#80. I spent the weekend raising hell with Tony Clifton (New Orleans, 2013)


Tony Clifton with my pet goat, Chauncey (photo by Zack Smith)

A big Andy Kaufman fan, I was honored to get to spend a weekend raising hell with Tony Clifton, and writing about it for Vice. I got to say everything I wanted to say in that piece, and feel like it’s one of the best pieces I ever wrote, and so I don’t have much more to say about that experience. I suggest you CLICK HERE and skip to reading that piece in its entirety.

Or if you’d just like a salacious excerpt of that article, I’ve culled the most informative and/or offensive parts, below:

In 2006, after an eight-year hiatus, Comic Relief reemerged to put on a show to benefit the victims of Katrina. When he hired Johnson as a videographer, Bob Zmuda (Kaufman’s former writing partner, and the head of Comic Relief) was working on a more ambitious project than a one-off gig: a tour featuring two dozen New Orleans musicians and dancers that would both raise money for performers still dealing with the effects of Katrina and restart the long-dormant career of Tony Clifton.

Clifton is a character, both figuratively and literally. Andy Kaufman claimed to have “discovered” the drunken, foul-mouthed nightclub performer in 1969, but in reality — if the word reality applies to any of Kaufman’s projects — he might have emerged from Kaufman’s head, like Foreign Man. In any case, since the 70s, the Clifton costume and persona has been passed around like a handle of warm whiskey in a green room. In his book Andy Kaufman Exposed! Zmuda copped to having first worn Tony’s signature thick prescription sunglasses, and starting in 1979 Kaufman impersonated Clifton as well — so often and with such hateful aplomb that audiences quickly came to consider the character Andy’s original creation and forgot that a “real” Clifton supposedly existed somewhere.

2.

Most people believe today’s Tony Clifton to “be” Zmuda, who’s now old enough that he no longer needs prosthetics to approximate Clifton’s jowls. Either way, Jeremy has always served two bosses: Zmuda — who Johnson by now considers “a dick” — and Clifton, whom he much prefers. Johnson has spent over five years as Clifton’s de facto assistant, on-call videographer, and sometimes writing partner. People close to the duo have suggested that Johnson is to Tony what Zmuda was to Kaufman. Which still doesn’t mean he can answer the most basic of questions: Who is Tony Clifton?

Like so many other well-meaning Katrina charity projects based in New York and LA, Clifton’s show helped in one way but also removed a lot of important talent from an already weakened New Orleans music scene. Still, Clifton maintains, “I did a good thing getting them out of this hellhole.”

3.

Another thing about Clifton: he has the tendency to be as racist as you’d expect a weathered old alcoholic lounge singer to be, both privately and especially publicly.

Clifton doesn’t use the word nigger to break down its associations and our prejudices, the way Louis C. K. does with hot-button words; he spits it out with abandon. Tony makes Quentin Tarantino seem tasteful. You wonder how he would ever find even one black musician to work for him, much less five of his 11 band members — especially since he claims he doesn’t warn anyone what they’re in for before he hires them.

Clifton claims that [his band quitting in the middle of the show because of his racist remarks], made him realize he needed to henceforth really befriend all of his employees. “I am now very close to my band members,” he says. “I’ve learned that I need to be talking with my people and communicating with them directly. People who work with me now know who I am, and know where I’m comin’ from… Some of the people who decided not to leave the band that night, by the way, were also black. But they saw the bigger picture. So, it’s not like all the blacks left the band at once. Just the niggers left.”

4.

Clifton tells anyone else who’ll listen how he’s the “official tester” at the Bunny Ranch. He calls Bunny Ranch owner Dennis Hof “the PT Barnum of booty” and claims, “Nobody gets laid more than Tony Clifton… As soon as Hof gets a new girl, I go down there and test to make sure they can do all the nasty things that clients want. I’ve fucked, on average, two or three girls under 25 years of age every week for the last 12 years. And they get nervous that I’m not gonna give them a good report! So they’re like, ‘Do you want me to suck your cock again? Do you want me to swallow your cum? Do you want anal?’ I am the luckiest guy on the Earth.”

. . .

“I have energy and I have a big fucking heart,” Clifton brags. “And the trick is to keep yourself associated with young people. Going back to Dennis Hof: I don’t fuck any girl over half my age, and I promise you.” He pokes my chest for emphasis: “Fucking, young, girls, will, keep, you, young. Their pussy juice is the nectar of the gods. It’s my secret to life.”

CLICK HERE to read the entire piece at Vice.

Michael Patrick Welch’s “132 Famous People I Have Met” series is FREE, but please consider donating to his VENMO (michael-welch-42), or to his PayPal account (paypal.me/michaelpatrickwelch2), so he can feed his kids, pay his mortgage, etc.

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