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Uncle Andy’s Fun Afterlife
Twenty years later, dead or alive, will Andy Kaufman return?
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, May 7, 2004. (Cover Story)
Bob Zmuda, Andy Kaufman’s best friend and cowriter, describes the final 12 or 15 hours of Andy’s show at Carnegie Hall in 1979:
The first act ended with the 350-member Mormon Tabernacle Choir (impersonators, but who’s counting) entering through the back doors and caroling down the aisles, the New York City Rockettes (likewise) entering from the wings, the real Santa Claus riding through on his sleigh, and Andy’s Grandma Pearl — who’d been sitting onstage on her own sofa for over two hours — ripping off her face to reveal that she was actually Robin Williams. Act 2: The audience of 2,800 boarded a herd of buses and were driven in the rain to the New York School of Printing, where they were seated in kindergarten chairs and given milk and cookies while snake charmers and sword swallowers performed, and Andy wrestled all interested female attendees. It got close to 2 a.m., the hour when the bus company would start charging serious overtime fees, so, to clear the crowd, Andy announced Act 3: The show would continue the next day at 1 p.m. on the Staten Island Ferry. Andy and Bob hadn’t actually planned anything there, but just in case anyone believed them, they figured they should show up — a good idea, since when they arrived at 1:20 they found about 350 people from the night before, waiting, as Zmuda puts it, “with smiles on their faces like little kids.” Andy proceeded to buy each person a roundtrip ticket and an ice cream cone, and, again, to wrestle all interested female attendees. (In the movie Man on the Moon, the Carnegie Hall show was fictionalized into something that Andy did after finding out that he had lung cancer, like it was supposed to be a farewell performance. Very sweet, very touching, but in fact it took place years before he was diagnosed.)
Before Kaufman died (or “died”) on May 16, 1984, he told several friends that he was planning to fake his death, disappear and return in 20 years, precisely. So, on May 16, 2004, Comic Relief, the charity organization Zmuda founded in 1985, will present . . . something. Something secretive, something at House of Blues on Sunset Strip. Title: Andy Kaufman — Dead or Alive?
“So this May 16 isn’t going to be exactly like Carnegie Hall,” Zmuda concludes across a wide, wide bowl of soup, just around the corner from the Nuart Theater, where last Andy Kaufman appeared in public. “But it’s gonna be in the ballpark.”
Andy Kaufman was born in 1949 in Great Neck, Long Island, the eldest child in a strait-laced upper-middle-class family of, eventually, five. Most prominently featured in the Kaufman family, in terms of volume, was his father, Stanley. Stanley yelled a lot, and Andy didn’t like it. So he went to his room. And stayed there for the rest of his life.
There in his room, Andy began performing at age 4, with daily artificial broadcasts on Channel 5, his name for the Kaufmans’ home at 5 Robin Way. He played his act — jokes, magic tricks, songs — to an imaginary audience until, at age 8, he went out on the neighborhood kid-party circuit, where parents adored him but didn’t pay him until he turned 14.
Around when this bigtime-entertainment money started coming in, the wide-eyed young admirer of Elvis, Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers and Howdy Doody began writing poetry and short stories with aspirations of greatness, and taking conga lessons with Babatunde Olatunji, who had performed at an assembly at Andy’s school. And Andy read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and got terribly excited about it. Reread it and reread it and reread it some more. Carried it around with him everywhere he went, in his backpack with his own novel in progress, The Hollering Mangoo. Forced even good friends to listen to him read excerpts from both. Andy wrote hard and long, poems and stories — “Eidandrofields,” “The Faggot,” “Oh People Funny People,” “Hi” — and a play called The Shameless Bohemian; writing and talking his way into the budding Great Neck beatnik scene.
In late 1963, he wrote “The Extreme Success”:
Mr. X was a failure so far,
but hadn’t had a chance yet,
for he had just started.
Mr. X is a playwrite [sic];
Mr. X is a poet.
Mr. X is both.
He wrote a poem,
and put it in his play.
It got to be promoted.
And it got to be produced.
It was opening night.
Mr. X was very happy.
With all his friends to come and see,
the stage with actors,
the theater sold out.
It was the largest success
of plays that played.
At end, they called him up.
He then took a bow.
The applause was almost deafening,
and Mr. X went off.
He put his hand in his pocket,
and took out his gun.
