By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Andy died on May 16, 1984,” says Zmuda. “I’d never had anyone close to me die before, let alone my best friend. And my employer — I was Andy’s producer and writer. We were joined at the hip. So when he died, it was quite devastating to me, on every level. Emotionally, financially, personally — it was just insane. My family was one that had never really confronted death at all, so I was just . . . I was gone. Literally out of my mind. I was writing something for Joel Schumacher at the time, at Universal, and one day I just stopped showing up. I was useless. I hated Hollywood. Started drinking heavily, taking drugs, just out of my mind. And then, as it was coming up on a year later, I said to myself, All right, this is it. This is my personal tribute to Andy: Tony Clifton’s going to appear one year later. And it saved me. It really saved me.
“Andy had supposedly died of lung cancer, at Cedars-Sinai. So Tony Clifton Live was to be a fund-raiser. But I had never done a fund-raiser in my life. Didn’t know the first thing about doing it. I lived in Burbank, so I called up the closest chapter of the American Cancer Society, which was in Van Nuys. I said, ‘Hi, I’m Bob Zmuda, I was Andy Kaufman’s writer, I’m going to be putting on an event May 16 in his name, it’s gonna be called Tony Clifton Live . . .’ you know, and I explained to them the situation, that I thought there was gonna be a lot of celebrities there. And I called Rodney Dangerfield, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Elayne Boosler, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Martin and Richard Pryor, and asked if they’d help out for this. And they all showed up, and we raised some money for the American Cancer Society.
“Little did I know that it was the first time anyone had asked comedians, as a group, to do something like this. It seems so weird now, because you have these fund-raisers almost every night now, certainly in Hollywood. And there was, of course, the Jerry Lewis telethons, but that was also singers and jugglers and Frank Sinatra.”
Also in attendance that night was Zmuda’s former comedy-team partner, Chris Albrecht. “At this point,” Zmuda continues, “Chris had just landed a job running the programming department at HBO, and he was nervous as hell. He’s supposed to come up with new programming ideas, and he’d never done that before.
“So a couple weeks later, after Tony Clifton, I’m meeting Chris at a shopping mall — he’s in a rush to get to the toy store to get a birthday present for his daughter. So I’m running behind him in the parking lot of a shopping mall, pitching three ideas for shows. The first two ideas go in one ear and out the other. He’s not even listening. And now we’re going into the toy store and I get to my last one, which I knew was my best. I say, ‘Chris, how would HBO like to do the LiveAid of comedy?’ And he stopped. And he said, ‘What did you say?’”
With Tony Clifton Live at the Comedy Store as the prototype, Zmuda and Albrecht put together Comic Relief. Almost 20 years later, they’ve raised over $50 million to benefit the homeless.
“This Kaufman love fest,” I say. “Is this a Comic Relief fund-raiser?”
“No. It’s a Comic Relief event, but it’s not a fund-raiser. And there will be an important Comic Relief announcement made there.”
“What kind of announcement?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Thank you. What can you tell?”
“Well, it’s going to take place at the House of Blues, which usually holds 1,200, with people standing on the main floor. But because of the nature of what we’ll be doing that night, we’re bringing in chairs. So there’s only gonna be 350 seats available.”
“And what is the nature of what you’re doing? Perhaps some form of . . . entertainment?”
“I can tell you some of it, some of it I can’t. Tony Clifton will perform — if he shows — with his band, the Cliftones, and his dancers, the Cliftonettes. And there’s going to be the premiere of an Andy Kaufman film that’s never been presented in public, and will never be shown again.”
“How do you know it won’t be shown again?”
“It won’t. I can’t explain, but . . . it won’t. And let’s see: Rodney Dangerfield will be performing, I can tell you that, and Caroline Rhea, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick, Phil Hendrie, Paul Rudd, Rich Vos, Jerry “The King” Lawler . . . and, of course, Andy’s most intimate cohorts, George Shapiro, Lynne, John Moffit, me. There’ll be a discussion with Larry Karazsewski, who co-wrote Man on the Moon . . . and I really can’t tell you any more. But we really want the hardcore Kaufman fans to show up, because it is going to be a historical night, around one basic theme: Andy did say that if he was going to fake his death, he would return 20 years later, to the day. That’s the day.”