Interview Date: 09/19/2008
Run Date: 09/26/2008
Yeah, we know what you’re thinking. “Tony Clifton? You mean Andy Kaufman’s obnoxious lounge-singer alter ego?” Well, you’re half right…or, at least, that’s the way Clifton tells the story. In a combination of a charitable act and a need to fulfill a community service requirement, Clifton is back on the road as the frontman of the Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra, with the earned proceeds of the tour going to Comic Relief. Some would suggest that it’s more than coincidence that Comic Relief – the American contingent, anyway – was founded by Bob Zmuda, a man who spent many years as Kaufman’s friend and co-writer. When we talked to Clifton, however, he said otherwise. Indeed, he said quite a lot of things, many of which will make the politically-correct members of our readership blanch. Is it all an awful, offensive act? Or is Tony Clifton a pleasant reminder of a time when people could speak their minds freely? All we’re saying is that we haven’t had an interview like this one on Bullz-Eye in quite some time…and we’re not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
Tony Clifton: Is this Will?
BE: It is!
TC: Will, Tony Clifton, my friend.
BE: How are you doing, sir? It’s an honor to talk to you.
TC: I’m pretty good, and thank you very much. It’s an honor to talk to you. I’m in Boston right now. Where are you?
BE: I’m in Norfolk, VA.
TC: Virginia? Okay! Now, what’s this for? Is this for radio?
BE: This is actually for a web magazine called Bullz-Eye.com.
TC: Oh, very good. Well, thanks for helping us out here and getting the word out about me.
BE: No problem. We’re called “the guys’ portal to the web,” and you seem like a man’s man, so…
TC: I am a man’s man, lemme tell ya that!
BE: So you’re doing a charity tour right now, is that right?
TC: Well, here’s what happened, see. I was in New Orleans for the Mardi Gras…sorry, not the Mardi Gras, but for the jazz festival. You heard of that? The New Orleans Jazz Festival?
BE: I have.
TC: Well, I went down there to see Keely Smith, but they said she’s tipping the scales at 350 pounds. She can’t even breathe, let alone sing. So I buy a ticket to go to that fucking thing at, like, a hundred bucks a day or something. It was not cheap. How dare these people charge that kind of fucking money? Outside there in the fucking mud and stuff. It was like Woodstock, it was raining, and I’m out there, and who’s headlining? Who’s heading the jazz fest? Tim McGraw and Sheryl Crow. Now let me ask you this, my friend: when I think jazz, are these the first two fucking names that come to mind? (Laughs) Now, don’t get me wrong, Sheryl Crow, I used to have a poster of hers. That was one hot babe. Of course, I’m not interested anymore because she lost the titty to the cancer. She’s only got one titty now. Now, what happens when they whack that off? Is that stitches there, or what?
BE: Y’know, you got me.
TC: Listen, I can’t deal with that. I don’t know, she’s got a nice body, and I’ll take a fucking pipe job from her, but I can’t look at that. So, anyway, I’m down there in New Orleans on Bourbon Street, and I can handle my liquor. Liquor? I hardly know her!
TC: Yeah, but I’m on Bourbon Street, and I swear somebody slipped me a Mickey Finn, ‘cause I went back to the old hotel, I’m fucked up, and apparently I walked into the wrong room. Some old lady started screaming, I got busted, cuffed, I got hauled before the judge, and…what’s that charity group that saved me?
BE: Comic Relief?
TC: Yeah, those guys. So they came forward and said to the judge that they were putting a thing together to help the Katrina musicians, and they needed a frontman because nobody would buy a fucking ticket to see the low-life Katrina musicians. So I said, “Okay,” and they worked out a deal with the court. Sixty hours of community service. So that’s what I’m doing. But I’m having a good time, because these musicians…we got a big band. I got a six-piece horn section now, man, and these guys fucking blow. They’re fucking young cats, and…there are some blackies, we got some Asians, a couple of gays. The whole melting pot. That reminds me: how do you get a gay guy to make love to a woman?
BE: I give up.
TC: Put some shit in her pussy.
TC: What did one gay sperm say to the other gay sperm?
BE: I have no idea.
TC: How do we find the egg in all of this shit?
BE: Awesome. So…how do you pick out the songs for the set list? Are you still going with the classics, or…
TC: I’ll tell ya, and this is true: I got a repertoire of about 185 songs, and they gotta learn them all. So what we do is, on the night of the show, about five minutes before, we decide on our list. None of the shows are the same. Ever. Because there are so many songs. And now what I want to do…’cause even that takes time to do…is purchase one of these bingo machines, with the ping-pong balls flying around, and on each one of the ping-pong balls, we’re gonna have the name of the song. And someone from the audience will come up and pick it for us. Because there are so many great songs…I’ve selected all of the songs…and they all have to do with either love, lost love, or lust. Those are the things. Every one of the songs that you hear me do will have to do with one of those subjects. That reminds me: what’s the difference between love and lust?
