Tony Clifton is Alive and Well and Kicking Ass in Chicago
Andy Kaufman had a powerful need to be loved and an equally powerful need to be hated. A character Kaufman called Foreign Man was his vehicle to win the hearts of an adoring public. Foreign Man was a doe-eyed man-child, innocence personified. It was Foreign Man the producers of Taxi wanted when they hired Kaufman to play lovable immigrant Latkva Gravas on 107 episodes of the classic sitcom.
If Foreign Man was Kaufman's vehicle for being loved, then lounge singer Tony Clifton was his tool for being hated. Clifton was the antithesis of Foreign Man, a fat, abrasive, obnoxious third-rate crooner in a series of hideous tuxedos who berated audiences, bleated schmaltzy songs and told offensive jokes. Tony Clifton was quite literally the price Taxi had to pay for Foreign Man; Kaufman insisted that Clifton be offered a guest spot on the show as a condition for signing on as Latka Gravas, a stunt that ended disastrously when a drunken, belligerent Clifton was ejected from the Taxi set and the Paramount lot after some of his trademark shenanigoats.
If you weren't offended by a Tony Clifton set, then you weren't paying attention. Clifton was an emissary from the ninth circle of show-biz hell. He was a debauched lounge lizard who hated his audiences as much as he hated himself.
Foreign Man died with Andy Kaufman in 1984, though it could be argued that Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat represents a near-perfect fusion of Foreign Man and Tony Clifton in his strange combination of boyish innocence and venal misanthropy. Tony Clifton, however, lives on. I should know. On Friday night I spent a little over four dissolute hours with him and about a hundred other fans/masochists in Chicago's tiny Chopin theater, an arty venue that somewhat incongruously played host to a production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party at the same time it provided a home to Clifton's antics.
For a small army of hipsters, myself and my walker-toting, sixty-year-old dad–an acolyte of Dostoyevsky, Phillip Roth and the early, ostensibly funny films of Rob Schneider–it was as close as we'd ever come to seeing Andy Kaufman perform live. It was the only All Ages show I'd ever attended where eighty percent of the audience was completely smashed, the star attraction included. Finally, an opportunity to rage against the tyranny of only writing about arts and/or entertainment for this here website/publication while not completely wasted. Throughout the lobby young people milled about taking not-so-covert gulps from tall cans of cheap beer and bottles of rum out of plastic bags. Not to be outdone, I headed over to the liquor store for a six-pack of Dos Equis and five tall cans, though to be fair, my father drank one of my beers. Fucking alcoholic.
Now would probably be a good time to point out that The A.V Club in no way condones the deplorable practice of drinking alcohol. But, hey, it seemed to work for Tony. The show began with a greatest hits video of Clifton in his heyday, crooning on The Miss Piggy Show and insulting Andy Kaufman on Late Night With David Letterman before a more recent, post-Kaufman appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live (some say Clifton is now played by Kaufman's longtime writer/friend/partner in crime Bob Zmuda, a rumor I can neither confirm or disprove).
Then Clifton made a triumphant entrance, resplendent, or something, with his trademark paunch, sideburns and, um, unique sartorial flair. The calendar might have said August 15th, 2008 but everything else screamed, "Third rate Vegas showroom, 1975". Clifton performed with a nine-piece New Orleans big band called The Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra and a bevy of scantily clad beauties collectively known as the Cliftonettes.
While he sang his first number a lovely dancer balanced delicately on ballet shoes before stripping down to a skin-colored bra and panties. "Nice tits!" Clifton barked appreciatively. Clifton then favored the audience with some jokes of questionable taste and appropriateness like the following: "Jeffrey Dahmer's mom says to him, "I don't like your friends." So he says, "Then try the salad." "What's the worst part of being a child molester? Getting the blood off your clown costume."
This last zinger prompted him to ask the crowd, "John Wayne Gacy, where's he from?" Various guesses followed. Wheeling! Norridge! My favorite was a man who yelled out, "Wrigley Field!" Ah, but what part of Wrigley Field would Gacy be from? The yuppified third base area? Or the scuzzy, gentrification-proof right field?
The Cliftonettes performed with pasted-on smiles and mechanical proficiency but the crowd favorite was a girlish minx named Keely Clifton introduced, semi-believably, as a hard-luck runaway from a broken home he planned to adopt and take to Hollywood to make it in the pictures. His noble intentions were only slightly undermined by the fact he kept grabbing her ass and having her feed him a steady profusion of shots of Jack Daniel's throughout the evening.
Heeding the grade-school maxim that you should never bring any goodies to class unless you've brought enough to share with the entire group, Clifton magnanimously had Keely dole out shots of Jack Daniels to the entire audience during intermission. I considered it a solemn journalistic obligation to accept. When in Rome.
Ah, but the audience didn't just come to hear schmaltzy renditions of lounge-lizard favorites and crude jokes. They came to be insulted. Clifton did not disappoint. Early in the show he brought up a woman with a gaudy abundance of tattoos and no discernible chin. Clifton disparaged her appearance along with that of a hulking bald man whose Polish ancestry Clifton honed in as a potential source of humor.
Clifton asked the proud son of Warsaw which of the girls he liked best. When he predictably answered "Kiwi", an indignant Clifton poured milk on his head, then had him thrown out of the show. "She's underage you pervert! You pedophile!" A fissure of excitement crackled through the crowd. Was the ejection real or was it part of the act? Was the man a ringer or a stooge, a performer or a patsy? Furthermore, was he genuinely enraged at being kicked out of the show, or secretly geeked at being even a minor footnote to the legend of Andy Kaufman? He wasn't the only man booted over the course of the drunken, rambunctious evening. One unfortunate soul was kicked out for topping Clifton with a one-liner. Another was rightly booted for speaking ill of Frank Sinatra before Clifton launched into "Ain't That A Kick In The Head". Say what you will about mother, God, country and the Virgin Mary, but speak ill of the Chairman of the Board and you're asking for trouble.
The evening was a benefit for Hurricane Katrina relief. Between the huge band, sexy dancers, puppet show (yes, there was a puppet component to the evening, with a "Li'l Tony Clifton" marionette battling his doppelganger for the affections of the Lovely Keely), complimentary shots, theater rental and low ticket prices it was hard to imagine Clifton and company turning a profit. "How much did you pay tonight to get in here? Fifteen dollars! You only paid fifteen dollars for this show? In Vegas I charge forty-five to ninety dollars! You're only getting half a show!" Clifton barked indignantly early on.
But instead of half a show, Clifton ended up putting on a show and half. By the time he finished with "God Bless America" a little past two-thirty, more than half the audience had gone home, waving the white flag and meekly uttering, "no mas". But my old man and I are made of sterner stuff so we stayed to the bitter end. Sure, Clifton can't sing and his jokes were less than sophisticated, but somehow the show ended up being far more than the sum of its disreputable parts. On a rational level, I know that Clifton is a character played by Andy Kaufman and later Zmuda–the man behind the man and the lungs and lewdness behind my night of delirious excess–but throughout the evening I really felt like I was watching Tony Clifton, the scourge of Las Vegas, not a comedy writer playing a part most strongly associated with a comic genius who's been dead longer than some of the audience has been alive.
Tony Clifton and The Kiss My Ass Katrina Orchestra live isn't a show or a concert or an elaborate put-on. It's a goddamned experience, and one I won't soon forget.