He had the broadest smile of anyone,
as he shot into his head.
He was Dead!
While fixing to die, Andy made his girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, and Zmuda promise to document his life and work, in book and/or film and/or video, and to keep Tony Clifton alive. In 1989, Lynne directed and coproduced the documentary I’m From Hollywood, which followed Andy’s wrestling career as it pummeled to death his career as a popular entertainer.
“Andy and I started I’m From Hollywood together,” Lynne recalls. “And he was going to make it even worse, in terms of showing the ruination of his career. We were going to film him, like, in a Tenderloin hotel room, totally destitute. Just down and out, filthy and insane. But he died before we could start filming it.
“If only he’d had another year, he could have lost it all.
Andy Kaufman was the Rorschach test of comedy. He inspired a host of new terms like “comedy of the absurd,” “the Dada of ha-ha,” “Kamikaze Comic,” “the guerrilla comedian” and “agent provocateur of comedy’s Post-Funny School.” Kaufman, who died on May 16, 1984, at the age of 35, renounced these labels . . .
—Michael Nash, High Performance, Issue No. 28
Zmuda met Kaufman at the Improv (there was just the one, in New York) in 1973, while he was bartending and performing as half of the comedy team “Albrecht & Zmuda” (the other half being Chris Albrecht, currently the chairman and CEO of HBO). At the time, Andy was working on his Foreign Man character (taenk you veddy motch), his Elvis, his Mighty Mouse, assorted less-defined Andy-like entities, and an abusive, talentless lounge singer named Tony Clifton. Clifton’s job was to abuse the audience until they hated and rose up together against him. Zmuda had just quit a job being an assistant to an extremely messed-up but successful screenwriter, Norman Wexler. Wexler was kind of a Tony Clifton without the benefit (or deficit) (or courtesy) of a stage — he’d do horrible things. Abuse people in public. Abuse people at their place of work. Take a shit in the middle of JFK Airport. And Zmuda’s job was to record Wexler’s victims’ reactions on tape, to be transcribed later as “realistic” screenplay dialogue. So Andy seasoned his Clifton with a bit of Bob’s Wexler, and things seemed to click.
The real Tony Clifton, Andy explained, was this guy he’d seen performing at a small club in Las Vegas in 1969, when Andy’d gone there on a hitchhiking mission to meet Elvis (he did, or at least he said he did) at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Clifton has confirmed this. “1969,” he recalled in an interview with VH1 last February. “1969, I’m playing a little club, down in old Las Vegas. And this kid walks in. Skinny little Jewish kid. Nice guy. And this kid is Andy, Andy Kaufman. But I didn’t know this at the time. The guy didn’t introduce himself. Okay? Years later, this kid becomes famous. You know that TV show Taxi? You know who that guy is? That’s the guy. He becomes famous on Taxi. And then he does a show at Carnegie Hall. All right? Now, guess who his opening act is? Me, Tony Clifton. Except know what? I DON’T KNOW ABOUT IT! HE’S DOING IT! HE CAME AND STOLE MY ACT, AND HE’S DOING IT! Can you believe it? Thinking I’m some bozo who doesn’t have a big powerful lawyer like him. I don’t have the Jew-lawyer.”
Andy cared an awful lot about cancer. He didn’t smoke, took good care of himself (except for eating lots of chocolate ice cream), had no reason to expect cancer to befriend him. But he wouldn’t shut up about it. “I used to get really mad at him,” Lynne tells me. “I mean, I’d get really, really mad at him. I’d say, ‘You’re gonna talk yourself into getting cancer.’ ”
“And this was, like, when he’d find any little thing wrong?”
“Not even. No. Just in normal conversation. Like, I remember one time I was talking about a friend of mine who was dying of cancer. And Andy said, ‘Yeah, well, you’ll see. That’ll be me, too.’ Or he’d go to the doctor, you know, to get a checkup. And he’d say, ‘Okay, okay, tell me. I’ve got cancer, right?’ And the doctor would say, ‘Andy, you’re perfectly healthy.’ He was obsessed with it.”
In 1965, at 16, Andy finished his first (never published) novel, The Hollering Mangoo, which he later described as “the ultimate fantasies of a 16-year-old.” He’d taken on a scruffy, rebellious beatnik countenance, and began spending time in Greenwich Village, reading Mangoo excerpts and poetry at Cafe Wha? and other hipster hangouts. In 1967, he barely managed to graduate from high school.
