Cantankerous crooner Tony Clifton opened for Rodney Dangerfield, and appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, The Merv Griffin Show, Dinah & Friends (where he drunkenly poured a plate of eggs over the host’s head during a cooking segment), and The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show. He was slated to appear on Taxi, until he famously showed up drunk with a pair of hookers in tow and promptly alienated the entire cast and crew.
But the veteran lounge singer is best known for his relationship with comic genius Andy Kaufman. The two were so close, in fact, that some speculated that Kaufman and writer/co-conspirator Bob Zmuda took turns “playing” Clifton. Sure enough, Clifton kept a low profile following Kaufman’s death in 1984, but he returned to the media spotlight to perform a string of benefits for victims of Hurricane Katrina for Zmuda’s Comic Relief charity in 2008. (He also has a website and a blog.) The A.V. Club met the eccentric show-business lifer at Chicago’s legendary Pump Room two days after a Clifton performance in the city. In a conversation deemed too dangerous to release until now, Clifton discusses his prickly relationship with Kaufman—whom he accused of ripping off his act—his contempt for Danny DeVito, and his love of prostitutes.
The A.V. Club: Did you hang out at the Pump Room a lot back in the day?
Tony Clifton: Oh yeah, sure. Me and Frank [Sinatra] used to meet down here. The table No. 1… I’ll show it to you on the way out. It’s not just a table. [To server.] Right, that’s table No. 1, the Frank Sinatra table? [Server: “Yes.”]
AVC: Is it true that you were good friends with Frank Sinatra?
TC: Well, as close as you get to Frank. He was a moody bastard. Mood swings like you can’t fucking believe. But you gotta learn that… With him, though, I was always respectful. He used to hold court up here when he was in Chicago. As a matter of fact, somebody was telling me… Oh, what’s his name? He wrote a lot of his songs for him.
AVC: Sammy Cahn?
TC: Mmm, very good. Sammy Cahn. Sammy told me years ago, before he died, he wrote a new song for him and had to go see him to play the song for him. His agent was like, “Okay, you gotta go to his house in Palm Springs to see him, but he wants you there for breakfast.” Sammy is like, “Jesus, breakfast? That doesn’t seem to be the time of the day to be playing a song for somebody.” The agent says, “No. Frank has breakfast at 5 p.m.!” [Laughs.] ’Cause he couldn’t come down after a show. By the time he went to sleep, see—he was with hookers later on in his life and the whole thing, the whole family hated him. They wanted him to drop dead.
Frank, Sammy, and Dino [Dean Martin] came to the Chicago Theater a while back. Now Dino, I’m very good friends with his daughter, Deana. She was in town playing one of those new casinos, and she is a hell of a chick. Her and I are good friends, and she tells me fucking great stories about what was going on. The truth is, see, they were old. Now Dino… a good guy, a coal miner from Steubenville is where he came out of. At the Chicago Theater [during the ill-fated 1988 “Together Again” tour], Dino got out of the car and there were people scalping tickets for like $100. That was big money then, because the tickets were like $18, $20. Dino saw that, and he knew they were old. By now, he was even using the teleprompter to remember the fucking lyrics. He didn’t want to do it for years, but Frank said he had to do it. He says, “This is bullshit. We can’t hit the fucking notes anymore. We can’t remember the fucking lyrics. People are paying $100 to see us? That is a rip-off.”
That’s why he quit. Frank got so pissed at him. Then they brought in Liza Minnelli to fill the space, but that didn’t last long, because people went to see the three of ’em. Even Sammy, who was a wild man, he used to do the cup show at the Playboy Club. That’s when he was grabbing all that white snatch. It was Playboy After Dark, that was the show. It was an old TV show. I’ve modernized the show. As you see with some of the songs, I don’t just do the oldies, I do the new-ies. I do Zeppelin, whatever the kids want. What nationality are you? A Jew?
AVC: I am.
TC: I can smell it on you. Did you hear about the Jewish pedophile?
TC: He hides in the bush. A little girl walks by and he says, “Hey, little girl, you want to buy some candy?”
AVC: [Rimshot noise.]
TC: I told you a Tyson joke, didn’t I? No, ’cause you didn’t come to the show the other night. It is a great joke. I did four hours and 15 minutes. Why is it that Mike Tyson cries after sex?
AVC: Why does Mike Tyson cry after sex?
TC: Well mace will do that to you. [Laughs.]
AVC: You told a Jeffrey Dahmer joke the night I was there.
TC: Oh yeah, the Jeffrey Dahmer joke.
AVC: And a lot of pedophile jokes as well.
TC: Oh yeah, a lot of pedophile jokes.
AVC: So is there an ethnicity that you can’t tell jokes about?
TC: No. Recently I had three of the blackies quit on me. It’s true. Three of the blackies quit on me, because I make it clear to everybody. I said, “Hey, everybody’s gotta take it.” You can’t just say one, and “Oh, but not us.” You all gotta go.
AVC: You’ve got to be an equal-opportunity offender?
TC: Right, right. Equal-opportunity. Across the board, you know? I don’t pick on one more than another. You know, like, “This is a guy who deserves this.” Well, how do you know if you’re getting a blowjob from an Ethiopian? Oh, the good thing about that, a blowjob from an Ethiopian, you should know she’s going to swallow. So I try to get everybody. The show, as you know, is mainly music. I’m not a comedian. I don’t like that talk. I don’t do any of this stuff. I don’t write these jokes. These are jokes I hear from the street, that people gimme.
AVC: You do tell a lot of jokes, but Frank Sinatra told a lot of jokes too. You can hear them on his live albums.
TC: Did he really? Well, Frank had a lot of drinking jokes, too. Frank did say, “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink, because when they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.” This is my age. How old are you?
AVC: I am 32.
TC: You’re a very young guy. Where are you from? Here?
AVC: Yeah. Born and raised.
TC: Born and raised? What part?
AVC: I was born in Kansas City, but I grew up in Rogers Park.
TC: I don’t know where that is.
AVC: It’s North Side. I took my dad to see the show. It was his idea, actually.
TC: It was his idea? He came out, huh?
AVC: So you don’t have a money clip? I figured a man like yourself would have like a big gold dollar-sign money clip.
TC: I should get one. That would be a good thing to do. But then that takes up too much room, too. I guess it holds everything together. I don’t do wallets anymore.
AVC: Why not?
TC: They’re too bulky. So your dad said, “Come see him.” Did he have a good time?
AVC: He did.
TC: Oh yeah. I read that thing. You guys kind of bonded. It was good.
AVC: You’re bringing families together.
TC: See? It is a family show. That’s what I tell people.
AVC: You talked during the show about how you ended up doing this tour as part of your community-service requirements. Can you share that story?
TC: Well what happened to me is, I was down in New Orleans for the Jazz Fest, and I went to see Keely Smith. She wasn’t performing because she’s 350 pounds and can barely breathe.
AVC: Was that at Louis Prima’s?
TC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I went down there, and it’s like a mudhole, like Woodstock or something. I went in. Then I hit Bourbon Street and somebody slipped me a Mickey Finn. Then I got fucked-up, and I went back to the hotel room. What was the hotel? It’s like Villa Convento. As a matter of fact, the Villa Convento is where, that’s the original House Of The Rising Sun. That was where the song was written, and if you’re ever there, it’s in the Quarter. It’s on Ursulines Street. Anyway, so I didn’t know. I got there. I don’t keep my keys on me for the hotel room, because every other night I’m in a different place, and I don’t remember. I used to do it, but then I’d go in and think, “Oh, where’s the room I remember the night before?” So what I did finally is, I keep the door ajar a little. Especially if they have that metal hook that comes out so nobody can break into your room. So I put that there. So when I come back at night—and I was fucked up on this Mickey Finn—I went into the fucking room and I thought it was my room, and it was late there. Dark. I laid in bed and the woman starts screaming. An old lady. Next thing I know, they called the cops. I tell you, New Orleans cops, these aren’t Chicago cops. They’re crazy motherfuckers. They’re all corrupt and whatnot. Next thing I know, I’m put in the slammer. Put in front of the magistrate and then at the organization. And the next thing I know, they came forward, the comedy people. What’s that called?