BE: Oh, God. I have no idea.
TC: A man in love will say, “I would love to meet your father.” A man in lust will ask, “Who’s your daddy?” (Cackles) We have fun, my friend.
BE: Clearly. You’ve got a unique vocal style…
TC: Yeah, I’ve got a ten-octave range.
TC: If people need to put that in perspective, Mariah Carey…? Eight octaves. I’ve got ten. My voice could literally break glass…and some nights, I try. We’ve got a high-tech piece of equipment on the stage called an Octave Meter, and that thing lights up throughout the show to show you what my voice is doing. And towards the end, I try to hit the tenth octave. At the tenth octave, we tell people, “If you’re wearing glasses in the audience, take ‘em off.” We’ve got a little sound that goes off when it hits the tenth octave. I mean, your ears could bleed. It’s high, y’know?
BE: Do you pass out earplugs beforehand?
TC: No, no, no. No. You just tell people. It would be too expensive. We just warn them to put their fingers in their ears as the lights are going up. I don’t want anybody suing us, so we give them fair warning. And we tell the places, too, that during my show, they need to serve beverages only in plastic cups, not in glass, ‘cause we’ll blow the fucking things out. I might just do it when I’m out in L.A.. Have you got a schedule?
BE: I do. I understand you’re going to be in Colorado, and you’ve got a date in North Carolina as well.
TC: Yeah, and we’re going back to New Orleans for a couple of days, and we’re also doing…I’m looking at my list now…Birmingham, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Tulsa. We’re at the House of Blues in L.A. on October 19th. We did B.B. King’s in New York City, and then we did Chicago. We did Chicago, and we put on a hell of a show. Did I tell you about the hot babes?
BE: You did not. But I hear you have some.
TC: Oh, man, I’m telling you. I’m telling you, Will, and you can put this in there, that if guys don’t come to the show and think that these are the hottest babes…? These are hot burlesque stars. These are young girls, and these chicks are so fucking smoking. They’re not strippers. They’re burlesque artists. I’m telling you, I’m putting a standing thing out there that if you don’t leave there going, “Damn, those girls are hot,” I’ll give you your money back.
BE: I saw a quote where you said that they make the Playboy bunnies look like hags.
TC: Oh, my God, absolutely. Absolutely! ‘Cause this is young stuff, and it’s not airbrushed. It’s for real. And they are fucking hot. I’ve got one named Keely…
BE: In tribute to Keely Smith, I presume?
TC: No, no, no. No. There was no tribute. That’s her real name. I picked her up about three months ago. She was hitchhiking on Route 10, it goes from Biloxi to New Orleans, and she jumped in the car. I’m tooling around in my Chrysler 300, and I saw this chick, and I’m, like, “Whoa.” She jumped in the car, and she hasn’t been home since. I’m thinking of legally adopting her, as a matter of fact. She’s in the show, she’s on stage with me, so if I legally adopt her, I can teach her how to be a lady. I’ll teach her about hygiene, and how to keep herself clean down there.
BE: So kind of an update of “My Fair Lady,” then.
TC: Oh, yeah. I’ll teach her how to shave down there, and to keep it fresh. Kinda like what Woody Allen did. I want to help the young ones.
BE: Absolutely. So, look, some people have called you a prima donna. Do you take issue with that description?
TC: (Sighs) Well, if you’re going to be on stage and hold people in the palm of your hand, you’d better have something there. Yeah, I ask for respect, but only because I want to give my best to that fucking audience. I want it right. And if that’s prima donna…? Look, when I hit that stage, it’s not a democracy. It’s pure fascism when I hit it, because I know what I can deliver, and I know what my people need to deliver, and if they don’t deliver, then they get fined. They get fined in the production. Now, you know I’m doing this thing pro bono.
BE: So as a boss, would you say you’re more strict than Buddy Rich, even?
TC: This is weird that you say this about Buddy Rich, because some people say that, with the repertoire I’ve got and with the rapport between the band and me, a few people have quoted it as being like Buddy Rich. I call ‘em like I see ‘em, just like Buddy. But Buddy was coked up most of the time, and I don’t do that. I prefer the Jack Daniel's. I’m fucked up most of the time during the show. I have fun with the band. I call ‘em niggers. And I got a few Japs in there, I call ‘em Nips. I got everything mixed up in that band, like I say. I call ‘em the way I see ‘em. Listen, lemme tell ya this: you know why I get away with it? ‘Cause I got black people in my family.