The draft was on, so Andy had to get a physical, to make sure he was healthy and reasonable enough to burn down villages. After scoring a solid 0 on the psychology test, Andy was awarded the much-coveted 4-F status: unfit to kill. This gave him the opportunity to get occasional jobs (driving taxis and delivery trucks, washing dishes), but mostly to loiter with locals at a nearby park, drinking heavily, doing a fair amount of drugs, and taking occasional field trips to Manhattan for improvised street theater.
Alan Watts had recently made Zen Buddhism digestible for the American middle class, and Andy developed an interest in Transcendental Meditation. In 1968, Andy left Great Neck for Boston, to study television and radio production at Grahm Junior College, a small, brand-new school that required only good money and not good grades for admission. He found a good T.M. center in Boston not far from school, and began meditating twice daily, which he’d continue through the rest of his days. And in the basement of the dormitory across from Andy’s, a student named Al Parinello ran a coffeehouse and booked performers. In Bill Zehme’s biography, Life in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman, Parinello describes Andy’s first night onstage at Al’s Place:
He opened with his Foreign Man character, hopeless and inept, all pidgin English, and there was nervous tittering in the audience. And he did Mighty Mouse with the phonograph — and I was astonished by his timing, absolutely impeccable. Then he had the conga, which he started banging in sync with this crying jag — he had started crying as the Foreign Man because he lost his place and said he was ashamed, but he turned this into a conga symphony banging to the beat of these big gulping sobs. The audience was going crazy. And then the way he closed was absolutely sensational because it was Elvis — and it was incredible because the coeds were screaming! I’m saying they were emotionally involved with this impression to the point of screaming . . . I remember looking around, thinking to myself, Something very important is happening here . . .
With renewed, T.M.-assisted confidence and optimism, something very important graduated from Grahm in 1971, left Boston to travel around Europe for a few months, then returned to New York and set out to become famous.
Budd Friedman caught Andy’s act at a Long Island rock club called My Father’s Place, and soon Andy was performing regularly at Friedman’s club in New York, the Improvisation. Mighty Mouse, congas, Foreign Man doing Archie Bunker and Jimmy Carter, and, of course, the ultimate Elvis. (Andy was Elvis’ favorite Elvis impersonator.) Always dressed up as his father, in Stanley Kaufman’s hand-me-downs.
From there, Dick Ebersol and Lorne Michaels invited him to perform his Mighty Mouse piece on the inaugural episode of NBC’s Saturday Night, and soon periodicals across the land were printing brilliant and genius and new genre and performance artist, and Foreign Man was given a job portraying lovable mechanic Latka Gravas on Taxi, and Foreign Man became famous throughout the land as some form of Andy Kaufman.
Andy wasn’t very interested in Latka’s fame, or in Taxi. But he figured it was a fair trade: In exchange for Foreign Man image control, Andy got paid more than enough to support his pursuit of more important projects, like busing tables and wrestling.
Wrestling was fun, and wrestling women led to lots of recreational sex. In order to be a wrestler, one needs a persona. Andy decided he’d be a bad guy — a much more fun role than good guy, and also quite shocking to an audience that thought of him mostly as Latka the lovable.
The confusion arose from the public’s astute determination that Andy’s bad guy — a stereotype of the Hollywood Jew as soulless, money-grubbing, belligerent wimp — had the exact same name as Andy, and wore neither mask nor much of a costume (pale long underwear with dark boxer shorts on top). So audiences thought Andy’s character was Andy. And that’s what really made it fun.
For some, though, maybe it wasn’t such fun. If it were your life’s work to change audiences into entertainers, would you allow your parents to believe you’d broken your neck in a wrestling mishap, let them watch paramedics lift you onto a gurney and drive you away? Or would you tell them up-front, and risk blowing the gag?
Sometimes when you look Andy in the eyes, you get the feeling somebody else is driving.
Middle of the night, 1980: Andy called Zmuda. It happened often. “Andy was the kind of guy who, when he came up with an idea in the middle of the night, he had to talk with you right then. So we met at Canter’s, and I said, ‘So what is it?’ He said, ‘This is the greatest idea ever! This is the greatest put-on of all time!’ Now, at this time, Elvis had died, and there were already rumors going around about did Elvis fake his death, did Jim Morrison fake his death. Andy said, ‘You know, if some celebrity really did this, do you know how big it would be? How legendary it would be?’
