At a post-Katrina benefit, Tony Clifton was run out of Tipitina's in less than 10 minutes.

Tony Clifton photo
Tony Clifton photo

[Much of this story is in poor taste. You've been warned.] One of the challenges Andy Kaufman's comedy posed is that much of it depended on surprise, so it could only work a handful of times until the audience knew what was coming. One of the best examples was Tony Clifton, his failed lounge singer character. Kaufman presented himself as a pudgy singer with wobbly vocal chops and a barely suppressed bullying rage. Performances inevitably ended turned into battles with the audience. The comedy was conceptual, based on saying the most wrong thing possible, and of a piece with his love of bad-guy wrestlers. but it became harder to achieve as Kaufman fans who had heard about the chaos showed up expecting a confrontation. To help preserve the idea that Kaufman wasn't Clifton, he showed up at Clifton shows as himself while his writing partner Bob Zmuda played Clifton.

Today, Zmuda strives to build the distance between himself and Clifton. When Clifton was scheduled to play One Eyed Jacks in 2008, I was offered a phone interview with Clifton or Zmuda, but I was told that Zmuda would only talk about what an asshole Clifton is, and that he wouldn't cop to playing the character.

Tonight, Clifton will return to One Eyed Jacks for the opening night of the Timecode: NOLA Indie Film Festival, which will screen Tony Clifton: Live on the Sunset Strip. Because the audience generally knows what's coming, the primary way Clifton can truly shock the audience is through jokes in exceedingly - impressively, depending on your sense of humor - bad taste. Still, some of Kaufman magic remains in the character. That night, I was told that Zmuda stayed in character, separated himself from the New Orleans-based band and had made racist comments as Clifton to the band, and that half of them wanted to quit or kill him. As was so often the case with Andy Kaufman's comedy, the question of whether anything you see or hear is real or not remains attached to the character.

Clifton got the dreamt-of response when he made an appearance at a Future of Music Coalition benefit at Tipitina's in 2006. The show featured Steve Earle, Tom Morello, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney, and Bonerama - Clifton's entree into the show. Zmuda is one of the organizers for the charitable organization Comic Relief, which organized a hurricane relief benefit for New Orleans in November 2006. Zmuda approached Bonerama about being the house band for the show, and as part of their connection, he performed with them as Clifton a few times at low profile gigs. Bonerama's Mark Mullins and Craig Klein both insist that they had never seen Clifton as anything more than a bad singer, and were as surprised as everybody else when Clifton's relationship with the audience soured at Tipitina's.

Kaufman died in 1984, and Man in the Moon - the biopic starring Jim Carrey - was released in 1991. He was far enough from the audience's consciousness that few at Tipitina's seemed to know what was coming when Mark Mullins took to the microphone to announce, "We have an international singing sensation in the house. We'd like to see if we can get Tony Clifton to come to the stage. If you saw Man on the Moon, the Andy Kaufman story - we're going to see if we can pull up Mr. Clifton." The audience was generally excited, buzzing more on the energy of the night and the possibility of another star than because they were excited to see Clifton. Craig Klein tried to amp up the crowd by chanting, "To-ny! To-ny!"

Clifton's addition to the show as a surprise to the everybody else onstage. One member of the show's entourage was quietly asked to get "Tony Clifton" on the Tip's guest list that night, and Clifton entered Tipitina's through the front door rather than the stage entrance. 

After making his way to the stage, he started aggressively.

"I'll tell ya, fuckin' cab takes me to the wrong fuckin' Tipitina's," Clifton says, wearing a salmon polyester suit, a shaggy black hair piece, a moustache that aspires to be a '70s porn moustache, and sunglasses. "I'm sittin' there for fuckin' two hours waiting for somebody to be there. Fuckin' bullshit. Polish cab driver on top of that. Fuckin' Polack."

That earned a "Whooo!" from one woman, but the excitement in the room chilled noticeably at "polack." The exuberance from the last hour of protest music from Earle and Morello drained as the post-Katrina power wasn't being fought anymore.

"Fifteen minutes ago, he pulls up out front and he wants a tip," Clifton continued as if nothing was wrong. "I said I'll give ya a tip. 'Get outta the fuckin' business.' I said to him, 'I got a tip. I'll tell you a couple of Polish jokes. Did you hear about the Polack who's wife had triplets? He went out looking for the two other guys." Bonerama's Eric Bolivar gave him a rimshot, and the joke earned a few good-natured groans. Tipitina's Bill Taylor started moving toward the stage at this point, and the musicians nervously checked their tuning. R.E.M. wrote "Man in the Moon" for the movie, so Mills knew what was coming and turned his back to the audience. Later, Steve Earle said he knew what was going on but that he thought it was out of place. That night, it wasn't obvious he knew Clifton was a joke.

"Polish firing squad," Clifton went on. "They stand in a circle." When Bolivar belatedly punctuated the joke with another rimshot, Clifton turned on him. "About fuckin' time." 

Then, without a break, "I was just with these guys in Key West - whatta buncha fags." The playing-along vibe evaporated immediately, replaced by an anxiety over where this was going. 

"Reminds me of the old joke. How do you get the gay guy to fuck a girl? Put shit in her pussy." The groans were no longer theatrical. Boos replaced nervous laughs, and people with otherwise hearty senses of humor called for Clifton to get off the stage. Morello spoke for much of the room when he asked, "What's happening? What the hell's happening? We were all having such a nice time."

Bill Taylor had made it to the edge of the stage and was about to go onstage to get Clifton, who saw him. 

"Are you in show business? Are you in show business? Then get your foot off the fuckin' stage. Fuck you. Fuck you! Fuck you." Then, turning his attention to someone in the front row. "And you're not supposed to be here taking photos of me. FUCK YOU!"

The boos were thick as Morello tried to play off the moment. "Alright," he said placatingly. "Thanks bro. Cool. Next."

"Fuck you!" Clifton answered. "Shut up. It's my time. Listen folks, you have a little respect! I'm not used to these little shitholes. I'm used to playing the big clubs in Vegas, not these little backwater towns." After insulting almost everybody in the room, Clifton finally turned to Bonerama, who served as the backing band for the night. "You know any Stevie Wonder? Let's get some entertainment going here," after which he sang a deliberately flat version of "For Once in My Life"  and left through the side exit on to Napoleon Avenue.

After an extended pause for tuning and to let the moment pass, Earle led the remaining musicians in The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today," and "Ohio" - rallying songs more in keeping with the tenor of the night, though Clifton had played a part in that moment by unified the audience in a way that nobody had before his time onstage.

Once outside, Zmuda shed the Clifton wardrobe and makeup, returned to the clothes he was wearing before the show and was in the green room upstairs at Tipitina's after the show with no one the wiser. 

Mullins and Klein have since echoed Earle's feeling that the show wasn't the right place or the right time, and in a way they were right. The lounge singer that Clifton burlesques is a figure that hasn't seriously existed since the '70s or early '80s. A Kaufman reference out of left field in 2006, as was an effort to lay bare the scabby soul of an entertainment staple that has long been replaced by Criss Angel, Cirque du Soliel and the Blue Man Group. 

But reemerging as he did at such an unlikely show virtually guaranteed Tony Clifton an unsuspecting audience, even after Mullins gently tipped the crowd off in his introduction. It couldn't have been a more perfect audience for that his specific, confrontational, discomforting sense of humor. What he does now is remarkable in a different way, but for fans of Andy Kaufman, Tony Clifton's appearance at Tipitina's was historic.