TC: Yeah. And I’ve got the rope to prove it. (Laughs) Look, the blackies are good. They’re good for the sports and for the music. See, the Jews are good at making the money…or at taking the money from you.
BE: I don’t guess you hear the phrase “politically incorrect” a lot, do you?
TC: Yeah, I know what that is, and I’m sick of it. I was doing a radio show the other day, and I said that when you come to my show, I want to stop all of that, because people aren’t talking like they really do talk. See, the Chicago Tribune said, “Tony Clifton says things that Howard Stern would not dare say.” That’s the quote. “Things that Howard Stern would not dare say.” And I’m just talking! People on the street, they talk like I talk, but they won’t talk like that in public anymore. Everybody’s so afraid of this political correctness stuff, and it’s killing this country. That’s why they’re so afraid, as you know, Will, with this Obama vote here. It’s called “The Bubba Effect.” Everybody will sit there and say, “Oh, yeah, Obama’s very nice,” but as soon as the curtain closes, they’re saying, “I ain’t voting for no jigaboo.” I did a radio show the other day, and forget saying the N-word; one guy stopped me – and this is AM radio – and said, “Tony, we really don’t allow that.” You know what the word was? The R-word. You know what the R-word is now?
BE: I do not.
TC: It’s “retard.” I’m serious! You cannot say the R-word on AM radio! I was shocked. This is all bullshit. This is the land of the free! I’ve been around, and I’ve been to third-world countries where you’ve gotta watch every fucking thing you say or do. I’ve been to Singapore, and I saw a guy spit on the ground, and they fucking grabbed him and caned his ass. I was doing the Jim Breuer show a little while ago, and they wouldn’t let me up in the Sirius radio building. You know why? Because I refused to take off my sunglasses! What the fuck is happening to this country that you can’t go into a building unless you take off your sunglasses? Has everybody gone fucking mad? Look at the stuff that fucking Obama said, the joke about the pig and lipstick. This is where we’ve gone. We’re such a fucking mess, the economy’s fucking falling apart, and I’m telling you, people come to my show, they can forget it all, because I lay it all fucking out there. Hey, what’s the difference between a gay guy and a refrigerator?
TC: A refrigerator doesn’t fart when you pull the meat out. (Cackles)
BE: You’ve got a million of ‘em, don’t you?
TC: Thousands of ‘em, my friend.
BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of appearances that you’ve made in previous years. Obviously, you can tone it down when you want to, since you appeared on “The Fabulous Miss Piggy Show.”
TC: Now, that was a very straight show. You had Jim Henson, he was a friend of mine. He was a good guy, and when nobody would fucking hire me in Hollywood and after I was thrown off of “Taxi” and all that, Jim Henson called and said, “We’ll take Tony here.” And I kinda had a brief affair with Miss Piggy…I mean, on the show, of course.
TC: But, yeah, Henson was a good guy. He died…it’s unfortunate that a lot of people don’t know this…but he was a Jehovah’s Witness, and he just had a little cold, but he wouldn’t take any fucking medication for it, and it killed him. Terrible.
BE: So what’s your relationship with David Letterman? Certainly, you’ve appeared on his show in the past.
TC: Well, Davey boy, yeah, I appeared on his show a few times, and, y’know, he always thought I was Kaufman. But we bamboozled him, huh? (Laughs) It’s funny you say that, ‘cause I remember one time I was on, and during the commercial, he turns to me, “Andy, if I didn’t know it was you, I’d swear it was somebody else.” (Laughs) And he’s all-knowing, you know, so to pull the wool over the eyes of a guy like that was pretty funny.
BE: So what’s your position on Kaufman?