“And don’t get me wrong: Andy was always looking to be legendary. Always looking to be legendary. So I knew where he was going with this, but I was tired. I said, ‘So . . .?‘ And he said, ‘I’m thinking about faking my death. What do you think about that concept?’ I said, ‘Andy, I think it’s absolutely brilliant. But count me out. I don’t wanna hear any more about it.’
“He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because it’s illegal to fake your death — I think it’s a felony. Because there’s insurance fraud, there’s premiums paid, you’re a member of AFTRA, of SAG. People fake their deaths all the time for insurance money, or they don’t wanna pay child support or whatever. If you’re really serious about this, you gotta take that into consideration.
“‘And besides that, I’m not gonna lie to your parents that you’re dead when you’re not. I don’t think you could ask anyone to do that.
“‘I think it’s a great idea, but don’t ever bring it up to me again. Get it?’
“And he said, ‘Got it.’ And that was it.”
I understand the theory behind the Atkins Diet, but Zmuda’s 3-inch stack of pastrami still doesn’t look healthy. We’re at Jerry’s Deli in Studio City, where Andy elected to work part time as a busboy while Foreign Man was enjoying the height of his popularity as Latka on Taxi. Zmuda’s telling me about interviews he’d been conducting for Ribs, a book/screenplay he’s writing about the discovery of 339 backlogged bodies at the Marsh family’s Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Georgia, in 2002.
Zmuda’s an animated fellow, certainly, but so far he hasn’t revealed any signs of any other characters living inside of him. It’s difficult to picture him as Tony Clifton, whom he first portrayed in 1980 at Harrah’s in Reno — he and Andy did ye olde switcheroo to mess around with the hotel management, who’d hired Tony thinking they’d get Andy; it was so much fun, they did the same on Letterman and Merv Griffin. So it freaks me out considerably when, without fair warning, Zmuda disappears entirely, and in his place appears the howling backwoods cracker son of an unburned, unburied mother, face scrunched up as if wrapped around a hundred-year-old wad of chewing tobacco, shrieking, to the dismay of adjacent lox-gobblers, “SOMEONE’S GOTTA STOP THEM NEGGERS!! THEM NEGGERS DESECRATED MAMA!! THEY’S VAH-LATED MAMA’S BODY!!”
(Yep — definitely room in there for Tony.)
“Yeah,” says Lynne. “We used to discuss the proper — you know, I thought he was just kidding — but what would be the ‘proper’ amount of time to go away for, after he ‘died.’ And at first it was 10 years, but then he decided, No, 10 years wasn’t enough. Twenty years would be good. Ten years — he could see someone going away for that long. But 20 years . . .”
“I think 10 years would be pretty amazing,” I admit.
“Or even a year,” says Lynne. “But who would even think of doing it in the first place?”
“Did he ever talk about what he’d do during these 20 years of artificial afterlife?”
“No. He always said just ‘go away.’ ”
“Yeah. He’d just . . . disappear.”
“Did he ever say where he’d go?”
“He was always talking about . . . what was that place . . . we never went . . . it’s not that far away . . . not the Bahamas . . .”
“But somewhere in the Caribbean?”
“I think so. Sorry, I’m blanking.”
John Moffitt was a producer on ABC’s Fridays, an SNL-style sketch show. He was one of the people in on the Andy-gets-out-of-character-in-the-middle-of-a-sketch-and-gets-in-a-fight-with-the-crew-and-ruins-everything-for-everyone project of 1981. Andy made a number of appearances on the show, and after each one there were parties.
“We’d always have a party, at somebody’s place,” Moffitt recalls. “Either downstairs in the Writers’ Cave, or at someone’s house. So this time, Jack [Burns, the show’s other producer, also of Burns & Schreiber notoriety] and his girlfriend were renting a house, with a rec room in the basement. Sometime during the party, Andy said, ‘Come downstairs. I want to talk to you.’ So Jack and I went down there with him. And Andy closed the door and said, ‘Okay. I have another idea, something I really want to do.’ And he started telling us that he was going to fake his own death. And it seemed very logical to us. We just thought, you know, Okay — that’s Andy, that’s the next thing he’s gonna do. You know, we’d faked the fight on the set of Fridays. And then he’d done this whole evangelical thing, where he wanted this evangelist to marry him to this woman, and he was gonna come on and pretend he’d Seen the Light and was Born Again . . . Andy was always into those things.