AVC: Comic Relief?
TC: Yeah, those people. They came forward and said, “Please, judge, don’t throw him out. Don’t throw him in the jail there. Let him do some community service.” ’Cause they were putting that thing together, of musicians and singers and dancers and the Katrina people. Aren’t they a fine cast? How about those chicks, huh? Are they hot?
AVC: They were something.
TC: Which one’s your favorite? Which was your Dad’s favorite? That was some nice burlesque.
AVC: Well, I think Keely was popular, and then the opening striptease.
TC: Oh, that’s Lily Summers with the clip that we use. She comes out almost like a ballerina. Lily is fuckin’ smokin’. I think it was, was it last night? We did this show, and Keely got in a little trouble onstage.
AVC: How so?
TC: Well, she’s a little juvenile delinquent, is what she is. You know, at that age. They’re all on the bus. She gets horny as all hell. We’re traveling around, she smokes a lot of weed, and she went out for some dick, you know? I kinda got that sense that she might have been messing around with someone in the band. So I confronted her onstage the other night. It was fun. You know who Jefferson is? Jefferson is what we call him. His name’s Ashland Parker, and I nicknamed him Jefferson like the TV show The Jeffersons. He’s the black guy. He plays the horn. He’s that little small little African. That’s Jefferson. So I accused her the other night. I said, “You sleeping with anyone in the band?” Somebody else said, “Jefferson.” I said, “You ain’t sleepin’ with that nigger, are ya?” [Laughs.] Jefferson just about turned white. But I tell ’em, if they’re going to work for me, they’re gonna hear it. Nobody escapes it.
AVC: How did you meet her?
TC: She’s… We don’t like to give her age. Some places, they say, “You know, she ain’t supposed to be there.” She’s very young. I thought I was adopting her. I was on the route then, going from Biloxi to New Orleans. I was tooling around in my Chrysler 300, and there she was. Now that’s a long stretch of road. It’s about nine miles long. It’s a bridge over the bayou. They’ve got real crocs and alligators in there. Alligators or crocodiles, I forgot which one. Gators, I think. It must be gators. The crocodile’s more like in Africa or something. She’s standing there… And she’s beautiful. Isn’t she cute?
I picked her up, and she’s stoned. She’s stoned out of her fucking mind, and I was drinking then. Not this piss. I was drinking the old Gentleman Jack from the bottle. I was fucking tanked. She fucking got in. Man, the cutest little fucking piece of ass. I was fingering her. Within 15 minutes, she let me finger her. Oh, yeah. I put it in her little fucking pussy. That’s a tight little, sweet little pussy. And I said, “Lick, lick. Taste your pussy juice,” I said to her. She did this within 15 minutes. I said, “Oh, man, this chick. I’m bringing her to Hollywood. I gotta take her on the road.” And you saw, she’s a big part of the show. She’s a big part of the show. I’ve kind of made her my star. Little starlet. But she’s sassy. You gotta watch her. Sometimes I’ve got to put her in her place. The other night, I grabbed her, kind of violently, I fuckin’ pulled her fuckin’ hair down ’cause she started mouthin’ off onstage to me.
AVC: What did she say?
TC: Did she mouth off the night you saw the show?
AVC: She did not.
TC: Because the show’s always different. It’s never the same. It really isn’t. We’ve got 126 songs we’ve got down. At about this point, 17 or 18 different dance numbers, so we mix it up. But that’s real stuff. We’re real people. She’s a real girl onstage. She’s just becoming a little prima donna because she’s getting all the screen time, stage time. And they have pictures of her, even here. We did that thing in The Sun-Times, right in the next room here. So she’s beginning to get some press on herself, and she’s a little… They’re all fuckin’ lying—eventually lying cunts, anyway. So I’m trying to teach her properly. But I think we’re going to do a full-on shaving, because I want to shave her beaver onstage.
TC: Yeah, I think so. I had the lawyer look into it. I’ve got a Jew lawyer from Davis, a suburb outside of L.A. He checked in and he said, “If we have her behind a screen, it might be doable. The screen. If I can get a few volunteers, the way to do it maybe is I take a ball or something, you give it to someone and he throws it over. Whoever catches it is the person, so they know it’s not plants. That person throws it, see? I might get three or four people, male or female, to get back there behind the screen while I shave her little twat for the first time. She agreed to it. We can’t do it to the whole audience, because we’d get fucking arrested for indecent exposure. But with consenting, the Jew lawyer told me we could do it.
AVC: You had to clear it by him beforehand?
TC: Yeah. I think I’m planning on doing it. I told her, “Don’t shave the bush yet, ’cause we’ll do it for real.” I’ll go out there and sit there, and we’ll have maybe a girl there. Shave that down. That’s fun. That’s why I won’t give her age.
AVC: Is that going to be the grand finale for the tour?
TC: No. ’Cause what we’re doing now is… Let me get you another drink there. What we’re doing now, we’re going down… I’m leaving tomorrow, and we’re going to a studio for a while. Because all of these shows—we did 28 shows this first around—have all been recorded. We’ve got video there, with a runner on the track. It’s HD, high definition. So phase two, we’re going back out in January. So for phase two, this time I will be able to sell the CDs from these shows. Some crazy things have happened over the course of these 27, 28 shows we’ve done. I just talk off the top of my head. This is some great fuckin’ shit. Fights have broken out onstage. It’s gotten pretty fuckin’ hairy at times. So on the CD, I thought, “I want to capture it.”
AVC: Is it a CD or a DVD?
TC: Both. DVD of the video, and then we’ll do the CD, because obviously we should have that out there. So we’re going to do that. So then that’s going to start in January. Then we’re going to hit some of the big festivals. Get that in front of the kids. And do something like this, you know, because it’s not usually what they get to see.
AVC: It’s an event?
TC: Well, you know [shock jock] Mancow Muller? Mancow was at the show the other night. A friend of mine. And Mancow, he said, “Tony—” He said he was blown away, of course. As you were, as your father was. As everybody was who comes to the fuckin’ show. They tell other people, “You gotta come see this thing.” And Mancow said, “It’s not comedy.” He said, “It’s not a comedy show. It’s not a musical show. It’s not a stand-up show. It’s a happening.”
AVC: That’s a good word for it.
TC: That’s really what it is. And it changes every night, and it’s organic. But what’s so great lately is, I’ve getting some good girls who want to come on afterward. Some groupies I’m getting. Those fuckin’ groupies. Because I say it like it is. I don’t pull my punches. Was I talking about anal bleaching that night?
AVC: You were. Do you think women appreciate your bluntness?
TC: They seem to. Everybody seems to. First of all, they know if they’re going to come to my show, the kind of person who’s gonna come wants to hear that stuff. I’m just honest about it all.
AVC: They’re not going to be easily offended if they’re seeing a Tony Clifton show.
TC: That’s right. They should get the fuck out.
AVC: You’re something of a ladies’ man. Do you worry that women are just after you for your money and fame?
TC: Well, that’s why I stay with the hookers. Because it’s like Charlie Sheen said—I will quote him, one of the greatest lines—he says he doesn’t pay a hooker. He doesn’t pay a hooker for sex. He pays a hooker to leave. You’ve heard that line? And it’s absolutely true. I don’t need any entanglements and nothing like that. So that’s what I like about it. I like the idea that they just come, take care of business. Who the fuck wants to talk to ’em? So I got that going, and then I spent a lot of time at Dennis Hof’s Moonlite BunnyRanch. You know, did I talk to you about that?
