EH, BULLSHIT: The Tao of Tony Clifton

The enigmatic comedian rises again to drop his schlock
on the masses.

BY KENNY
HERZOG

 

I’ve been
warned to use Tony Clifton’s bathroom quickly before he arrives. And as he
barrels into the backstage area at B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill,
cigarette in hand and gruff, curmudgeonly demeanor in tow, you immediately
understand his caretakers’ urgency.

 

But then
you remember Clifton
isn’t real. Until you remember that he sort of is. Or that he is but he isn’t. For
the uninitiated, Clifton
was one of Andy Kafuman’s more beloved and controversial alter egos. His
three-hour-plus stage act was ostensibly a send-up of schlocky, Vegas-style
revues, with Clifton
crooning like Phil Hartman doing Frank Sinatra after 47 glasses of Gentleman
Jim. And since Kaufman’s 1984 passing, the Clifton character (oft-rumored to be
portrayed by Kaufman’s longtime creative partner Bob Zmuda) has been
sporadically resurrected, usually in conjunction with Kaufman-related
anniversaries.

 

But in the
ensuing years, Clifton
has portrayed Kaufman as an adversary, a hack who stole the singer’s routine
and claimed it as his own. Both the ongoing concept behind Clifton and its relentlessly deadpan
execution are meta-satirical and, in their own deliriously lowbrow way, high
art. And it’s subsequently impossible not to respond to his presence with equal
parts bemusement and abject nervousness.

 

A half hour
away from a rare New York set with his new band, the Katrina Kiss-My-Ass
Orchestra, the pink-blazer-sporting, mustachioed anti-icon buries his
considerable girth into the dressing room’s plush, wrap-around couch, cozies up
to Keely–one of three stunning, scantily clad Cliftonettes who joins him for
the interview–and bellows in a Midwestern affect to “fire away!”

 

Despite
his backing band’s nom de lounge,
Clifton denies that this tour has altruistic motives, insisting it’s community
service to spare him from charges of raping an elderly woman in The Big
Easy  (“What does 80-year-old pussy taste
like? Depends!”). “I don’t believe in that stuff,” he says of hurricane relief.
“I think these fuckin’ people should fuckin’ leave that town. I see a homeless
person, I’ll try and run them over.”

 

Clifton strays off topic more
than he comes anywhere near being focused, at this point diverting into a
tangent about people who try to spit-shine his windshield. (“Every fuckin’ time
they do the windows, you see it, they smear it all up. ‘Cause I think they take
their rag, and fuckin’ blow their nose and wipe their ass with it.”) He’s
essentially a bizarre intersection between your scatterbrained, prejudiced
grandfather and a pointedly angry Lenny Bruce.

 

To be
clear though, Clifton
doesn’t think “anything should be illegal,” hence his lament over the erosion
of 42nd Street’s
once-debauched environs. He specifically recalls an old XXX feature titled Black Meat, Asian Treat, in which “a
well-hung black guy” fornicated with “small, tight-pussied little Asian girls,”
with a sentimental glint in his sunglasses-shielded eyes.

 

As for the
performance itself, Clifton
gets agitated at audiences’ limited preconceptions. “People come to the show,
they think it’s gonna be just, ‘Tony, he’s insulting people, he’s pouring water
on people,'” he miffs. “That’s bullshit. We got a big fuckin’ revue… It’s gonna
blow you away.”

 

Such
fearlessness and showmanship was, of course, the M.O. of a certain storied comedian.
And, somewhat surprisingly, Clifton
is willing to talk about the man with whom he is most closely associated. Just
not fondly.

 

“Eh, bullshit,”
he moans. “That’s why we’re doing this fucking thing…  My thing ends May 16, ‘cause that’s the
anniversary of that fuckin’ silly-ass Jew bastard. He rode my coattails… You
look at the old clips of Merv Griffin, Dave Letterman, that is me. It ain’t
that fuck Andy Kaufman. It’s me… You come to my show, you wanna see Andy
Kaufman, you know what you do? You get yourself a flashlight and a shovel.”

 

A bit
riled up over discussing his deceased foe, Clifton emerges from his seat and
beckons the girls back to their dressing room so he can prepare for the show.
He slings his blazer back over his shoulders and fumbles for his lighter. And
while it’s abundantly clear that the man’s aesthetic has developed fashionably
relevant mothballs, his abrasive candor has somehow never circulated out of
style. Clifton
is, at the end of the day, a testament to being yourself, harboring no taboos
and taking no prisoners.

 

Or as he
distills his life philosophy, “If you are in a relationship, and if your
boyfriend or husband is not eating out your pussy, then you fuckin’ leave him.
Vice versa, if your wife or your girlfriend is not swallowing your cum, you get
out of there.”

 

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