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Tony Clifton is a fictitious character created and often played by avant-garde stand up comedian Andy Kaufman in the late 1970s. Characteristic of the many elaborate hoaxes and practical jokes Kaufman concocted, Clifton was not exclusively played by Kaufman—others stepped into the role on occasion—enabling Kaufman and his accomplices to create an air of confusion as to whether Clifton was a real person or not.

Origin

Kaufman saw Clifton as the antithesis of the sweet, gentle "Foreign Man" character he was best known for (which was later adapted into Latka Gravas, Kaufman's character on Taxi).

Performance

Clifton was a staggeringly untalented lounge singer with a nasal, deliberately annoying singing voice. Clifton epitomized the washed-up showbiz casualty, a "star" too lazy to even bother to remember the lyrics to his songs. Clifton would often attempt to improvise comical lyrics that were intentionally unfunny before giving up entirely without seeming to care. Clifton also tended to randomly insult patrons, passing off the abuse as the "comedy" portion of his act. Adding to Clifton's annoying and unappealing presence was his tendency to rhyme various words at random in the middle of conversations. Many people misunderstood Kaufman's intent, focusing on the character's foul language and prima donna antics while failing to appreciate the fact that Clifton was meant to be the comic antithesis of the typical lounge singer, a bland, genial entertainer designed to add a touch of class to a hotel and make guests feel welcome.

For a brief time, it was unclear to some that Clifton was not a real person. News programs interviewed Clifton as Kaufman's opening act, but the interviews invariably would turn ugly whenever Kaufman's name came up. Clifton claimed Kaufman was using his name "to go places." Actually, in many cases, Andy Kaufman played Clifton. Promoters who thought they had caught on to the joke would hire Clifton because he was cheaper than booking Kaufman. However, Kaufman had the last laugh, enlisting his brother Michael or his showbiz partner Bob Zmuda to play the role, with Kaufman making unannounced appearances onstage during Clifton's act.

Rodney Dangerfield was a big fan of Andy Kaufman's, and hired Clifton to open for him for two shows at Bill Graham's famed Fillmore Westmarker. After a disastrous first show, where Clifton took the stage with Tony Bennett's famous "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and was summarily booed, he reappeared on the second night in riot gear amid a shower of rotten vegetables and other detritus.

Tony Clifton still makes occasional appearances, most notably in the days leading up to May 16, 2004, the twentieth anniversary of Kaufman's death. It was announced on May 16, 2008 that Comic Relief, in recognition of the 24th anniversary of Andy Kaufman's departure, would present "The Return of Tony Clifton", with his Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra. The national tour kicked off June 27, 2008 at the Georgia Theatremarker in Athens, GAmarker and will benefit Gulf Coast musicians, dancers, and singers affected by Hurricane Katrina. Clifton will front the Katrina Orchestra, made up of ten cutting edge Gulf Coast musicians, along with the Cliftonettes (three sexy, talented backup singers/dancers). Later dates included August 15 at Chicago's Chopin Theatre.

Television

Taxi

Clifton was hired to appear on an early episode of ABC's Taxi. However, Clifton appeared for rehearsals late, drunk, and with two prostitutes in tow. Clifton disrupted the rehearsal with his antics, leading Judd Hirsch to call his agent and Jeff Conaway to storm out in anger. The decision was made to fire Clifton, but Kaufman insisted it be done publicly, with security guards removing him from the soundstage by force. This incident is depicted in the biographical film Man on the Moon.

Other appearances

Clifton (possibly played by Zmuda) appeared once on Late Night with David Letterman, where he was interviewed and sang a medley with the band. In 1982, Clifton also appeared on The Fabulous Miss Piggy Show as the host's "new discovery", although the other Muppets and host George Hamilton remained skeptical of Clifton's talent.

Perhaps most infamous is Clifton's appearance on Dinah Shore's daytime talk show Dinah & Friends. Clifton arrived for the taping drunk and then pressured Shore in front of the studio audience to sing a duet with him although he had been previously told that she had a sore throat. Although Shore attempted to avoid the duet on air, politely declining Clifton's request, he persisted, accusing Shore of being unprofessional. Then, during a cooking segment with Shore and Charles Nelson Reilly, Clifton dumped a pan of eggs over Shore's head. This happened live on the air and the show's producers quickly cut to a commercial as Clifton was escorted out of the studio. The tape of the incident was destroyed, although the moments leading up to it can be seen in the documentary Andy Kaufman's Really Big Show.

Recently, Clifton appeared on The Opie and Anthony Show to promote a performance at Santo's Party House in New York City.

Movie

Kaufman and Zmuda wrote a screenplay for a Tony Clifton biography. However, the project was sidelined after the box office failure of Kaufman's first major motion picture Heartbeeps, in which he co-starred with Bernadette Peters as a robot who falls in love.

Influence

Kaufman's Tony Clifton character has influenced other "anti-comedy" acts, notably stand-up comedian Neil Hamburger and Canadian singer/comedian Corey Mystyshyn. (Like Tony Clifton, these are both reportedly stage names.) An internet personality by the name of Walter P. Wiley has been reportedly based on Clifton as well, however he insists that he sees no similarities between himself and Clifton.[14914]

References

External links




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