ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT > CURTAIN CALL

Who Is Tony Clifton?

One-time Andy Kaufman character appears at the Hilton Oct. 23. What's in store? Nobody knows.

By David J. Spatz
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 20, 2010

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It would be highly unfair, not to mention grossly inaccurate, to call Tony Clifton the showroom spawn of Satan himself.
The devil may be evil incarnate, but that’s still no reason to insult the guy. Nobody’s that bad — except, perhaps, for Clifton.

With that as a set-up, we take you live via telephone to somewhere on the planet for a conversation with Clifton, who may or may not be the lasting comedic legacy and ultimate spoof from the humorously twisted mind of the late comedian Andy Kaufman.

So who is Tony Clifton?

“I’m an international singing sensation,” he barks over the phone. “I have an eight-octave range, that’s more than Mariah Carey. I’ve sold more records that Elvis and The Beatles combined.”

He pooh-poohs the fact that he really hasn’t sold more than a dozen albums in the United States, claiming he has huge followings in Third World nations.“I fill soccer stadiums, my friend,” he says. “I sing, and sometimes I do a little faith healing, too. They like that there. And I usually don’t charge much money. Sometimes if they just bring some canned goods I’ll let them into the venue for free.”

That won’t be the case Saturday night, Oct. 23 when Clifton invades the Atlantic City Hilton, which is charging money to hear him run through his musical set in his highly nasal and incredibly off-key voice, all of it backed by his Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra. For eye candy, expect a small gaggle of scantily clad dancer-showgirls to join Clifton on stage.

So who is Clifton really, other than the entertainer people love to hate and hate to love?

Near as anyone can tell with any certainty, he’s a massively untalented lounge lizard created by Kaufman in the 1970s as a sort of counterpoint to his sweet, meek and loveable Foreign Man, the stage persona who eventually became Latka Gravas, Kaufman’s character on the sitcom Taxi.

Kaufman, a comedy genius who was better at audience misdirection than most magicians, would occasionally work small nightclubs and lounges in his Clifton guise, where he would attempt to entertain with his horrible singing. When an audience didn’t get the joke — and most of the time they didn’t — he would proceed to insult, offend and degrade them by broad-jumping over the line separating good comedy from bad taste and unleash an invective of ethnic, racial and religious insults.

Don Rickles with a hangover and Lisa Lampanelli suffering from raging PMS would be tame by comparison.

Kaufman never acknowledged he was Clifton and Clifton was he, and they were never seen in the same room together … until they were.

As part of the gag, Kaufman would occasionally plant himself in the audience while his brother, Michael, or his show business partner, writer and producer Bob Zmuda, would put on the fat suit, greasy and shaggy black wig and sunglasses that completed the Clifton persona.

Clifton disappeared in 1984, right around the same Kaufman, 35, died from a rare form of lung cancer. But years later, on the 20th anniversary of Kaufman’s death, Clifton returned to the stage, leading some to speculate that the bit was actually Kaufman’s most clever spoof ever — faking his own death.

When Kaufman was still alive, the Clifton character would fly into rages whenever Kaufman’s name was mentioned, claiming it was Kaufman who was riding his coattails to fame. But the 2010 version of Clifton — whomever he’s played by — seems to have mellowed. No more diatribes at the sound of Kaufman’s name.

In fact, he speaks of Kaufman in almost loving terms as he reminisces about their fun times together, especially one night when Clifton was in the middle of a run in Lake Tahoe. “Lemme tell you a story,” he says, before launching into a long-winded and sexually explicit tale of what happened the night he and Kaufman — and a very famous entertainer whose name we’ll keep secret for fear of legal action — visited a whorehouse in Nevada.

Clifton has the story down so well that you really believe he’s talking about two different people.

And now he’s back to talking about the show he’s bringing to Atlantic City. He almost bristles as the suggestion he’s a comedian who sings, not a singer who tells jokes. “I’m not a comedian,” he says. “Kaufman was a comedian. I’m a singer. You will be blown away, because this is a huge fucking musical show. I’ve got a huge fucking orchestra, and because I’ve got horns, I’m able to do everything from Frank Sinatra to Led Zeppelin to Chicago to Blood, Sweat & Tears, and everything in between.”

Clifton has some advice for those who plan to attend his show, but don’t quite understand what it’s all about. “You come to my show and you party,” he says, “but you have to drink a lot. I don’t want anyone coming unless they have a lot of drinks in them, because the more they drink, the better I sound.”

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