Tag Archives: Tony Clifton

Shrewd and Knavish Sprite: Will the Real Andy Kaufman Please Stand Up?

What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is “art.” – Orson Welles

Art is a lie. – Pablo Picasso

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The 1973 Orson Welles film F For Fake strings together several stories, including controversial author Clifford Irving’s biography of noted art forger Elmyr de Hory (whose works were a hoax) as well as his “authorized” biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes (itself a hoax). Welles reminds us that he himself burst into the public consciousness via a hoax – his 1938 radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. The broadcast was presented as a live news report detailing an alien invasion in New Jersey. It was so convincing people reportedly committed suicide in the face of the news that little green men from Mars were overtaking the planet.

F For Fake is not really a documentary or a narrative; nor is it really fact or fiction. The film is one big magic trick. Its genius lies in its relentless deception and refusal to be categorized.

By his own admission, Andy Kaufman was not a comedian. He was a performer. (Or performance artist, if you will, although Kaufman preferred the term “song and dance man.”)

From the very beginning, music played a key role in Andy Kaufman’s act and work. Whether he was accompanying himself with his guitar or bongos, or playing a record on stage from a portable turntable, music permeated almost every bit. Music and comedy are both utterly dependent on timing and setup, and Kaufman understood both devices instinctively. His entire oeuvre was based on trying the audiences’ collective patience. A few boos or walk-outs were almost necessary for the bits to work. But there comes a tipping point any time a performer intentionally manipulates an audience. Kaufman’s years toiling in the comedy clubs honed his instincts to perfection, allowing him to gauge just when an audience had had enough and required a payoff for their patience. Sometimes he let that moment pass altogether, allowing the palpable awkwardness to become the joke itself.

Kaufman first gained notoriety with his “Foreign Man” character, which later served as the basis for the Latka Gravas character on the sitcom Taxi. Foreign Man was a naïve, soft-spoken immigrant from the fictional island of Caspiar. Kaufman first developed the character, or so he claims, to ward off toughs on the streets of New York City. Incidentally, this was the very same reason Chico Marx developed his Italian immigrant persona; the difference being one went tough to blend in while the other went soft, to be seen as different and therefore pitiable.

One of his earliest and simplest bits utilizing Foreign Man remains perhaps his most endearing. The premise Continue reading →

Stand-up Sunday: Tony Clifton Won’t Die

Stand-up comedy derives much of its power from the use of the performer’s personal life. Sure, comedians stretch, embellish and outright invent some of the stories they tell on the stage, but most audience members conflate the act they see on stage with the person they imagine the comedian to be off-stage. I believe that this is actually part of the continuing fascination of Andy Kaufman, who derived much of his power from shielding his personal interior life from view of the audience.

Such was the case with Kaufman’s “Foreign Man/Latka” persona, his Elvis impersonation, and definitely his portrayal of the rude and offensive lounge act Tony Clifton.

The Wikipedia entry on Clifton claims that the inspiration sprang from a real Tony Clifton, “a real lounge singer whom Kaufman encountered in the International Hotel in Las Vegas.”The article cites Bill Zehme’s biography of Kaufman, Lost in the Funhouse. Lost in the citation is that Zehme himself notes how Kaufman told so many versions of this trip to Vegas “that no one, not anyone, would ever know exactly for sure what happened” (108).

There are stories — many of them told by Kaufman’s creative partner Bob Zmuda — of other people playing Clifton in performances. When negotiating his contract to play Latka on Taxi, Kaufman reportedly insisted that they hire Tony Clifton as a guest star. When Kaufman-as-Clifton arrived on set, he came with a pair of hookers from the Moonlite BunnyRanch and behaved so badly that Kaufman-as-Clifton was thrown off set. (See Zmuda’s Andy Kaufman Revealed! for a lengthy account.)

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