AVC: In Vegas?
TC: No, no. It’s Carson City, Nevada. But it’s on that show Cathouse. It’s on HBO. Dennis is my best friend, so when I’m not working, my winter quarters is over there. He’s got a room set up for me over there. I’m the tester, because he’s got too many fuckin’ young girls coming. So I thought, “Man, I’ll plow some 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds every fucking night of the week.” I’ve never been touched by an old lady my own age. If for some reason I was in such… The thought of having sex with a woman my age is so disgusting to me. If I did it, I’d turn myself into the police station. They’d say, “What are you here for?” and I’d say, “I just had some old lady like this and had sex. Please lock me up.” I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be one of those guys who has to go home night after night to that old bitch and do that. That’s why there’s so many hookers out there.
AVC: So you determine who gets to stay and who has to go?
TC: Well, I don’t try to be that brutal about it. I’m not going to put the girl in jeopardy. If they’re good, I tell Dennis they’re good. If they’re bad, I don’t say nothing. I don’t want the poor girl to lose her job, you know?
AVC: You’re a gentleman about it.
TC: Yeah. I’m a gentleman. But some of them are so fucking nervous, because they say, “Oh my God, I don’t know what report you’re going to give to Hof.” And I say, “Honey, just relax. Don’t worry about it. Suck that fucking cock.”
AVC: So they have a lot more whores than they have spots for whores? The supply exceeds the demand?
TC: Oh yeah. Oh my God, he gets about 800 applications a month.
AVC: So you apply to be a prostitute?
TC: Yeah, it’s a legal brothel. So it’s legal.
AVC: What do you put on your résumé for relevant experience when you’re applying to be a prostitute?
TC: Cocksucker. “I’ve been a cocksucker my whole life.”
AVC: “My name is in all the best bathrooms. My number’s there as well.”
TC: Probably that, but these are funny women. Beautiful, young girls. A lot of them have good heads on their shoulders. It’s not that old thing that everyone thinks like a hooker’s gonna be. Like [Bemoaning voice.] “Oh, she was abused by her father and she was molested, and that’s why she’s a hooker.” That’s bullshit. You say that to any fucking professional, they’d laugh at you. That gets me so sick when people say that. It’s like, talk about being a stereotype by projecting on women. So when they did that whole thing… Who was that whole thing that got them kicked off the… [Don] Imus. Because he said…
AVC: He called the members of a women’s basketball team nappy-headed hos. I think it was Rutgers.
TC: Remember they got all upset, right? Well here’s the funny part: When that came down, I was spending the weekend over at the Moonlite BunnyRanch, where they had nappy-headed hos. But here’s what’s funny. They were upset that he called them that, nappy-headed hos, because they are. They said, “Yeah, we’re nappy-headed hos. That’s who we are.” Do you know what I mean? They were upset that the Rutgers girls would look down at that. See what I’m saying?
AVC: That implies that being a ho is something to be ashamed of.
TC: That’s right. So it’s crazy. There’s always the ying-yang of this stuff. I called some media up to get a story, and I said, “Hey, if anyone needs to apologize, the Rutgers girls should be apologizing to the real nappy-headed hos.” Who do not… “That’s what we do. That’s our profession.” What I try to do in my shows is, I always try to show the other side of the coin, because there is another side.
AVC: Maybe it wasn’t so much about them being called hos as it was about them being called nappy-headed.
TC: But they are nappy-headed, unless they’re wearing a wig.
AVC: Have you always had a predilection for prostitutes?
TC: When you get the money, you get it. When you don’t, you can’t. Norman Mailer once said, “If a whore can’t fall in love with her client, what chance has she?” And it’s true. Some of the best fucking relationships I’ve ever had in my life were with hos.
AVC: What chance has she?
TC: Yeah, “If a whore can’t fall in love with her client, what chance has she?” And I’ve had some wonderful fucking times with whores. Deep, passionate moments. They’re real.
AVC: You’ve had Pretty Woman-type experiences?
TC: Well, no. Listen. Now you’ve got me going. I hate that fucking movie. I’m telling ya, if you want to see me violent, you sit… Somebody should do this. Somebody should put chains on me and make me watch that fucking movie. That fuck who did it? Garry Marshall?
AVC: Garry Marshall, yeah.
TC: Who obviously knows nothing about hookers. Like the chance that… And what was her name that played that role?
AVC: Julia Roberts.
TC: Now listen. She’s never been to a place like that. You know she’s like, “Come on!” This is a high-end, New York, I think it was a New York City hooker. Right?
AVC: It might have been L.A.
TC: Trust me, she’s been in those hotels night after night. And the dialogue is so fucking stupid.
AVC: I think the idea was, she was a new prostitute, and she wasn’t yet numb to the realities of prostitution.
TC: Now you’re standing up for it.
AVC: No, no, no. I’m just saying…
TC: Do you want to fight with me about this right now? I’ll pour this drink over… I’ll hit that fucking bottle over your fucking head. Then you’ll have a story to tell. You’ll tell your daddy, “He hit me over the head with a bottle.”
AVC: Well, I’m not going to defend it. The funny thing about Pretty Woman, apparently the original screenplay was called Three Thousand, and it ended with him abandoning her and her in the gutter, because he’d had his fun and it was time to go.
TC: A girl would get scared. The way he was acting in that room. A girl would go like, “Are you stupid? Eat this pussy.” I can’t stand that movie. Then at the end, he goes [Mock female voice.] “Oh, did you kiss him? Did you kiss him?” Come on! That’s all bullshit. Because in a legal brothel, they can’t kiss. They’d get fired.
AVC: Is it a sanitary thing?
TC: Yeah. That’s right. Well, not only that. They don’t want them to get in any relationships with the clients. It’s bad for business. So they make a general rule. Some guys get drunk and they want to kiss, so they don’t do that. Also, here’s a statistic: Since the AIDS virus, there’s not been one report of an AIDS case in any of the legal brothels in Nevada. That’s right. So you take your life in your hands if you just go to a bar thinking you’ll pick up a girl. Safest girl you’re going to pick up is in a legal brothel, because they have testing every month for girls that are… Because it would destroy the industry. Now, when I spent time in New Orleans, I tried to convince the city official to make it there. I keep writing him letters. Because that place is economically hurting. What they need to do is bring legalized prostitution that used to be there into New Orleans. There’s a film in the ’60s called Easy Rider. Now you notice in that, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda go to that brothel. There was a whole area of brothels in New Orleans that was called Storyville. It was a real thing. And then they got rid of it. And this brings so much income.
It’s like what the mayor did with Las Vegas. The mayor came there. He was part of the mafia, too. Connected. And he coined the phrase, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” They start to market Vegas, like “Come here, sleep with a hooker if you want. See, nobody’s really looking, see.” And that’s the new marketing campaign out there, see? And New Orleans needs to do this. They’ve got Bourbon Street. They’ve got Mardi Gras. They don’t even have a title sponsor for Mardi Gras after all these fucking years. That’s ridiculous. They have one casino there, Harrah’s, that has a hundred-year license, and this was pre-Katrina, they signed with the city. That’s why you don’t see any other casinos.
AVC: They have an exclusive license?
TC: A hundred years with the city, “Or else,” they said, “we’re not going to build here.” So they brought the big casino in, but they said, “We’re not going to make this investment if you think you’re going to sell another casino license down the street. We’ll save our money.” This is true. They got the city to sign a hundred-year license, and that should be revoked, because casinos want to come in there now.
AVC: They want to revive the economy.
TC: Exactly. Dennis Hof’s a good friend of mine, and I want him to meet with the city officials. And he’s got a legal brothel, and at first people are thinking, “You’re joking.” And I say, “I’m not joking. I’m damn serious about this.” And Dennis said he’d open tomorrow. He’d open half a dozen legal brothels. Beautiful buildings. Victorian-looking buildings. The whole thing. You know, bring that back. And the economy. Oh man, what that brings into the economy, I can’t tell ya. People spend good fucking money with these fucking hookers. I don’t. I get it for free. I get the pussy for free, because I’m his tester.