“And so when he said he was gonna fake his death, we thought, Great! And, of course, I thought, If you’re gonna come back again, do it on our show. Because . . . Andy was really like a lightning rod. He could do things that everybody would pay attention to. So we thought, Yeah, that’s a great idea.
“So after talking it through, we went upstairs, and that was the end of that.
“And then the show got canceled.
“And then, all of a sudden I heard Andy was sick.
“And I’m thinking, Okay — here we go! He’s doing it!
“And then someone said, ‘No, really. We saw Andy, and he’s really, really sick. He’s lost his hair, he’s thin as a rail, he’s really sick.’ And I again thought, you know, Andy would go to any kind of extreme to fake this, to do his prank. He would starve himself, he’d tear out his hair, he would undernourish himself. He would do it. That’s what Andy would do. He was always testing how far he could go, testing the limits of comedy and beyond.
“I mean, it was just the perfect next prank. Where would he go next? He’d done the whole wrestling thing and all of that, so what would he do to make a huge splash, get a lot of press, a lot of attention? It’d have to be something really big, and what could be bigger than that?”
“Andy died on May 16, 1984,” says Zmuda. “I’d never had anyone close to me die before, let alone my best friend. And my employer — I was Andy’s producer and writer. We were joined at the hip. So when he died, it was quite devastating to me, on every level. Emotionally, financially, personally
— it was just insane. My family was one that had never really confronted death at all, so I was just . . . I was gone. Literally out of my mind. I was writing something for Joel Schumacher at the time, at Universal, and one day I just stopped showing up. I was useless. I hated Hollywood. Started drinking heavily, taking drugs, just out of my mind. And then, as it was coming up on a year later, I said to myself, All right, this is it. This is my personal tribute to Andy: Tony Clifton’s going to appear one year later. And it saved me. It really saved me.
“Andy had supposedly died of lung cancer, at Cedars-Sinai. So Tony Clifton Live was to be a fund-raiser. But I had never done a fund-raiser in my life. Didn’t know the first thing about doing it. I lived in Burbank, so I called up the closest chapter of the American Cancer Society, which was in Van Nuys. I said, ‘Hi, I’m Bob Zmuda, I was Andy Kaufman’s writer, I’m going to be putting on an event May 16 in his name, it’s gonna be called Tony Clifton Live . . .’ you know, and I explained to them the situation, that I thought there was gonna be a lot of celebrities there. And I called Rodney Dangerfield, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Elayne Boosler, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Martin and Richard Pryor, and asked if they’d help out for this. And they all showed up, and we raised some money for the American Cancer Society.
“Little did I know that it was the first time anyone had asked comedians, as a group, to do something like this. It seems so weird now, because you have these fund-raisers almost every night now, certainly in Hollywood. And there was, of course, the Jerry Lewis telethons, but that was also singers and jugglers and Frank Sinatra.”
Also in attendance that night was Zmuda’s former comedy-team partner, Chris Albrecht. “At this point,” Zmuda continues, “Chris had just landed a job running the programming department at HBO, and he was nervous as hell. He’s supposed to come up with new programming ideas, and he’d never done that before.
“So a couple weeks later, after Tony Clifton, I’m meeting Chris at a shopping mall — he’s in a rush to get to the toy store to get a birthday present for his daughter. So I’m running behind him in the parking lot of a shopping mall, pitching three ideas for shows. The first two ideas go in one ear and out the other. He’s not even listening. And now we’re going into the toy store and I get to my last one, which I knew was my best. I say, ‘Chris, how would HBO like to do the LiveAid of comedy?’ And he stopped. And he said, ‘What did you say?’ ”
With Tony Clifton Live at the Comedy Store as the prototype, Zmuda and Albrecht put together Comic Relief. Almost 20 years later, they’ve raised over $50 million to benefit the homeless.
“This Kaufman love fest,” I say. “Is this a Comic Relief fund-raiser?”
“No. It’s a Comic Relief event, but it’s not a fund-raiser. And there will be an important Comic Relief announcement made there.”
“What kind of announcement?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Thank you. What can you tell?”
