Fans and co-conspirators alike crammed into the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles last week for a sneak preview of an early cut of Tony Clifton: Live on the Sunset Strip.
The documentary captures the highs, lows, and on-stage vagina shavings of Tony Clifton’s four-night stand at the Comedy Store in May 2010, which commemorated the 25th anniversary of his first show after the death of his creator, Andy Kaufman.
And, what a document it is.
Whether or not it’s longtime Kaufman collaborator and Comic Relief founder Bob Zmuda in the Clifton role almost doesn’t matter, because the end product is so crazily its own thing. By the end, you’re not sure what’s real or what’s a bit, but be sure of this: Tony Clifton: Live on the Sunset Strip makes The Last Waltz look like a piece of shit.
Organizers did specify it was an early cut – there were no credits, of any kind, and audience members filled out surveys with questions that suggest that the filmmakers are still tinkering with the length and other editing choices – but as a representation of just what you’re in for if you go see Tony Clifton live, the film felt fairly complete.
Plenty of jokes that would need to be cleaned up to be off-color, singing that could generously be described as “horrendous,” and a whole lot of whiskey drinking. Also, Tony duets with a puppet version of himself, humiliates several audience members, and cranks out a performance of “Rhinestone Cowboy” that goes on for so long, it becomes an endurance match of ridiculousness.
In other words, it’s awesome, even if not everyone in his crowd agrees. Several of Tony’s routines or songs are punctuated by cutaways to people in the Comedy Store crowd, many of whom look like confused hostages, and who can blame them?
Tony Clifton: Live on the Sunset Strip is the fullest realization of the Clifton character, from sideshow oddity to a bizarrely irresistible flesh-and-blood figure, with his own needs, personality quirks, and explosive, racist temperament. With only a brief off-stage interlude to illustrate the madness of being a touring musician when your bandleader is a fictional character prone to whiskey-fueled rage rehearsals, the documentary keeps us on-stage and in the moment. And, though the film doesn’t nearly approach the three or four hour length of a real Clifton show, it is the best approximation of seeing Tony perform without the risk of getting a cigarette flicked at you or being yelled at for talking during an ear-piercingly off-key Rat Pack medley.
By the time Live on the Sunset Strip concludes, with a cover of “Man on the Moon,” a song REM wrote about Andy Kaufman that appears on the soundtrack of the Jim Carrey film of the same name in which Tony claims to have co-starred with Carrey, you’ll have long stopped thinking about Clifton in terms of Zmuda’s show-biz deconstruction or unthinkable character commitment. By then, he’s just a real person– one who you love, hate, fear, pity, and can’t help but think of whenever you hear forty-five reprises of “Rhinestone Cowboy.”