AVC: You have a prized position.
TC: I’ll still give the girl a tip and everything, you know.
AVC: Why do you think prostitution is illegal almost everywhere outside Nevada?
TC: Well it’s not legal anywhere else. It’s just called “escort systems” or something. Probably right now in this fucking hotel right here.
AVC: You can see ads for it in the paper.
TC: Oh yeah. And in massage parlors.
AVC: It’s a “wink-wink” kind of thing.
TC: Oh yeah. But it used to be all over. You know, in the Old West town and Marshal Dillon in the Gunsmoke series. Or was that kind of before your time? Do you know what Gunsmoke was? Dad and Miss Kitty. He went to the saloon, it was always Miss Kitty. What is kitty? Kitty. Pussy. She’d always go upstairs, always wanted Marshal Dillon to go upstairs with her. She was running a brothel there. They had brothels all over America. But then the women killed it, because, see, they don’t like it. Because they wanted control over ya; the only control a woman has over ya is the pussy. The ’60s women really kicked up and killed it; choked it to death.
That’s what’s so funny. It’s a discussion between these professional hookers—prostitutes—and they’ve got unions and everything, you know, they got this big organization. And they just hate the liberals, because they say, “Oh, you’re being exploited.” “No! We’re not being exploited!” So you know, these girls are making $280,000 a year, and they can buy property, and it’s my body to choose and not you, Miss Women’s Lib, to tell me what to do with it. So that’s the discussion I always see.
You know, I should put that in my show. My show should be more informative. I should really bring like the pro and cons on there. And listen! I didn’t tell ya this, oh my God! Now you’re gonna think I’m bullshitting you, but this is true: I did a show in L.A. a number of years ago at the House Of Blues. And after the House Of Blues, we took them across the street to the Comedy Store on Sunset. But then I had Jerry Lawler wrestle; we had little midgets. Wrestling. It was a fucking great night. Kaufman used to give milk and cookies. I give ’em beer and pretzels. Different. Then what we did, about 2 in the morning, we told everybody, the audience… We had about 800 people at the House Of Blues, about a hundred of them came over to the Comedy Store and they saw the wrestling. Then, and you’re not gonna believe what I’m telling you is true, I had Dennis Hof come up and announce—and it’s late Sunday night—“If you’ve got a ticket stub, go to sleep; our third act will continue tomorrow night.” This would be Monday night. “Same time at 8 o’clock, if you can get to the Moonlite BunnyRanch in Carson City, Nevada with your ticket stub, you will get laid for free.” And this is real. I got it on tape. And this is the fucking craziest thing: “Go home and go to sleep. Tomorrow, your stub is only good from 8 until midnight.” And you know, we had couples there and single girls there, whatever. And the next day, I’m thinking maybe it’s a PR thing. Who’s really going to show up? I flew down there, and Hof was a sweet man, and he said he felt bad, so he was gonna have a couple plants come in, that came from the show to make me feel good. Except when I get there he says, “Tony, I don’t have to do that, because I got about 150 people in the fucking parlor that showed up.”
He says these people flew, they drove, two guys took a fucking bus, a Greyhound that took them for-fucking-ever. And at the end of the day, we had 112 people who, with their stub, got a fucking hooker for free.
[Clifton’s phone rings. When he hangs up, the conversation shifts to the person to whom he’s just spoken.] He’s a good guy. Dealing with those muskrats in the band. It ain’t easy. All these egos. But talented people, as you see. But I gotta watch them, so he keeps his hands off. And for the band to keep their hands off my little Keely. I call her Young Shaver; I’m gonna shave her onstage. Did I tell you that? Shave that pussy right onstage. I’ve done that a couple times at the Moonlite BunnyRanch. When you shave it, then you wanna finger it, then lick, then fuck it. You know what I say onstage: You’re only as old as the person you fuck. I mean that. That’s why everybody’s walking around angry.
AVC: Mao was apparently a big proponent of sleeping with virgins as a way of restoring his youth.
TC: Who did? Mao? Are you serious? Mao was fucking like a fucking crazy. I should read that Little Red Book of his. Well, the virgin thing… But there’s no doubt about it. You know, you see these guys in Thailand. You and I could walk around with a 16-year old girl on each arm, and nobody would think twice. Nobody’s gonna say, “Look at that dirty old man.” Doesn’t happen! They don’t think like that. The Buddhists don’t think like that. But I always get a kick: I see some American couple walking down the street. I don’t know what the fuck they’re doing in Thailand. She’s like some old broad and he’s the poor guy trying not to look at the girls because he’ll get caught. She’ll look and go, “That’s disgusting.” And they ain’t fucking any. If you could just see that guy’s age.
Statistics has shown that when you stop fucking… This is what life is about, to keep the species going. So when that’s cut off, you’re just, “Oh, I’m ready to die.” I’ve seen it. A friend of mine, he was a psychologist from Chicago, Dr. Joe Triani. He and I had been going to brothels for years, back when he could afford it—the Mustang Ranch out in Reno. Now they’re making a movie about them. Joe and I go, “This is fucking amazing.” And you know, his psychology… He had guys that had marriages breaking apart and couldn’t stand their wives, that were suicidal. He had this thing called the Mustang Plan. He’d tell a guy that was so fucked-up… You know, his wife is suing him, and his kids, and he’s wanting to kill himself, so this guy is in therapy because this was when Joe was practicing. So Joe tells this guy, “Look, before you kill yourself, do yourself a favor.” And he would fly this guy out to Reno, where it’s a 45-minute drive to Carson City where the ranch is. And within a half-hour, this guy that’s so miserable couldn’t remember what he was so unhappy about. He thought he’d fucking died and went to heaven. Which is the same thing that happened to Kaufman.
Kaufman died. None of the cast of Taxi showed up at his funeral. Not one fucking person. I sound like I’m joking, but I’m losing it. You’re talking to a guy from a different part of the stage. Onstage, I tore him up. But I’m telling you, not one of those bastards showed up at his fucking funeral. But there were three hookers from the Mustang Ranch. You know, here’s a good Jewish boy from Great Neck. They flew. The funeral was in Great Neck. Three of them flew themselves out for the funeral, weeping over the man, miserable. They’d known him for years; they weren’t even having sex with him, they’d just known him for years. He was like me. He didn’t trust any of the fucking starlets. Once you become a celebrity, then you don’t know if they like you for who you are or what you are. You have a hard time.
AVC: You can’t help but wonder if they want something from you.
TC: That’s right. So at least with a hooker, it’s honest.
AVC: You know exactly what they want.
TC: That’s it. That’s it. And at least you’re starting it. It’s like the old joke: Why is the Jewish bride smiling when she’s walking down the aisle?
AVC: Because she doesn’t have to have sex anymore?
TC: [Laughs.] It was the last blowjob she ever gave.
AVC: Is prostitution the same over in Thailand?
TC: They’re expensive dames to take. Third World. Well, a hundred bucks. 120.
AVC: Isn’t that expensive?
TC: Oh no. You go to Third World countries. Psshh. You go to Tijuana, and you get a piece of ass there for 20 bucks. Depends what you want. And I like to help the Third World countries.
AVC: You’ve been performing new material at these shows.
TC: Keep changing things. We’re always adding new stuff. I gotta perform for myself.
AVC: You don’t wanna get bored.
TC: And for my friends, the band. I don’t want these guys having to hear the same old fucking stale jokes night after night. So I’m always constantly hearing new jokes and surprising them. Then I laugh at them. And then the audience picks it up. They see that it’s kind of like a communion, what we’re doing here. But at times, I gotta slap them down, because sometimes they get a little testy. Especially the blackies. You know, sometimes they get a little uppity uppity. And I’m wondering especially with this Obama thing.