“Well, it’s going to take place at the House of Blues, which usually holds 1,200, with people standing on the main floor. But because of the nature of what we’ll be doing that night, we’re bringing in chairs. So there’s only gonna be 350 seats available.”
“And what is the nature of what you’re doing? Perhaps some form of . . . entertainment?”
“I can tell you some of it, some of it I can’t. Tony Clifton will perform — if he shows — with his band, the Cliftones, and his dancers, the Cliftonettes. And there’s going to be the premiere of an Andy Kaufman film that’s never been presented in public, and will never be shown again.”
“How do you know it won’t be shown again?”
“It won’t. I can’t explain, but . . . it won’t. And let’s see: Rodney Dangerfield will be performing, I can tell you that, and Caroline Rhea, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick, Phil Hendrie, Paul Rudd, Rich Vos, Jerry “The King” Lawler . . . and, of course, Andy’s most intimate cohorts, George Shapiro, Lynne, John Moffit, me. There’ll be a discussion with Larry Karazsewski, who co-wrote Man on the Moon . . . and I really can’t tell you any more. But we really want the hardcore Kaufman fans to show up, because it is going to be a historical night, around one basic theme: Andy did say that if he was going to fake his death, he would return 20 years later, to the day. That’s the day.”
“You know, in your book, it says 10 years.”
“Yeah, I know. When I wrote the book, that’s what I thought he’d decided. But after Lynne read it, she called and said, ‘You got that wrong.’ I said, ‘Whaddya mean?’ She said, ‘Don’t you remember? Andy was always debating whether it should be 10 or 20 years,’ and that he decided, as he put it, to ‘separate the men from the boys.’ If he was going to be a boy about it, it’d be 10 years. If he was going to be a man, it’d be 20 years. And then, of course, it turns out he also discussed it with Jack Burns and John Moffitt.
“Did I mention? We’re taking out hundreds of personal ads in newspapers across the country and abroad, reminding Andy of the date, and what he said. So hopefully he’ll see one of them.”
“Have you considered someone trying to fake it?”
“Yes. I’m sure there’ll be some nuts showing up that night, claiming to be Andy Kaufman. And who knows how Andy’d look, 20 years later? But we will have there, that night, a foolproof way to determine if in fact they are.”
“And that foolproof way is . . . ?”
“I can’t tell you.”
Ann Coulter is a sociopath. And what she does is drag our culture down to a more aggressive, meaner, anti-intellectual kind of Redneck Nation. My contention is that she is a performance artist. I contend that she is, indeed, Andy Kaufman.
—Janeane Garofalo, Air America Radio, March 31, 2004
“Tony Clifton’s more real now than he ever was,” says Lynne. “He just will not die. He seems to get realer and realer as time goes on. One great experience I had in the Tony realm was when Tony busted into a press conference for Man on the Moon, at the Four Seasons Hotel. Afterwards, Universal was really upset. Really, really upset. So later, one of the head guys at Universal had Bob up in a hotel room, grilling him. They knew that Bob was Tony’s representative. ‘Can you please talk to Tony for us, Bob?’ ‘Well, I’ll try. I can’t promise anything.’ It was great. The whole conversation with Bob, the guy was really serious, saying, like, ‘Bob, you know Tony better than anyone. Could you tell Tony for us just how upset we are? What does Tony want? Does he want money?’ And Bob was just, ‘Well, Tony’s his own man, man. You can’t tell him to do anything.’ It was so surreal.”
“These Universal guys,” I say. “Were they, you know, wearing suits?”
As is so often the case with semifictional celebrities with part-time bodies, it was difficult to get an interview with Tony Clifton. First, he agreed to sit down and talk for an hour. Then he decided he wanted $5,000. Zmuda talked him down to $1,000, but I don’t have that kind of money, and I wouldn’t play like that if I did. So one night, around 4 a.m., Clifton finally and suddenly agreed to be interviewed by phone, on the condition that the interview be conducted immediately
and reproduced in full.
So the complete interview follows. I apologize not only that my questions weren’t very interesting (I wasn’t given time to find my notes) but that, under better circumstances, much of it would have been deleted before publication:
What have you been up to for the last 20 years?
