Tony Clifton: Andy Kaufman’s spirit carries on

By | December 7, 2009 at 10:21 am | One comment | Features | Tags: , ,

Tony Clifton

In the late 1970s, the late legendary comedian Andy Kaufman met and befriended Las Vegas lounge act Tony Clifton– or so the story goes. Shortly after that, however, we all learned that Andy was Tony… maybe. Either way, Tony’s back in the spotlight just in time for the release of the new book Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts.

If there were one thing that I know now that I wish I’d known in the minutes before “International Singing Sensation”/horrific alcoholic Tony Clifton called me, it would be that “International Singing Sensation”/horrific alcoholic Tony Clifton was going to call me in a few minutes. But, even with a lot of preparation, you face some pretty fundamental challenges in interviewing Tony Clifton.

The obvious one is that he’s a fictional character— an abrasive, abusive, somewhat intolerable lounge lizard created and first played by Andy Kaufman, who, as you might know, has been dead or (depending on who you believe) on Mars for 25 years. But, the more troubling one is that he seems now to have willed himself into actual existence. Clifton has his own career mythology, family history, and epic touring show, and he seems to have taken over the life of (I’m guessing) longtime Kaufman collaborator and friend Bob Zmuda in some kind of Spider-Man/Venom-like scenario that I can’t even begin to understand.

I had planned to interview Zmuda on the occasion of last week’s publication of Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts, a deliriously strange collection assembled by Kaufman’s girlfriend Lynne Margulies of the late comedian’s best bits of hate mail from his lady wrestling days. (Margulies was also behind the documentary Andy Kaufman: I’m From Hollywood, an essential chronicle of the same phase of Kaufman’s career.)

Somehow, Tony Clifton got wind of the interview and called me instead.

This meant some adjusting to my game plan. I’d hoped to talk to Zmuda about how he and Kaufman had a hand in the creation of alt- and anti-comedy decades before those terms existed, how the pair predicted the rise of reality television stars, and how Kaufman played so pivotal a role in expanding the idea of what a comedian could possibly do onstage. With Clifton, on the other hand, I had to more or less cede control of the topics as the conversation veered into street jokes and speculation about what caused his son to be born retarded (spoiler: it involves anal sex!).

I should preface the interview with one note: in September of 2008, I saw Tony Clifton and his enormous Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra at the Comedy Connection at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston. For a bewildered, delighted crowd of perhaps a hundred, Clifton performed an unforgettable set that approached the five-hour mark and only ended because Clifton could barely stand upright and most of the audience had either left or, in one instance that may or may not have been real, been ejected by Clifton himself.

In keeping with the Kaufman legacy of (briefly) “What the hell is this? Is this real? Why is this funny? Jesus Christ, this is hilarious,” the show wasn’t Bob Zmuda performing some removed meta-parody of a horrible Vegas lounge act; it was Tony Clifton performing an actual, horrible Vegas lounge act, with dancers, musicians, whiskey, fist fights, and a whole lot of fun. It remains one of the best, most inspiring, and most infuriating shows of any kind that I’ve ever seen.

Tony Clifton called me from New York. It went like this.

Is this Rob?

It is.
Is this Rob Turbovsk – what the – how do you say your name?

This is Tony Clifton. How ya doin’ my friend?

I’m very well. How are you?
I’m good. Is that a Polish name?

Russian/Ukrainian, I think. It’s all in the same Eastern European ballpark.
You hear about the Polack whose wife had triplets?

He went out looking for the two other guys. That’s a dumb Polack. Polish firing squad: they stand in a circle.

Well –
Polish parachute: opens on impact. I know a lot of Polish jokes.

The best show I’ve ever seen – and I tell people this all the time – was Tony Clifton in Boston last year.
We had a good show there.

Unbelievable show.
Yeah. And, now, I tell ya, you come see it, it’s even gotten better. It’s new and improved. We got many more numbers, many more girls, and a lot of fun.

When I saw the show, it was four and a half hours long. How many more numbers are in it?
Well, we did about four hours the other night at Santos’ Party House. Some nights, it goes crazy. Some nights, I start drinking early. When we did Boston, it went on long, didn’t it?

It went on until after they stopped running subway trains.
We have fun. But, I’m very proud of the troupe. As you see, are those girls beautiful or what? They’re amazing. Very talented dancers. Then, I got Keely, my newly adopted daughter. But, it’s good. Thank you for coming out to that show. I think it’s the best damn show out there, at a very reasonable price.

How do you get ready for a show? Do you have a routine?
I watch a lot of porno. A lot of porno. I try not to jerk off, maybe two or three days before a show. That’s why my shows go so long. I’m not joking. I’m like a boxer. Right before a show, I’ll watch porno like a son of a bitch. But, I don’t cum. I come close. I’ll jerk it, but I don’t shoot the wad out. I keep that energy in there.