I don’t know what’s gonna happen now. Now he’s in, the blacks, they’re just not gonna give us the time of day. You know I kid with the blackies, but the truth of the matter, as you know: We’re all put here for a special reason. I’m here because I have a 10-octave range.
AVC: I did not know that.
TC: Ten octaves. I can sustain a note longer than Johnny Mathis, who’s the longest one. See. [Demonstrates poorly sustained and poorly performed note.] Those are mine. Isadora Duncan had the gift to dance; danced her damn ass off. You got the Jew who’s good to make money or take money from you. Polack is just a dumb bastard. The Mexican who is good at sneaking over the border. If the blackies are good, I throw ’em in the band; good to play music. Or they play sports. That’s just how it is. You’re not gonna change that, my friend. And then anytime somebody says that, they get in trouble, like Jimmy The Greek and whatnot. And that’s just honest. I’m just being honest. There’s no big breakthrough thing I’m doing. “Tony Clifton shocks.” I ain’t gonna shock. I just talk how a really heavy guy on the street talks, but nobody will talk like that anymore. They’re afraid to. I don’t care. I didn’t talk about the midgets much, did I?
AVC: What are your thoughts on midgets?
TC: I can’t stand the fucking midgets. Now, you’re supposed to call them little people. I’ll call them mites. I’ll call them shrimp. I’m telling you, you talk to the cops. Do you know how many home invasions are done by midgets during Halloween across the nation? Because you go to the door and you think it’s a little kid there with a mask on. You open that door—it’s true, you ask a cop, they should tell people this… And that little fuckin’ midget will run in and he’ll knife you. He’ll close that door and he’ll rape your family. And Judy Garland, in her later years when she was goofy on the drugs, she was giving interviews on David Frost and shit like that. She said how she was molested by some of these fuckin’ midget bastards during The Wizard Of Oz. I bet you won’t print this, but I’ll tell you a little midget bastard who I dealt with—DeVito. Danny DeVito. He produced Man On The Moon. He’s a fuckin’ little midget.
AVC: But he’s not technically a midget.
TC: He’s technically a midget in eight states.
AVC: So there are 42 states where Danny DeVito is not a midget?
TC: Because there’s different laws about different things for disabilities. He is a legal midget, that little motherfucker, in eight states. And he tried to cut me out of some fuckin’ money on that movie, that’s why I’m angry at him. I’ll tell you something, I’m gonna spill the beans. When they started Taxi, he was the first sight gag. He’d come out of that little cage, and they used him as a sight gag. And then Tim Burton cast him correctly as the Penguin.
AVC: Apparently he originally wanted Marlon Brando for that role.
TC: Did he really? Well he got a good one in DeVito. ’Cause DeVito is a freak of nature, and he’s angry about it. When a guy’s that short, they have that Napoleonic complex, that’s DeVito. So the DeVito I know from the set of Man On The Moon is not that guy that you have in your mind from TV and movies. That’s him just acting. One day there was a scene where Jim [Carrey] as Andy Kaufman had to walk down the street with his manager George Shapiro, played by Danny DeVito. And it’s what they call a tracking shot, the camera moves while they’re walking down the street. And they had built a platform about this high, all the way down that block, so then DeVito could walk with Carrey. He didn’t want to look like that. It’s one thing on the set. They put boxes under him and everything. Usually when he produces a film, he can do all that. ’Cause that cost about $30 grand, the way they built that thing for a block, so he could be higher than he was. He is a legal midget, and he is a nasty son of a bitch.
AVC: How is he nasty?
TC: He’ll stab you in the back. He tried repeatedly to… Let me tell you this. I will give him this credit. It was because of him more than anyone that they did the movie Man On The Moon. ’Cause he’s Jersey Films. People don’t realize that’s the guy that produced Pulp Fiction. Erin Brockovich, all those things.
AVC: He’s a powerful producer.
TC: In Hollywood, he is more known as a producer than an actor. The public knows him as an actor. Hollywood, this is a big-time fuckin’ producer. Big-time.
AVC: And a director.
TC: And a director. I liked the one that he did with… Who was the guy that they never found? Hoffa. I thought Hoffa’s a hell of a movie. And what a performance he gets from fuckin’ [Jack] Nicholson. Then he’s in it himself, good thing. Throw Momma From The Train, good fuckin’ thing. Well. He… Oh, I shouldn’t be saying this. He wanted to direct the movie. He hired Milos Forman. A big name, two-time Academy Award-winning director—Amadeus, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He sucked ’em in. DeVito told Universal, “I’ll deliver that guy.” He knew Milos. The first film he did was Cuckoo’s Nest. He played Martini. See what I mean, see the connection? And then his good friend’s Michael Douglas. He roomed with Michael Douglas when they were both actors over at NYU.
So he used Milos to convince Universal to do this movie about Andy Kaufman, which is a bizarre thing to do. Who’s gonna put money behind that, especially 55 million bucks? But he’s a good little fuckin’ producer. Now he goes, “So if Universal’s gonna put that money up, who’s gonna play it? We need to start with a box-office star.” And Carrey wants to work with the big directors, like Milos. So he used Milos, and then once Milos got the fuckin’ job, Danny wanted to fire Milos so he could direct the movie himself. “I got my star, I got the budget, who the fuck needs Milos?” Milos Forman and Danny DeVito hate each other. ’Cause Milos knew what was happening. Then he got everybody to turn on Milos a little bit.
But here’s the crazy thing. DeVito made that movie for one reason: to rewrite history. He’s a dago from Jersey. Kaufman had gotten everybody so fuckin’ crazy on the set of Taxi, he wanted to fuck with their heads so bad that the cast could not take it. They hated Kaufman so much at that point. So when he died, not long after that, they were still so fuckin’ angry that they could not go to his funeral. You’ve seen gangster films—even if you kill the guy, you go to the funeral! Pay respects! And DeVito being a fuckin’ dago from Jersey, and not going, I think hurt him every fuckin’ day. Hurt him deeply every fuckin’ day, and he needed to rewrite history.
This is the craziest thing I’m gonna tell you now: When we shot the movie, we did it on soundstages, on a back lot, stuff like that, maybe some exterior scenes. For the funeral, this was played out in a real cemetery and a real mortuary. They spent $35,000 on doing a recreation of… You saw the movie, and the casket there. We shot three days in the chapel. It’s not played out like that in the movie. Milos does more like a comedic tone to it. But we were there for three days, and Danny brought in all the fuckin’ members of the cast of Taxi, and rewrote history that never took place. Now here’s what gives it away. Courtney Love played a girl named Lynne Margulies, Andy Kaufman’s girlfriend, who was an advisor on the movie. A friend of mine, Lynne. When they did Man On The Moon, they needed the electronic press kit, so they said “Let’s hire Lynne.” And Lynne calls me one day and says, “Oh, this is interesting.” She was at a press conference that [DeVito] was at, and he was asked about the funeral, and lied through his teeth. Someone said did you to go the funeral, and he said, “Oh, yes.” He never did. And I swear to you, that killed him.
AVC: He felt guilty about it?
TC: Very fuckin’ guilty. Very fuckin’ guilty. See, he loved Kaufman. Kaufman loved DeVito too. But there was a little clique there, that Taxi clique. See, I had a clique. I had the niggers turn on me a few weeks ago in the show, they walked out, couldn’t take it anymore. And some of the other blackies walked off with them just to show support, but then they came back. “We get what you’re doing. It’s okay, but I had to do it.” And that’s scary, when you get that mob action, it’s like The Crucible. It’s like the Nazis. The “good Germans,” they just went along, bullshit.
AVC: “I was just following orders.”