TONY CLIFTON: Performing internationally. Basically, Third World countries that don’t know any better. I advertise them as evangelical healings. It fills the place. I’m talking about 18,000-seat soccer stadiums. By the time they realize no one’s getting cured, I’m across the border doing it all over again. Don’t get me wrong. I put on one hell of a show. Those people walk out feeling much better than they did walking in. So they still got a clubfoot. At least now it’s keeping time. Then, of course, three or four years ago I starred in Man on the Moon. My co-star being that comedy guy, Drew Carey. You know, the Pet Detective guy. I launched a campaign to change the name of the film from Man on the Moon to Tony on the Moon. I made my case at one of Universal’s bigtime press junkets and created havoc. Drew Carey ran for his life, and I was escorted off the premises, which is why I’m now banned from the Four Seasons Hotel. I’m also not allowed in the Beverly Hills Hotel, because I poured a glass of water over Talia Shire’s head when she wouldn’t re-create the end of Rocky with me. What a loser! Here she was, sitting in a room filled with high-powered movie producers, and I ask her to show some of her acting skills! Maybe she would have been spotted and gotten a job out of it, not have to keep depending on her brother for work.
I was told you were beaten often as a child.
Contrary to what many people think, David, I wasn’t beaten that much. Two or three times a day at most. I don’t blame my folks, because I was a bed-crapper. Like a bed-wetter, but worse. So they burned me now and then with a cigarette, but I hold no grudge. I’m a big believer in “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Or, in my case, “Spare the Lucky Strikes.”
What do you have planned for the May 16 concert?
This will be my first musical appearance in L.A. in 10 years. This time I have a full orchestra, the Cliftones, and my backup singers and dancers, the Cliftonettes. Wait till you see those Cliftonettes! They make Hefner’s Playmates look like old hags! This booty is fresh! Fresh and talented!
Your friend Bob Zmuda was telling me about your ability to hit a 10 on the “octave meter.” What exactly is an octave meter?
That’s exactly right. The octave meter is a highly sophisticated, scientific piece of equipment. Without getting too technical for you, David . . . is it David, or Dave?
Dave. Dave, slave, grave, knave. Without getting too technical for you, Daaave, let me put it this way: Mariah Carey has an eight-octave range, which is considered phenomenal. I have a nine. And, when I’m feeling up to it, I hit an occasional 10. And the octave meter is what we use to warn the audience. Believe me, you don’t want to be sipping your Jack Daniel’s when I’m hitting the 10th octave — there’s a good chance the glass will shatter. We warn people to remove any eyewear.
What if Andy Kaufman is actually alive, and he shows up for the show?
I’d throw his ass right out of there, dead or alive. That wannabe has always been riding my coattails to make a name for himself. This is the Tony Clifton Show, not the Andy Kaufman Show. If people want to see Andy, I suggest they buy themselves a flashlight and a shovel. [An alarm sounds.] That’s it. That’s five minutes. That’s the end of the interview.
I think Andy Kaufman was his happiest when he was wrestling and there were 10,000 wrestling fans screaming and yelling for his head.
“People were saying, No, Andy really is dead,” says Moffitt, the Fridays producer. “And I came around to kind of believing, Gee, maybe he actually is. A lot of people didn’t believe it, because they knew Andy’s pranks.
“Is he or isn’t he? You never can tell. You just can’t completely dismiss it. There’s nobody like Andy. Nobody has done things like him. Nobody has gone out that far. Nobody has tested the audience and the limits of laughs, of comedy, as Andy has. So if anybody would do it, it would be Andy.
“It’s not that I believe he’s still alive — but every once in a while I think maybe he is going to pop up. And if he does, it may be the greatest prank of all time, but what’s he done with 20 years of his life? He had to have another life somewhere.”
Answering Machine, the next morning, 2004: “Hi, it’s Lynne Margulies. Hey! It was Aruba! I just woke up this morning and thought of it. Aruba. That’s where Andy used to talk about going. Just jokingly, I think. I don’t know where Aruba is, and I don’t think he did either. But it sounds good. AH-ROO-BAH! And also I was thinking, if you’re, you know, searching for the meaning of all this, for why this is all continuing, why Bob continues with it, and why I, too, willingly, continue along with it — it’s just because it’s fucking fun. You know? That’s all. That’s all Bob and I really care about in life, and that’s all Andy cared about in life, was because it’s fun. Everything else was secondary. We keep trying, we keep trying . . . AH-ROOOO-BAH!”