store

Before he lip-synched to children’s songs on Saturday Night, before he played Latka on Taxi, before he wrestled ladies on Merv Griffin, Andy Kaufman hitchhiked cross-country from the East Coast to Las Vegas to meet his idol, Elvis Presley. Too broke to buy Elvis tickets, he hid out in a broom closet for a couple days and waylaid the King backstage. Later, while Kaufman was knocking around the Strip, he saw someone else perform: a lounge singer who was crass, drunk, and washed up. That has-been became the inspiration for Kaufman’s ego-maniacal character Tony Clifton, a bitter, libidinous Mr. Hyde who could say or do just about anything on stage.

Andy Kaufman died in 1984, but Tony Clifton is alive, if not well, performing at the Comedy Store, guzzling booze and telling stale jokes, singing Sinatra and ogling girls through thick brown sunglasses. How did he outlive his better half? The Kaufman legend, perpetuated in the last scene of the biopic Man on the Moon, is that Kaufman faked his death, pulling off one last grand practical joke and disappearing from show business, which he had grown to hate. It would be nice to believe that Kaufman is the one taking the stage, having the last laugh, though Clifton bears more than a striking resemblance to Kaufman’s writing partner, co-conspirator, and best friend, comedian Bob Zmuda.

Tony Clifton has mellowed since the ’70s — his jibes at audience members are obscene, but these days don’t have the angry edge. He croons sentimental songs: Hey There, Lonely Girl and I’ve Got You Under My Skin. He grooves to Take a Walk on the Wild Side. He takes full advantage of his brass section — he’s backed by a full band, the Cliftones — in a medley of songs from the group Chicago.

He could easily rest on the Andy Kaufman myth, get up there for an hour in the baby blue ruffled shirt and spangly tux jacket and toss around dirty jokes, then go home and get sloshed in peace. But he’s putting in the work: sweating and strutting for three solid hours, making easy work of ill-advised hecklers. He downs Jack Daniel’s like a marathoner chugs Gatorade, and in case anyone thinks it might be fake liquor, he hands his cocktail to the guy next to us so he can have a swig and testify that it’s 80-proof whiskey. At one point Clifton gets confused and starts using his drink as a microphone (“heh, heh, I gotta work that into the act”). When he sings Air Supply with his marionette doppelganger, exact down to the mop of hair and sunglasses (“Two less lonely people in the world / and it’s gonna be fine”), it’s a scene that belongs at the end of a long dark hallway in a David Lynch film. After all these years, Clifton’s still got juice in his alternate-reality version of Tinseltown: Grammy-nominated singer and amateur boxer Frank Stallone joined Clifton for a tune.

“I talk how you’re thinking, but you’re just afraid to say it,” Clifton says, with an evil chuckle. That’s almost the only line from the show that’s fit to quote in print. Some entertainment requires you to suspend your disbelief. For Clifton, you have to suspend your scruples. Are you offended by sexism? Scatology? Racism? Would it bother you if an entertainer held a “hooker raffle”? On the other hand, his dancers’ striptease sequences are tame by today’s standards — the only scandalous nudity is Clifton in buttless chaps and a thong singing Judas Priest.

According to Zmuda, Andy Kaufman on his deathbed told him to keep Tony Clifton alive. He’s succeeded, creating a gigantic spectacle of comedy, music, and sex. I’m sure there are purists who would say the character has sold out, since he’s now working to win an audience instead of trying to clear the room. He’s still the same curmudgeon, he’s just got a lot more heart. Near the end of the show, when things were getting woozy, he sang R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon.” The audience was on its feet singing along, and it was more like a celebratory memorial service than a comedy show: “Hey Andy are you goofing on Elvis, hey baby…”

Check the Comedy Store’s website for Tony Clifton Revue show times and tickets. Also, if you want the whole Andy Kaufman story, as told by Bob Zmuda, listen to the Zmuda interview on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast.

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