TC: (Sighs) Not very talented. A lucky guy. He knew how to jump on the bandwagon, though, ‘cause of the way he jumped on my coattails. He came out to see Elvis in Vegas in ’69, and I was performing in downtown Vegas, and he came in there. I’d never met him, but he came in there and saw. And years later, maybe five years later, he became an act. And he became very popular. And then Bugsy Moreau one day calls me up and says, “Hey, Tony, didja see the New York Times? You’re playing Carnegie Hall!” I said, “What the fuck are you talking about, Bugsy?” “Yeah, yeah, it’s right here! Your name’s in the paper with this Andy Kaufman!” I didn’t even know who Kaufman was! But I went down there, and it says, “Appearing with Andy Kaufman: Tony Clifton.” Like there’s another Tony Clifton! So I tried to contact his fucking Jew manager, that Shapiro guy…Danny DeVito played Shapiro in (“Man on the Moon”)…but they wouldn’t take my calls. And I was down on my luck, I’m putting coins in the phone, and I guess they could hear that back in Beverly Hills, and they’re, like, “Who’s this nut?” So they wouldn’t take my calls. And Bugsy says to me, “Can’t you fight it? The Jews are a tribe. They hang together. They’re like the Irish. Get yourself a good Jew lawyer!” So I did, and I got the same Jew lawyer today. But he calls ‘em, they talk Jew to Jew, and this is when Kaufman was a good guy, I guess, ‘cause he got a little upset. He says, “Well, I didn’t want to hurt Tony Clifton. I didn’t know he would care.” So the deal was brokered that, from then on, I myself would be playing me, and not him. So that’s who you see on “Letterman,” that’s who you see on “Missy Piggy,” and on “Merv Griffin.” We start the show with a little clip thing, and you can see it’s the same guy. It ain’t Andy Kaufman. A lot of people think I’m Jim Carrey, or they say I’m what’s-his-name from the charity, Dehooda. Or they say I’m Paul Giamatti, ‘cause he plays me in the movie. And now there’s this new guy, Criss Angel, the “Mind Freak” guy, who does an impression of me on his show.
TC: Yeah, yeah, he does. They say…what do they say about flattery and compliment? Anyway, it’s okay.
BE: So what’s your relationship with Bob Zmuda, then?
TC: This guy…this Dehooda guy, the long-haired hippie freak do-gooder…I must say that he and his group, they did come to my assistance, like I was saying earlier. I’m doing the show pro bono ‘cause of the trouble in New Orleans. He came forward and said, “Can he do this Katrina thing? Can you find it in your heart to give him community service to help our organization?” Some shit like that. So that’s my only tie with him.
BE: Okay, I’ve got a couple more for you. What was your relationship with Sinatra?
TC: Well, Frank and I, we go back to around the same time. Of course, he was always the man.
TC: I learned a lot from him. In fact, I do some of his songs in the act, some of Dino’s, and some of Sammy’s. But Sinatra, he played it right. Do you know that he used to call Sammy Davis, Jr., a piccaninny on stage? Did you know that?
BE: I have heard that.
TC: It’s true. He did. And he loved the guy, so it’s not like he was a fucking racist. He broke down a lot of race barriers. As a matter of fact, when they played the Sands, they didn’t want Sammy to stay in the Sands. You know that story, right? Frank said, “I’m walking out if my buddy can’t even stay at the fucking place where he’s performing. We’re outta here.” So they had to let him stay there. And then that was that famous thing where Sammy went to the swimming pool, and he jumped in and he swam, and after he came out a half-hour later, they drained the whole fucking pool. Frank was furious. Frank was a good guy. My philosophy is like Frank’s. Frank said…and I loved the thing Sinatra said…but he said, “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink, because when they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re gonna feel all day.”
BE: That’s a classic line. (Writer’s note: I’m also pretty sure it belongs to Dean Martin.)
TC: A classic. I’m trying to bring back a little of that Rat Pack stuff, starting with getting rid of that political correctness stuff. I’m taking on the blacks, the Jews, the gays…everybody.
BE: Where do you think your career would be today if you’d been able to do “Taxi” as you’d been hired to do?
TC: That is a very good question. Nobody’s ever asked me that. But, you know, that was…I think the American sitcom is a bunch of bullshit, anyway. I’m glad it worked out the way it did. I got more notoriety getting dragged off that show than I ever would’ve done if I’d done it, so who had the last laugh? And look at all of them. They said, “Oh, he wasn’t professional.” Yeah, and the one who gave me the most trouble on that show and wanted to kick my ass was the guy that’s in rehab now! What’s his name?
BE: Jeff Conaway.
TC: Ah, what a fucking train wreck that is! Where the fuck is that career, huh? Marilu Henner, where the fuck is that career? You know, she was fucking everybody. She was fucking Judd Hirsch and Danny DeVito at the same time. They were a ham sandwich with her in the middle. For real. What a fucking bunch of low-lifes. Danny DeVito, he’s a legal-ditching…he owes me money, you know. From “Man on the Moon.”
BE: There was a report that there was going to be a Tony Clifton bio-pic, but that it fell apart because “Heartbeeps” was such a box office failure.
TC: Yeah, yeah: “The Tony Clifton Story.”
BE: Any chance of that ever happening?
