The drunken lounge singer as high art

Andy Kaufman was famous for his willingness to create jokes so big they smeared the line between comedy and reality. When he died in 1984, people speculated Kaufman had faked it.

He’s got dancing girls: “This isn’t just Tony Clifton flapping his mouth and pouring water on people, this is a big stage show,” Clifton says. But those in the front row, beware: Just because he’s got an orchestra doesn’t mean he won’t douse the audience.

Among Kaufman’s creations was Tony Clifton—a lecherous, swearing and hard-drinking lounge singer. Clifton became infamous for his drunken tirades and his never-ending ability to say the most inappropriate things at the most appropriate time.

So when it was announced that Clifton would be touring the country this year, rumors returned: Who exactly is this guy?

“Is [Asheville] still segregated? I got a few of the black guys in my band are worried about coming there,” Clifton says at the beginning of his conversation with Xpress.

Upon being reassured that Asheville had in fact been legally desegregated nearly 40 years ago, Clifton began to tell his story. It’s either a brilliant fabrication dreamed up by Kaufman and his writing partner Bob Zmuda in the late ‘70s, or the story of the last great old-school entertainer in show business.

And since Zmuda doesn’t publicly admit he plays Clifton, we’ll go with the latter.

“I’m an international singing sensation. I’m used to playing soccer stadiums,” Clifton boasts.

After a long hiatus and sporadic appearances following Kaufman’s death, Clifton is touring with the Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra, a collection of New Orleans-based musicians and dancers put together to benefit Gulf area musicians affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

While Clifton doesn’t seem to mind his reputation as a difficult performer who’s been fired from nearly everywhere he’s worked, he says that the true Clifton is something besides the sensationalized version of himself that was portrayed by Kaufman.

“Little of the real me is known. When Andy Kaufman did his impression of me, he went right for the jugular,” Clifton says.

Kaufman’s death created more problems for Clifton. The notoriety brought on by Kaufman’s fame eclipsed Clifton’s own, and the concerts dried up. What followed was a trying time professionally.

“When Kaufman died and I’d still perform, people would scream that I was Kaufman and he’d faked his own death. I couldn’t get a song out of my mouth without people telling me I was Andy Kaufman,” Clifton complains. “I tell them that if they want to see him, go get a flashlight and a shovel. I’d had enough.”

Ultimately, the contention and confusion forced Clifton into semi-retirement. Clifton split his time between winters at Nevada’s Moonlite BunnyRanch, a notorious brothel outside Las Vegas, and summers in New Orleans. New Orleans led Clifton back to the stage.

“I went to New Orleans to Jazz Fest and I was on Bourbon Street and somebody slipped me a Mickey Finn. I staggered back to what I thought was my room and lay down in bed and this old lady started screaming. They put me in front of a judge and I got 60 hours of community service. That’s why I’m fronting this band and raising money for Hurricane Katrina victims,” Clifton says.

The show—a homage to New Orleans with a little Hollywood thrown in—is Clifton’s brand of showmanship and comedy. The Chicago Tribune called it “in heinous bad taste” and “beyond X-rated,” but Clifton says it’s “wholesome entertainment” without a hint of sarcasm.
The Tribune also describes Clifton hurling lit cigarettes and Jack Daniels into the audience during the show.
Still, there’s more than just the caustic Clifton famous for throwing eggs on Dinah Shore during a taping of her television show or causing a near-riot in San Francisco by singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” 14 times in a row. This time, there are dancing girls.

“This isn’t just Tony Clifton flapping his mouth and pouring water on people, this is a big stage show. There’s a big orchestra, I’ve got a six-piece horn section, and we do a lot of music,” Clifton declares.

And the music isn’t the only attraction. The Cliftonettes are worth the price of admission alone, Clifton insists.

“I’ve got six dancers, six of the hottest broads from New Orleans. Burlesque stars—they aren’t strippers, they are artistes,” Clifton says.

And so Clifton and the Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra march forward, despite its star’s dubious identity and past destructive tendencies. 

“[The show] is a great night of songs and dancing. I call it ‘A Night of Merriment and Song with Tony,’” Clifton says.

As Clifton sips his drink from his hotel room in Boston, there’s not a hint of irony. If this is all one big joke, it’s not clear who’s in on it and who isn’t. And that’s just the way Kaufman would have wanted it.

[Jason Bugg is a Sylva-based freelance writer.]

who: The Return of Tony Clifton and his Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra
what: A night of merriment and song with some burlesque and toilet humor thrown in
where: The Orange Peel
when: Wednesday, Oct. 1 (8 p.m. $14 in advance, $16 at the door)


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One thought on “The drunken lounge singer as high art

  1. Andy Kaufman

    most people have no idea that “the tony clifton story” is a script bob and i wrote in 1980 for universal pictures. in it, tony clifton dies at Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles from cancer. but then we find out he isn’t really dead! 1980 is 4 years before i “died” of cancer at Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles from cancer. i would have thought someone would have gotten the connection by now!
    love always, Andy

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