TC: Or “I didn’t know.” Hey, what’s the difference between Santa Claus and a Jew?
AVC: I don’t know.
TC: Santa Claus comes down the chimney. You better be laughing, you bastard, you.
AVC: That was perhaps in questionable taste.
TC: [Laughs.] You’re saying that to Tony Clifton. See, I get away with this ’cause I had a relative who died at Auschwitz. He fell off the guard tower. So I take everybody on. Everybody’s gotta get it.
AVC: Andy Kaufman’s whole thing was being an outsider and challenging people.
TC: Oh, I never understood that act.
AVC: But he discovered you, did he not?
TC: How do you discover someone who’s there?
AVC: He gave you a break.
TC: No, he did not. I told you, he ripped me off. He saw me in Vegas and then he started doing an impression of me. He basically stole my act. Everyone does this rewriting history. I got the Jew lawyer to call him. Then he felt bad. Then he told George Shapiro, “Instead of me doing it, have the real Tony do it.” So that’s why you see me on Letterman, me on Merv. That’s not Kaufman, that’s me. His impression of me was not even that good. Because he did something they call satire, which I know nothing about.
AVC: Why do you think he felt the need to rip you off?
TC: This was explained to me over the years, impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery. So I guess it’s good. It’s been a two-way sword. It does give me some notoriety. That is true. There’s a legend. But at the same time, some people come, and they think they’re gonna see Andy Kaufman… I won’t ever be my own person, my own performer. So you take it both ways, it’s okay. I just never understood Andy. I don’t understand how you go onstage and read a book… Didn’t they say he read a book?
AVC: The Great Gatsby.
TC: And if people coughed, he’d start reading the book over again. I’d walk out of that. I guess people did. I guess that’s what he wanted. I don’t want people to walk out of my show. I’m an entertainer. Singer-songwriter. Tell jokes. Not like that. Now the wrestling women, well, I kind of liked that idea. But he was a strange cat. I opened for him a few times, but we didn’t talk much. I don’t understand a guy like that.
AVC: He was a little chilly?
TC: Well, he looked up to me. He was a very wimpy guy, very shy with women.
AVC: But he was a wrestler.
TC: I’ll tell you one thing, though. He did a good Elvis. I was trying to talk him into learning some tap-dancing. I said “You can’t be reading books to people, they walk out.” But a weird thing happened, 20 years later. Oh, I said a line the other night, I don’t know where it came from, it’s not like me, because I’m no fuckin’ intellectual…
TC: What do you mean, right?
AVC: I mean, no, I’m surprised you would say that.
TC: No, you said, “Right.”
AVC: I was—
TC: I’m doing the Pesci thing. That’s a great scene. What was my point? It’s gone now. [Nathan goes to the bathroom.] So, Nathan has left the tape recorder on, and he says if I want to say fascinating things while he’s gone, I can. Well guess what I’m gonna do. While he’s gone, I’m taking his glass of beer and I’m putting it under the table and I’m gonna stick my fuckin’ dick in it. I’m gonna open up my zipper, and I’m gonna rub the tip of my fuckin’ cock around the mouth of his glass. Now I’m putting it back there. He’s gonna be drinkin’, but he ain’t gonna know until he plays this back the trick I pulled on him.
AVC: It seems like the longer you play here, the more people come to the shows.
TC: Yeah, they get it, and they have fun. Otherwise, they’re like, “What’s this guy all about playing Tony Clifton, is he just some nut?” Not knowing it’s the real guy, and a hell of a show.
AVC: To get back to Kaufman, I read somewhere that Kaufman and Bob Zmuda, his writing partner…
TC: Ah, the Polack.
AVC: You’re not keen on Bob Zmuda either?
TC: He’s riding my coattails too. He would do an impression of me. Kaufman did one. He did one. Jim Carrey did one. Then Paul Giamatti in the film does it. And now the latest one is Criss Angel. Terrible, it’s awful. When we play Vegas, we’re gonna invite him. He’s a huge fan, writes me fucking letters and everything. When Britney Spears had that crash on MTV and they said she was a lackluster performer? The truth is, her and Criss Angel had a thing going together. She was gonna do a whole bit on MTV with him. And then they pulled the plug on it because it got too involved with the illusions, with her appearing and him disappearing, like two days before. So he’s doing me too. And then, now this is interesting, for Halloween a lot of people do me.
AVC: That must be a little bit flattering.
TC: Yeah, it’s all right. It’s promotion for me. If it gets my name out there, why not?
AVC: I’ve read that Kaufman and Zmuda were writing a biopic of you.
TC: Now I know George Shapiro was the manager, so who was Zmuda exactly?
AVC: He worked with Kaufman, they collaborated.
TC: Maybe a gay lover or something.
AVC: [Laughs.] Maybe a gay lover, but I read that they were writing a biopic of you.
TC: Goofy-looking guy. He’s the guy that helped put this thing together through Comic Relief. He runs that. Personally, I think he’s ripping off the homeless people. When I tried that, you got the homeless people coming up, I can’t stand that shit. One guy pulled out a rag and wiped his ass. Here’s what you do with the homeless people: you send them to the Iraq War. Give ’em food, give ’em a place to sleep, give ’em a uniform and gun, put ’em to work.
AVC: It’s like The Dirty Dozen, where they have the choice between jail and the war.
TC: Is that a good movie? Telly Savalas. You know who’s real good in that, what’s his name, he was a director.
AVC. John Cassavetes.
TC: Cassavetes! A goofy movie like that, that was actually some performing. Every one of them had that character down. Ernest Borgnine, even.
AVC: Lee Marvin.
TC: Marvin, there’s a guy I wish I could’ve met. That’s the old school. Those guys, Marvin, that’s a talent. To me, Marvin was like Brando. Some guys are so damn believable. Even John Wayne, hell of a fuckin’ actor. Even Borgnine, stuff like Marty before all that bullshit like McHale’s Navy. He was married to—what’s her name?
AVC: Someone brassy. Two people you’d never want to imagine fucking.
TC: Oh, Ethel Merman.
AVC: Did you see Borgnine in the news recently? They asked him his secret for looking good at such an old age, and he said masturbation.
TC: Then he was in Poseidon Adventure.
AVC: The Wild Bunch too.
TC: Oh, The Wild Bunch, William Holden, that is a movie. I knew Bill.
AVC: Bit of a drinker, I hear.
TC: Well we used to drink. We used to go to that fuckin’ place in Beverly Hills. It’s no longer there. Oh yeah, he was a fuckin’ drinker. So I was not surprised when they found him dead.
AVC: He fell when he was drunk, right?
TC: He fell when he was drunk. Stefanie Powers was his girlfriend. He was fuckin’ young pussy at the time. But he’s good as, what’s that character he plays in The Wild Bunch?
TC: Oh, you’re a big film buff, aren’t you? You know this stuff. Pike is that character. He had that cool hat. They’re all bad-asses, but then they go back to help that little colony village. Kinda like the thing John Landis did in Three Amigos.
AVC: Kind of an homage.
TC: And [Paul] Newman just died. That was sad, Newman was a good man.
AVC: Everybody revered him.
TC: And he didn’t want that celebrity thing too much. I gotta watch out for that little Keely. It’s going through her fuckin’ head, I’m telling ya. I had to spank her the other night. I wish you would’ve been at the show. She got reprimanded onstage and off. I took her in the dressing room and I fuckin’ bruised that little butt of hers. I pulled those panties down, she had a great ass, and I got it red. She cried. But she started talking back to me onstage. They’re a dime a dozen. There’s many chicks out there who would love to be with Tony Clifton, have me take them around the country and make stars of them, put them on magazines and whatnot. Matter of fact, High Times is coming out with a photo spread of me and her. ’Cause she’s a big stoner. I stay away from it, I get depressed. I don’t do that shit.
