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Interview: Tony Clifton

Am I blue?
By ROB TURBOVSKY  |  October 19, 2010


When comedian Andy Kaufman died 26 years ago, it seemed logical to think that Tony Clifton would be dead too. But Kaufman's most famous character — a volatile, alcoholic lounge singer whose sole function was to alienate and confuse the audience as Kaufman's purported opening act, continues to live, breathe, and, in recent years, tour. Some say that Kaufman's comedy partner (and founder of the US branch of health-care charity Comic Relief) Bob Zmuda has assumed the role, but it might be fairer to say that the role has assumed him. Tony Clifton's shows regularly span four delirious, awe-inspiring hours filled with whiskey, dancers, Vegas showtunes, and jokes best described as horrific. When Tony returns to the Wilbur Theatre on October 21, he'll raffle off a free hooker to a lucky audience member. He called from Portland, Oregon, with the details.

How did this tour come to be?
This came together about two years ago. What's that fucking comedy charity bullshit?

Comic Relief?
They did something for Hurricane Katrina, for the blackies and the white trash in New Orleans. Around that time, I got busted at the Holiday Inn down there because somebody gave me a Mickey Finn at a bar, and I went back, went into the wrong room, some old lady started screaming, and I got busted. The comedy people came forward and said to the judge, "Instead of putting Tony in jail, why don't you give him community service, and he can help us?" So, I've got three hundred hours of community service that I burn off by performing on stage with this Katrina Kiss-My-Ass Orchestra.

At one of your shows at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, you gave out a strange-looking substance to the crowd.
We gave out the Crystal Blue Persuasion. A very light dose of LSD. Lasts no more than an hour and a half. Everybody needs something to help them along. So far, we can only sneak that in every once in a while, because the authorities will stop us.

You've been drinking a long time—
I'm drunk now. I started drinking at about ten in the morning. We did a show in New York once, [band member and Clifton's adopted daughter] Keely and I went through two big bottles of Gentleman's Jack on stage. That show went on for five fucking hours. I think we did "Rhinestone Cowboy" like 80 times. It was crazy. I was falling down drunk at the end. The audience was as fucked up as we were. I couldn't fucking remember one lyric. I was grabbing young Keely's ass, putting my hand in her panties. She's my newly-adopted daughter, you know. I had my finger in her stink hole, then I was walking in the audience and having everybody sniff it. It was weird. But, that's performing. That's a show. That's what people want to hear and see.

People at the shows sometimes get offended and walk out.
Oh, fuck them. Then, they shouldn't have come. The advertisements, people know about the show, that they're not going to see Rita Rudner. But we're so trained about political correctness now. On stage, I'll say something about a Jew, call him a sheeny bastard, or say "nigger," and they'll laugh, but they catch themselves when they look around at each other. That just shows you the kind of restricted society we're living in. What's next, Rob? Book burning?

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Related: Cross Town Traffic at the Wilbur, Interview: Tom Green, Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn revives a classic, More more >
  Topics: Comedy , R.E.M., Andy Kaufman, Tony Clifton,  More more >
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