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October 23, 2014

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Tony Clifton lives! At least, he does at midnight at the Wranglers game

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Tony Clifton.

Classic Clifton and Letterman

Kaufman as Elvis

A performer from a bygone era will be skating in the attacking zone late tonight at Orleans Arena.

Making an appearance at the first of the Las Vegas Wranglers’ two midnight games this season is the caustic and bedraggled lounge singer Tony Clifton. The character is rooted in Las Vegas, created by the late Andy Kaufman as an alter ego who appeared on talk shows and in comedy clubs across the country without anyone disclosing (or sometimes even realizing) his true identity.

Kaufman is said to have been inspired to create the Clifton persona in a 1969 trip to Vegas, for which he hitchhiked across the country from Boston in a one-man pilgrimage to meet Elvis at the International Hotel. According to Kaufman-Clifton lore, the young comic either happened upon a bellicose lounge performer at the International, or elsewhere on the Strip, or even downtown. Invoking surreal material into his act (and life), Kaufman decided to create the stage personality with the assistance of his friend and comedy writer Bob Zmuda.

The Clifton character is modeled after every awful Vegas-styled lounge cliche, wearing a yellow-jacket tuxedo with a ruffled, powder-blue shirt and singing in a nasally, horse, off-key voice. Clifton is notoriously abrasive and lacking in talent (which hasn’t stopped some non-satirical performers from making a living in Vegas, actually), consistently oblivious to his offensive and off-putting personality.

Zmuda often portrayed Clifton when Kaufman did not, further muddying the identity of who he was and even if he were authentic. Sometimes it was Zmuda playing the character, who would be joined onstage by Kaufman himself. Club operators who tried to skirt the higher appearance fee commanded by Kaufman tried to execute a back-door booking by hiring Clifton, thus getting Kaufman for a lower fee. They were not amused to learn that Zmuda (or, in some cases, Kaufman’s brother Michael), not Kaufman, was onstage as Clifton.

Typically, on national TV, it was Kaufman playing the role. David Letterman introduced Clifton years ago on “Late Night With David Letterman,” as Kaufman-as-Clifton took the stage with the ironic “I Gotta Be Me.” That was to plug an appearance at the Trop in Vegas.

Zmuda is expected to inhabit the Clifton character at Orleans Arena for the midnight encounter with the Bakersfield Condors. But this is an appearance cloaked in mystery. The car service picking up the entertainer at McCarran International Airport is assigned to Tony Clifton. His room reservation is under that name, and all of the documentation needed to book the engagement are in the name of Tony Clifton.

Today, Clifton makes only infrequent appearances, his fame ebbing with the memories of Kaufman, one of the more inventive and antagonistic stand-ups ever who died of lung cancer in 1984. Clifton once showed up at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles for an interview with an L.A. Times writer while carrying a glass of Jack Daniels with two shapely brunettes on each arm, “spewing racist jokes and lewd asides,” as the story notes. At a show at Harrah’s in Las Vegas in the early 1980s, Clifton stopped a show to make carrot juice at the top of a piano. The crowd started to file out, prompting Clifton to call out, “This is a personal insult!"

Decades ago, knowing that talk-show host Dinah Shore was suffering from a sore throat, he chided the entertainment legend for refusing to join him in a duet. Later, during a cooking segment with Charles Nelson Reilly, Clifton dumped a pan of raw eggs over the top of Shore’s head. This, on live TV.

The clip of that incident was quickly destroyed. Kaufman himself is long gone, theories that he faked his own death only to return many years later having gone unrealized. But as we’re reminded tonight: You can’t kill Tony Clifton.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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