The only person I’ve ever seen do anything close to a five-hour show is Bruce Springsteen. I wonder if he has the same approach.
I’ll betchya he does.

What have you done to mark this year being the 25th anniversary of Andy Kaufman’s death?
Well, you know, I hosted over at Caroline’s Comedy Club, I think about a week ago, I hosted the Andy Kaufman Award contest [an annual competition for comics demonstrating “originality, creativity, spirit and execution, as exemplified by Andy Kaufman”]. The brother – Michael Kaufman – called me and asked me if I could come emcee. Now, I think he’s thinking that wasn’t a very good idea, because I was removed. I was bodily removed.

I’m sitting there. I brought one of the Cliftonettes with me, I brought my own pianist. And, who wants to see these new comics come up there? They weren’t very good. I’m sitting there, “Mr. Entertainment,” “International Singing Sensation” with hot babes, ready to perform for them, so I kind of commandeered the show, and I don’t think people appreciated that, so they had me bodily removed.

They owed me some money too. They had a Jew there who told me he was going to give me some money. He tried to give me a check. And I said, “I ain’t taking no check from a Jew.” I made them go to the box office and get some cash. Then, I left.

They had some sign up, because there was a comedy festival that week [the New York Comedy Festival], and it was “Come tomorrow. There’s going to be an autograph signing with Alan Zweibel.” Who the fuck would want Alan Zweibel’s fucking autograph? They had him, Andrea Martin, then Carol Kane. All these people are there because they aren’t working.

So, I said that, and Carol Kane was actually in the audience, and she got up in a huff and left. Then, people started booing, and I was drinking, and then next thing I know, I was bodily removed. Good riddance.

Now, there’s this new book coming out, Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts, which is a collection of Andy’s hate mail.
Yeah, yeah, that’s Margulies – Lynne Margulies, the girlfriend there [put that together].

You’ve probably gotten a lot of hate mail over the years.
Yeah, but not as much as people would think. A lot of it was aimed at Kaufman. Kaufman started doing an impression of me, and then people started sending him the hate mail, thinking that Kaufman was me. Now, every once in a while, I’ll do the show, and someone will yell out, “Are you Andy Kaufman?” You know what I say? I’ll say, “Do you want to see Andy Kaufman? Get yourself a flashlight and a shovel.” I did an interview the other day, and someone said to me, “If Andy Kaufman was alive today, what would he be doing?” Guess what I said?

I have no idea.
He’d be scratching at the inside of his casket. That kind of shut him up. I didn’t understand that guy’s act much. I don’t think he had an act. But, what kind of an act do you call that? Sitting and doing children’s songs, Mighty Mouse? If I want to see that, I’ll watch Romper Room. And, he was wrestling the women. I think that was really disrespectful of women…hey, that reminds me, what’s the difference between a bitch and a whore?

What’s that?
A whore will fuck every guy in the room. A bitch will fuck every guy in the room but you. I like that one. So, what were you saying? You had a question?

When did Andy first see you? It must’ve been Las Vegas, right?
In Vegas in 1969. He went out there to see Elvis Presley. He hitchhiked. Of course, I did not see him at the time, because I didn’t know who the guy was. He must’ve came and saw me, because next thing I know, a couple of years after that, Bugsy calls me and says, ‘Hey Tony, where’s that money you owe me?’ I owed him some money, and I said, ‘What are you talking about, Bugsy?’ He said, ‘Well, you can pay me now, because your ship came in. I understand you’re playing Carnegie Hall. You’re opening for this Andy Kaufman.’

I had no idea who this Kaufman was. Sure enough, they showed me the ad from the New York Times and Carnegie Hall, it said ‘Andy Kaufman. With opening act Tony Clifton.’ I went, ‘What the fuck is this all about?’

I went to the pay phone, because times were kind of tough for me back then, and I called Shapiro. George Shapiro, Andy’s manager.

In the movie [Man on the Moon], that little midget Danny De Vito played him. Which I think was kind of insulting to George, because De Vito is a little midget, and he’s a little man on top of that! And, he’s got a Napoleonic complex. If you see him, tell him I’ll kick his ass down the street! Anyway, don’t get me off on Danny De Vito. It’s a whole other story.

So, anyway, I called Shapiro, and he won’t take my call. Because that Jew son of a bitch, he’s some fucking sheeny bastard down in Beverly Hills…I kept calling collect, and he won’t take it. So, I got my own Jew lawyer, and my Jew lawyer called him, because those Jews…that reminds me – have you heard about the Jewish pedophile? He says, “Hey, little girl, you want to buy some candy?” I can joke about the Jews, because, as you know, I had a relative who died in Auschwitz.