AVC: You’re not so into the marijuana?
TC: Years ago, I could. Now it’s too dark. Was I dark tonight? You saw the show. Now they’re saying I get kind of dark.
AVC: What happens then?
TC: I say things I probably shouldn’t, I talk about my personal life. I cry sometimes. I bawl my eyes out. These songs, as you know, deal with love, loss, a lot of pain. Some people appreciate that. What’s the difference between love and lust? When a guy’s in love he says, “My dear, I’d like to meet your father.” When he’s in lust he says, “Who’s your daddy?” [Cackles.] But performing is another thing. I’m pretty moody. I’m angry. I’m not a happy person. I’ve been kind of overlooked. Kaufman rode my coattails. Someone says, “Aren’t you riding his?” How am I riding his? He steals my act, and I’m the bad guy?
AVC: So why are you not a happy man?
TC: Heart’s been broken too many times. People don’t realize, you show me somebody like me that’s angry, that’s a piece of shit, that’s an asshole, I’ll show you someone that’s a hopeless romantic, that’s been hurt too much. Here’s the fuckin’ crazy thing. Not that I would kill myself ever, but statistically, suicides, the statistics of guys who kill themselves because of a broken heart, are off the scales. The statistics of women who kill themselves over lost love is almost zero. It doesn’t exist! So this romanticism that we have seems to be more manmade than woman-made. I’ve been in therapy because of this. Heavy drinker like that, there’s a reason for it. That’s why I always say onstage, “Why do women get yeast infections? So they know how it feels to live with an irritating cunt.” Heh heh heh heh. So as long as I can laugh or sing a song about it… Now, I bring it on myself too. I’ve not been faithful, I’ve always had nookie on the side, and women can’t deal with that. It’s a double standard on my part. So if you play with fire you’re gonna get burned, I know that. But it’s the only life I’ve lived. [Sings.]
What kind of fool am I
Who never fell in love?
It seems that I’m the only one
Who I have been thinking of
What kind of man is this?
An empty shell
An empty heart in which
An empty heart must dwell.
See, that’s me. [Anthony] Newley captured it. He wrote that one, and also… [Sings.]
Who can I turn to
When nobody needs me?
My heart wants to know
And so I must go
Where destiny leads me
With no star to guide me
And no one beside me.
See, you bring it on yourself, so what can you do?
AVC: It’s that old aphorism: Scratch a cynic, and you’ll find a bruised romantic.
TC: Always. I said to one girl once I was a hopeless romantic. She said, “You’re not a hopeless romantic.” She didn’t know. She had no fuckin’ clue. That’s a broken heart, that’s why I am who I am. That’s why I’m bitter, angry, why I get in bar fights, everything else. But at the same time, I understand… I’ll slap ‘em around. Hey, what do 280,000 battered women have in common? They don’t know how to listen. Heh heh heh. What do you say to a woman has two black eyes? Nothin’, she’s already been told twice. [Cackles.]
AVC: Are there specific songs that are emotional for you?
TC: A lot of the popular songs, I do the Tom Petty song, how does it go. [Sing-mumbles.] I’m trying to think of the fucking chorus. “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Now even in that song, listen to what Petty says:
Baby you’re in the public eye
And you gave someone else a try
Baby you better watch yourself
Or you’re gonna hurt yourself
Someone tell you lies.
So in these songs, there’s always that thing where you can get crossed.” Somebody once said, “Love, what a wonderful idea.” [Laughs.] But still we get swept in early. You know what was shot here in town? The Untouchables. The scene I laugh my ass off at is, they show [Robert] De Niro as Capone at the opera, and he’s crying. [Laughs.] So he’s a hopeless romantic, but he’s killing people. But it’s true, Capone was like that, he loved the opera.
AVC: You mentioned performing some new songs in your set. What’s your take on contemporary music? Who do you like?
TC: Well, I like songs… we span every fuckin’ music category, everything from Tom Petty to Gordon Lightfoot. As you know, I set it up that night saying that Gordon Lightfoot had recently died and that it was lost in the news. People started crying. Then of course I said I was lying, and a woman in the middle row said, “You’re an asshole!” ’Cause she was so upset she didn’t know. We do everything. We do showtunes. We do a lot of Chicago. I got the six-piece horn section. There’s no groups out there doing that. But we got a big show because of all the Katrina people. We’re going back into the studio and we’re gonna look at all this material. We’ve had fights onstage. You have no idea. Do you know I came out one night totally nude onstage at the Chopin? We’ve had some crazy fights in the audience. Luckily we’ve recorded everything.
AVC: Fights with the audience, or among the audience?
TC: Mainly fights onstage among the cast members. I want it to be a real experience for the audience. I want them saying “This is real.” So when things happen, they happen for real, there’s no pulling punches. That’s why it’s different every fuckin’ night. I might be drinking too much and giving too much of the magician’s secrets away, but I don’t care. The fact of the matter is, if there is going to be a drama played out… If you move this many people across the place, 38 people we got in this troupe with the singers, dancers, musicians, costume people, lighting people, sound people, in tight quarters moving across the country… Like they say, you don’t know anyone till you travel with them. These people went through a lot of stuff with Katrina, so they’re fuckin’ wackos anyway. Actually, Josh Paxton, who’s the organist, the leader of the band, he says I’m trying to understand these New Orleans people. New Orleans is a little town housed in a big city in a Third World country. If you understand that going in, you’ll see there’s this elitism with these motherfuckers. But I’m fearful too that it’s becoming too much of a welfare state because of the Katrina thing.
AVC: How so? You’re raising money for these people.
TC: I’m not. That’s charity, I think they shouldn’t do it. I’m there doing my 60 hours of community service. People ask me about that, I’m not the one to ask. I think it’s all bullshit. Hey, let me ask you this. What has 87,000 legs and can’t walk? Jerry’s Kids. I think all this damn charity stuff is a bunch of liberal do-gooders. But I don’t have anything to do with that.
AVC: You’re just burning off your community service.
TC: That’s all I got to do, 60 hours.
AVC: You have a 12-piece band, you have sexy girls, a puppet show. That seems like an expensive show to mount, and you’re only charging $15. How can you make money?
TC: I don’t know anything about that, how that works. I think it’s an arts grant to help the poor, those bastards. That’s all I fuckin’ know. I don’t think it was ever set up to make any money. I’m burning off my 60 hours, and I’m out of there. If they want to keep going after that, they’re gonna have to pay me.
AVC: Between when Andy Kaufman died and when you started this tour, it seems like you weren’t heard from that much. What were you doing?
TC: Performing in other countries. I just came back. Here’s what happened. I’m a performer. I told you, Kaufman sees me in Vegas. Then I get this notoriety. I guess he helped, put me out there. But then any time I would go perform, they’d say he’s Andy Kaufman. And I’m not Andy Kaufman! I did the David Letterman show three, four fuckin’ times. And the third time, Letterman turns to me, this is true, and says, “Andy, if I didn’t know it was you, I’d swear it was somebody else.” He actually thought I was Andy fuckin’ Kaufman. You saw the clip on Letterman, 25 years ago. That’s me! Who got fucked over here? It’s me. Ain’t nobody else. So I’m doing all the heavy lifting out there. I’m being accused of this and that. So then any time I showed my face, “You’re Andy Kaufman.” I was sick of it. I left the country, started working international markets where they don’t even know who Kaufman is. Then Man On The Moon brought me back. But now, I think people pretty much think that Kaufman’s dead. So hopefully people just come to see me. But here’s the crazy thing: The audiences that come now, they don’t even know from Andy Kaufman. There might be a couple people, but nobody cares.
AVC: I noticed that you never mentioned Andy Kaufman in the show.
