No matter how much money his inner Zmuda has raised for charity over the past 25 years, semifictional, self-proclaimed international singing sensation Tony Clifton still manages to be an asshole.
“I'll say whatever I wanna fuckin' say,” he says. “On May 16, I'm gonna blow fuckin' people away. Blow 'em away.”
Clifton's talking — shouting, really — via webcam from his multimedia recording studio at Cliftonmere, his “rustic yet modern” residential compound just south of Lake Tahoe. Via webcam, wearing a pastel tuxedo. It is here that he and his lightly clothed Cliftonettes have been preparing for a four-night stint of burlesque-style entertainment at the Comedy Store, accompanied by the 12-piece Katrina Kiss-My-Ass Orchestra, beginning Sunday night.
The event will mark the 26th anniversary of the death of genuine comedic genius Andy Kaufman and the 25th anniversary of the emotional founding of Comic Relief, the charity organization started by Kaufman's pal and writing partner, Bob Zmuda, who has been living inside of Tony Clifton off and on since Kaufman's death in 1984, of lung cancer, at age 35.
In the beginning, Andy Kaufman created Tony Clifton, a relentlessly abusive Vegas-style lounge crab whose job was to irritate and be hated. Then Kaufman decided it would be fun to have Zmuda be Clifton now and then, so they hired the same makeup artist who'd created Kaufman's Clifton prostheses to fashion a set for Zmuda, and Zmuda's Clifton appeared on Letterman and some daytime talk shows while Kaufman stayed home and giggled.
Later, Kaufman's hate-me jones would expand into the wrestling ring, where he would perform for Middle America as a Hollywood stereotype using the deceptive pseudonym “Andy Kaufman” — why complicate things?
Clifton went on sabbatical while Kaufman wrestled. Bigger crowds, more hate.
After Kaufman died, Zmuda went into a major depression. A year later, it was Tony Clifton who pulled him out of it: Zmuda unpacked the sacred mask, and together they put on a fund-raiser at the Comedy Store, which led to Zmuda's founding Comic Relief in 1986.
“Sheeny bastard,” says Clifton, tossing back the last of his current Jack Daniel's, concluding, hopefully, one of the loud, long, semicoherent racist rants that have come to define him. No such luck.
As his assistant refreshes his cocktail, he launches: “I'm gonna go after some of the Jews who gave me a fuckin' hard time, gave Kaufman a hard time. Some of them are not even going to get into the show.”
(And they would want to attend in the first place because … ?)
“I'm gonna fuckin' settle all scores that night. And all the people who did me dirt, and did Kaufman dirt, are not gonna be allowed to get into the fuckin' place. What about that? I'll give you a couple names. Like George Shapiro. Remember Shapiro? Shapiro-West, Seinfeld? If George Shapiro tries to come to my show, I will throw that fuckin' sheeny bastard out of there.”
(And he would show up in the first place because … ?)
“Another guy who's not gettin' in is Danny DeVito. Do you know he's a legal midget in eight states? … I can't name the fuckin' states, because they have different laws in different states. I know I ain't supposed to say midgets anymore. Supposed to be politically correct, call 'em little people. I'll call 'em what I wanna call 'em. I'll call 'em midgets. Call 'em small fry. Mites! Shrimp! Not gonna tell me what to fuckin' call 'em. … If he comes to my show at the Comedy Store, I'll toss him with the midget-toss. I'll toss him right out the fuckin' door.”
He's just not a very nice man, this Tony Clifton. And he's getting quite plastered. “They told me I shouldn't be drinking during the show anymore, because I forget the lyrics. I say fuck it.”
Way down inside, pulling the levers, Bob Zmuda is an awfully nice fellow who's spent the past quarter-century raising millions of dollars for the homeless and the needy. If he needs to let fly with the occasional Clifton in order to continue, I say we let him.