Yeah. He fell off the guard tower.

Anyway, then, they took me seriously. Kaufman called me, because I guess they were afraid I was going to sue him or something. He said, ‘I didn’t know, Tony, I didn’t know. I was just doing an impression of you.’ I said, ‘Don’t do an impression of me. I’m me. Get me.’ So, they hired me then, and I started opening for Kaufman. They booked me on David Letterman, Miss Piggy, stuff like that. For years, everybody thought that’s Andy Kaufman. He’d be sitting home laughing. That’s how stupid the public is.

How are you adjusting to having a black president?
You mean the anointed one? I kind of get a kick out of him. More and more people are turning on this guy, though. I think he’s a good man. That one daughter of his is really hot. She’s growing a little up on top there. It’s pretty good. He kind of grabs her and hugs her a little too cozy, if you ask me. Maybe somebody should report that. Look into it.

But, you know, this guy – I’m not being funny now, I’m talking seriously. Everybody thinks everything is a joke with me. I talk seriously, as you see. As you know! And, as you know! Everybody thinks everything about me is going to be a joke or a song or a dance. It’s not! I’ve got my own opinions! About everything! I think – what was I talking about? I’ve been drinking all day.

That guy they’re going to put on trial here [in New York], they said he was waterboarded 183 times in one month. And, that Abu Ghraib thing…the news pictures with the dog collars and them crawling around and all that…Well, I’ll tell you something my friend, I’ve spent a lot of time at Dennis Hof’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel in Nevada, and I paid good money for stuff like that. I come in sometimes, and I like to be treated like a dirty dog. I’ll pay the girl, and she’ll put a collar on me and walk me around. Sometimes, I even shit on myself like a fucking beast. And, I’ll roll in it. Stink in it. I pay for that. So, what are these people talking about?

Do you keep up with the news, in general? Are you planning on reading Sarah Palin’s book?
I’m not going to read Sarah Palin’s book. She’s a hot piece of ass, though. I went to one of her rallies once, not that I was for her, I just wanted to see what it was like. But, now, she’s got that ex-son-in-law [Levi Johnston], and he’s doing a spread in Playgirl. They got a big battle going on, and he said that she came home one day, and he was sitting there, and she walked in and said, ‘Where’s my retarded kid?’

And, I listen to that, and I go, ‘But wait a second. Maybe she just has a sense of humor.’ Because I’ve got a retarded boy too: Toby. He’s a retard. He’s goofy. He’s about 40 years old, and he’s got the mind of like a four-year-old.

For many years, I’d bring him to the Christmas parties, and we’d start spinning him around to make him dizzy. And, he’s retarded on top of that. He was brought on this planet to laugh. You laugh at him. He doesn’t have any hurt feelings. He doesn’t know. He’s given a lot of joy. I’ll put some booze down him too. There’s nothing like booze down a fucking retard.

I’ll tell you when this took place. I know exactly when this shit came down. It was ’68, Days of Rage, Chicago. I went to Lincoln Park, it was like the hippie dippie times. The first joint I ever had, a girl gave it to me there. We were so fucked up, and she was on acid. I think it was the mixture of the acid that she had taken…and I was fucking her pussy, then I stuck my dick in her ass, then I put it back in that pussy. I think it was the mixture of the cum, her shit that was on my fucking dick, and then also the acid she was taking, and she got pregnant. That’s how we had Toby, the mongoloid kid.

Back then, you see a mongoloid monstrosity like that, I wanted to take him behind the barn and put him in a bucket of water, take him out of his misery. But, they kind of stopped me, so he lives at Cliftonmere with me now. The Cliftonettes come out there, and I keep him pretty much tied away, away from the house and the girls. But, soon, you’ll see stuff on You will see Toby. I’m not joking about this.

What else can we expect to see from you?
Oh, this is exciting. We’re going back to Cliftonmere, and I’m recording my first album, my first CD. It’s like, remember when Sinatra did duets?

We’re lining up different guest artists that I’ll be recording with. As a matter of fact, I’m going to give you a little scoop right now. Just worked this out the other day: the first group I’ll be recording with – we’re going to do a duet together – is REM. So, we’re bringing people in. Once we do that, then we’re going to go on the road again. We’ll be back in your part of town, and we’ll do it up right. And, you come.

Do you –

Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts is a collection of hate mail and accompanying photos that Andy Kaufman received, kept, and planned to publish. It features an introduction by Lynne Margulies and a foreword by Bob Zmuda. Visit Tony Clifton online (at your own risk) at Buy the book by clicking on the image above!

About the Author

Rob Turbovsky

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