TC: No, there’s no reason to. It’s a hell of show. It’s a hell of a band, hell of a dancers we got, hell of a singers. I chose a great song list from the Great American Songbook. Then you got me. What else do you fuckin’ need? They want me to hang around for the 25th anniversary of this bozo’s coming up. I tell you, they’re gonna have to write a nice fuckin’ check for me if they want me to be part of that. Let them have their fuckin’ Andy Kaufman tribute. But if they want Tony Clifton to be there, they better write me a nice fuckin’ check.
AVC: It seems like you have mixed emotions toward Andy.
TC: He’s been dead for 25 years. How many fuckin’ emotions you got? My mother’s been dead for 30 years. I got more emotions there. I just don’t see the connection. Other people do. Unfortunately, he bamboozled the American public into thinking that I was him. That’s where all the confusion started. See the movie Man On The Moon. Look at the credits, it doesn’t say Tony Clifton played by Jim Carrey. It says Tony Clifton as himself. I am a real entity. You probably know that by now. [Laughs.]
AVC: I read that Ed Norton was a finalist to play Andy Kaufman.
TC: I don’t know, I wasn’t a part of any of that.
AVC: Did you attend Kaufman’s funeral?
TC: No, I was not there. I was out of the country at the time. I was not friends with him. I was in Peru or Colombia. I’m not sure. But I didn’t know the guy that well. What would I care?
AVC: There were rumors that Kaufman and Zmuda scripted your biopic.
TC: They did. I tried reading it. It made no fucking sense to me. But then my manager said I should be supportive so they could do it.
AVC: I’ve talked to you. I’ve seen you perform. But I don’t really know about your background. What could I have learned from this biopic, had it been made?
TC: It’s a bunch of bullshit. It’s like that movie Man On The Moon, bunch of bullshit. Once again, this stuff about Kaufman faking he’s me, I don’t get it. I haven’t pulled my dick out onstage. I’ll tell you why. ’Cause I’m uncircumcised. And he was a Jew, and he was circumcised. Nathan, I’m gonna do this in the next show, to prove it. But even if I do that, they’ll say, “He had a prosthetic dick on.”
AVC: Which is what they say about most entertainers.
TC: Let me be. That’s why I do that song, “I Wanna Be Me.” The only reason I’m doing this now is because the organization, Comic Relief came forward because they got the anniversary of the death coming up. May 16, I’m not gonna be there. They have to negotiate with me. My 60 hours are over. They’re gonna have to pay me, give me half that charity money that they raise.
AVC: Raising money for charity and then giving it to you might be a bit of a contradiction in terms.
TC: Well, you gotta pay performers. They’re paying these muskrats, the Katrina musicians. Any performer that does a fundraiser, you gotta pay ’em. Now if I believed in the cause, that’d be something different. If it was like giving homes to young waifs or something, then I would probably support that. I’d meet some of the girls.
AVC: How did you get your start?
TC: My mom said I was singing in the cradle. My dad played a fiddle, and he said when he played the fiddle, I would cry and hit the same note. At that young age, only a few months old. So I always had the ear. Then of course you develop the breathing. I did what Sinatra did: sit in the tub and hold your breath underwater as long as you can. You sing from the gut, ’cause it’s all breath support. A lot of times I like a little blowjob before the show.
AVC: It relaxes you?
TC: Talk to anybody in opera, they have girls before the show. This is true, this is something known. ‘Cause you don’t want to think about that. You’re relaxed, it’s a relaxation thing. [Clifton and Rabin sing a little duet on “My Kind Of Town.”] He was so associated with this town, but he was really a Jersey guy. But he loved this town. What was that all about?
AVC: This town had been kind to him.
TC: I like what Frank said, I feel sorry for people who don’t drink, because when they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re gonna feel all day. You don’t drink much, though? You had three of those beers though.
AVC: Well, I’m working. When I saw your show, I probably had about 12, 15 beers. There were people getting completely hammered. There was a liquor store just down the street, so every time I’d go out, I’d get some more beer.
TC: That’s good, ’cause I’m drinking onstage too.
AVC: People were asking if you really drank onstage.
TC: Oh yeah, trust me. A lot, a little too much.
AVC: There’s a story from when Van Halen played after The Clash at the U.S. Festival. The Clash would drink Jack Daniels onstage. Van Halen followed them and said, “The Clash, they’re not real drinkers, they’ve got iced tea in the bottle.”
TC: I do it to a fault. They want me to drink. The executive producer wants me to drink, but not to the point where I forget the lyrics. At the same time, I’m sweating onstage, so I’m drinking a lot, but I’m also burning up. So it ain’t that bad.
AVC: It seems like you hit this sweet spot where you’re loosened up. Did you always drink while performing?
TC: Always a drink and a cigarette. That’s why I had trouble here in Chicago, cause they don’t want you to smoke cigarettes onstage. ’Cause of the [play] Jersey Boys. You know the controversy, they didn’t want them smoking onstage. You didn’t hear about this? This is a big thing. You are not supposed to smoke onstage in Chicago anymore. Which is ridiculous, it’s a theatrical moment.
AVC: You’re not supposed to smoke anywhere anymore.
TC: It’s ridiculous. I was told the other night I got somebody suing me. ’Cause I threw the cigarette and hit him in the eye.
AVC: So now he’s like a Cyclops?
TC: Oh, it’s not that bad. It didn’t even hit him in the eye. They’re making a big thing. It’s horseshit.
AVC: At your show, it seemed kind of a young crowd, mostly people in their 20s and 30s.
TC: I don’t want an old crowd. If they used to see me on Saturday Night Live or Merv, they’re dead. I don’t give a shit if they come.
AVC: It seems like you’re appealing to a new audience.
TC: To alternative kids. They see something in me that they don’t see in anybody else out there. ’Cause I will tell you the truth. I’ll use words that nobody else will. And probably ’cause I’m over the edge or something. They like that, the kids. Who’s out there voicing anything? Not that I’m taking it upon myself to do this, I’m just saying what critics say when they see my show. Me, I don’t give a fuck. I am who I am. I’m the same guy onstage that you’re talking to now. I’m like that walking down the street. It’s just me.
AVC: Is there anyone out there you consider a peer?
TC: I don’t know anyone. Frank used to be. The Rat Pack. They went onstage and just told ’em how it is. Do you know how politically incorrect this guy would be now? He used to call Sammy Davis a pickaninny onstage. You know who was a lot like me? Buddy Rich. Buddy used to cut that band a new asshole every night.
AVC: What about Don Rickles?
TC: But Rickles is more a comedian. I’m not a comedian. I hate sometimes when they put these things together. They run ads and have me listed as a comedian. I’m not a comedian. All the jokes I tell are street jokes. I don’t care about that stuff. That’s my little patter I do before a song. I have comedians open for me sometimes. I might do more of that.
AVC: But there aren’t many people out there doing 4 1/2 hour sets. To what do you attribute your stamina?
TC: Hot pussy onstage, my friend.
AVC: It motivates you?
TC: You better believe it. I think if they weren’t there, you’d get maybe 90-minute shows. The Cliftonettes are taking their clothes off while I sing these songs. And I’m a performer. I like to perform. That’s my job. I’m pretty much a fuckin’ miserable wreck offstage. I live for the stage, that’s where I feel good. Any time there’s a good performer, that’s somebody who needs to be onstage doing that. That’s where I feel at ease, where I can say anything. I’ve got power on that stage. I’ve got hot broads in the audience who want to fuck me. I’ve got guys in the audience who want to kick my ass because the girls want to fuck me. It’s a fuckin’ power trip. If anything, I have a hard time coming down from it.
AVC: Reading about entertainers, that’s where they run into trouble. You have this high onstage, but how do you sustain that high?
TC: Keep the booze flowing, and keep the broads coming. And then after a while, you’ll pass out. Also I think it’s the music. I truly love it. Some people say I’m a bad singer. I don’t care. It’s what I do. The music is my friend in life. I walk alone.