TC: Well, I’ll tell ya: we will see. There’s some talks going on. We’ll see what kind of excitement gets going with me on this fucking tour. Kaufman wrote that, y’know. Maybe we can get some people to throw some fucking money behind it. It’s about me and it stars me, and…there’s a little talk going on, but I don’t want to curse it. It’s show biz, so I don’t wanna say much.
BE: And one more question: I’ve heard that you made an interesting appearance with R.E.M. at one of their concerts to do a duet on “Man on the Moon.”
TC: Well, here’s what happened. It was at the Greek Theater. Was it the Greek Theater? The big outside thing, anyway. Now, first of all, they asked me to come, and the way this came about, they wanted me to perform, and I thought I was headlining. So I get to rehearsal, what they call a soundcheck, in the afternoon, and I see these guys, and I realize it’s a soundcheck for some guys called Rem. They pronounce it like that, yeah? Rem?
BE: Actually, they…oh, sure, why not.
TC: So Rem are out there, the guys are sitting there, and we have a rehearsal, and they’re singing some songs, and I tell ‘em that I hope they dress properly for the evening. ‘Cause there’s that one guy there, Michael something…
TC: Yeah. And y’know, look, I use a toupee, that’s no fucking secret. I told him, “If you’re gonna get in front of a crowd, you oughta get yourself a rug. I know this great guy in Vegas, he’ll cut you a good deal.” He’s got some money. Get out there and look like it! So I hit the stage with them that night, and they’re dressed in the same fucking clothes they were wearing at the rehearsal that afternoon! Fucking jeans and…I’m always dressed properly for the audience – tuxedo, pressed shirt, shined shoes, ironed pants – and they’re dressed like they are, and…I fucking couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t fucking believe it. And, then, we’re up there, singing Stipe’s song, “Man in the Moon,” and there’s my part and his part, and, of course, the audience, once they see me…? I got a voice. Stipe, he doesn’t got a voice. He’s got a limited range. So he gets a little fucking upset, and he starts trying to upstage me. We had broken down how we were going to do that song, and I go, “What the fuck?” The guy’s onstage, I’m on there as a guest, and he can’t let me have my moment in front of 30,000 people? I mean, the place is sold out, and they’re yelling, “Tony, Tony!” So, yeah, he starts getting in my face, he got a little too close, and I just kinda nudged him back, right? And, then, he’s got his sheet music there, and…how many years has been singing these same fucking songs? I took all of his sheet music…and if you look at the video, you’ll see it…and I throw it all in the fucking audience. Now, at that point, his people….Buck, is that his name?
BE: Buck, yeah.
TC: Is it Chuck Buck?
BE: Peter Buck, actually.
TC: Yeah, that guy. He’s a tall motherfucker! So he gets in there, and he’s playing, right? And he’s protecting his guy, so he bumps me…and this is all going on while I’m trying to sing for the fucking people! So, then, mayhem broke out, and the next thing I know, the fucking security guys are pulling me out of there. And then I got off the stage, y’know, and I say, “Okay, I’ve calmed down, I’m sorry,” just to get the fucking security guard’s hands off of me…but I had a drink back there, and when he let me go, I took it and threw it Stipe’s fucking face. And that’s when they grabbed me and took me out of there in a fucking paddy wagon. And I gotta tell ya, once again, I think they were using my name. They put my name up there and in the press that I was gonna be there. Without me, I don’t think those guys could sell 500 fucking tickets.
BE: The level of professionalism in this industry has fallen dramatically.
TC: Exactly! Exactly, my friend.
BE: I will now close with a question that is not mine but, rather, from another writer.
TC: Uh-oh. Okay.
BE: I’m just prefacing it so you’ll know.
TC: All right, go on. Go ahead.
BE: “Do you literally rape Andy’s corpse every night in addition to raping his memory onstage? Maybe you keep him in a fridge, and you throw him back into it after each show?”
TC: Boy, that guy’s on drugs or something. That’s bad. Look, Kaufman is as dead as a doornail. Dead as a doornail.
BE: So his memory is not being affected in any way by your performance?
TC: Look, I have nothing to do with that organization. He was a good kid, I guess. Fine. Matter of fact, they even wanted me to sing “Man in the Moon” in my show, but I said, “No.” I ain’t gonna do it. You come see my show, you see Tony Clifton. Andy Kaufman is dead, dead, dead.
BE: And Tony Clifton lives.
TC: Tony Clifton lives. It’s a beautiful thing.
BE: All right, sir, it’s been an interesting experience speaking with you.TC: Thank you, man! If you come see my show, come stop backstage!