Tony Clifton: Joke's On Us
Bob Zmuda on Andy Kaufman's legacy
Published October 28, 1999 in Dirt

When the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon hits theaters in December, there's going to be a new name on moviegoers' lips: Tony Clifton. Sure, the pre-release hype is focused on Jim Carrey, but it's the promise of "Tony Clifton as himself" that should be getting the buzz.

See also...
... by Evan O'Sullivan
... in the Dirt section
... from October 28, 1999

Back in the early '80s, at about the same time Andy Kaufman's star was rising on the sitcom Taxi, a crude and tacky lounge performer named Tony Clifton was also flirting with fame. He made guest spots on numerous shows, including Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, Late Night with David Letterman, and a Muppets special. He even had his own biopic, The Tony Clifton Story, in development with Universal Pictures.

What halted his meteoric rise? His lousy singing voice? His rancid body odor? Or was it the same boorish behavior that got him fired from his guest appearances on the first season of Taxi? How about the fact that Tony Clifton wasn't a real person: He was a character played by Andy Kaufman and his writing partner and longtime collaborator Bob Zmuda.

Now, 15 years after Kaufman's death, Bob Zmuda is pulling aside the curtain to let the rest of the world in on the practical joke the two played on Hollywood. Zmuda spoke recently to GettingIt about his new book, Andy Kaufman Revealed!, the film Man on the Moon, which he co-executive produced, and about Tony Clifton -- the only fictional character ever to have his own network TV contract.

GETTINGIT: In Andy Kaufman Revealed! you talk about the origins of your friendship with Andy Kaufman on the East Coast, before Andy's starmaking turn as Latka. The Tony Clifton character is there right from the start, along with his "foreign man" character, Elvis, and the children's songs. But when Andy finally brings you out to Hollywood to be his writer, things take a much more radical turn. What had changed?

BOB ZMUDA: That's really where I came to play an intricate part in Andy's career. It really got away from the kid material because now he was established. Now he could take it to the next level.

You see, Andy's Tony Clifton really came out of the fact that Andy was so pissed at Hollywood. The artist in him was pissed that he had sold out Latka -- because he was a real personality inside Andy's head. He made up this little character and discovered a real voice for him -- and then he made the guy work nine to five. He wasn't the foreign man anymore. He was Latka Gravas, the zany mechanic on the TV sitcom. And Andy just hated that.

So with Tony he really raged at Hollywood. When Tony went on Dinah Shore and when he was on Taxi -- any time there was a Tony appearance by Andy in town, they literally had to throw him off the fucking set, throw him out the front gate of the studio.

Although, strangely enough, he did Tony once on the Miss Piggy Special, and we went to Montreal or wherever they shot it. But Tony was a sweetheart -- because it wasn't Hollywood. The Muppets loved Tony. So, it had something to do with Andy's hate for celebrity, and what he had become, and the whole show business big business package that he did not want to have to be a part of.

GI: You actually appeared on TV many times as Tony Clifton and even the hosts believed that you were Andy...

BZ: When Clifton was finally recorded on TV, and the audience realized that it was Andy, he hated that. He said, "If people think it's me I don't want to do it. You do it. And then people will think it's me, but I'll know it's not. Therefore it's cool for me to watch it." Suddenly, it was fun for him again.

GI: Was there a difference between your two Cliftons?

BZ: When I started doing Tony, I didn't have all this emotional baggage. I was like, "Wow! What a great opportunity to go on Letterman or Merv and play this character." So my Tony was more buffoonish and ridiculous. He's more like Polonius. He's an idiot, but he's not a mean idiot. Mine's more stupid and Andy's was mad!

GI: And now the Tony mantle has been passed again.

BZ: Yes, to Jim Carrey... Jim does my Clifton. Carrey had it down. He looked at both of them, y'know. But on tape there's probably more of me doing Clifton than Andy anyway. So Jim took a little more of the stupid Tony, as opposed to the totally evil Tony.

Andy Kaufman told me when he gave me the character of Tony, "You'd better watch out for Tony -- he's a strong character," and I gave the same words of warning to Jim. Meaning that when you start doing Tony, you don't want to stop, because it's license to kill. And that's why Jim had a little bit of a hard time, when the film ended, shaking Tony's persona.

GI: There has been a lot of talk about Jim Carrey's antics, as Tony, on the set of the film.

BZ: It's very interesting because Danny DeVito [who also stars in the film] had known Tony Clifton from Taxi, when he was totally obnoxious. So, everybody on the set was prepared to really hate Tony. But over 87 days of shooting, probably half of those days were Tony Clifton days, the cast and crew fell totally in love with Clifton, because he represented freedom to them. He was this guy that just said "Fuck you" to the system. And they all want to say "Fuck you" to the system in Hollywood. But they can't.

So when the heads of the studios would come down to visit the Man on the Moon set, Tony Clifton would "cheese" them. He would rub Limburger cheese all over his body and shake their hands and hug them! And the real crew guys, the gaffers and everybody else, they loved it! That someone was fucking with the studio heads like that...

GI: So, it looks like Hollywood is finally getting Andy Kaufman's joke. How is that different from the original response you got, back when the two of you were doing things like making up separate NBC contracts for Tony Clifton and Andy, and Andy's manager was booking Tony Clifton in Las Vegas?

BZ: First of all, there are rules to playing practical jokes on people. If people get pissed off about it, the rules say, you can always go, "Hey c'mon, where's your sense of humor?" Well, Hollywood takes themselves so seriously, and because of that, a lot of the people here didn't want to get it. They were like, "Hey Andy, don't treat us like the public, we are artists and performers like you, so let us in on the joke."

Well, Andy wouldn't let anyone in on the joke. He wouldn't let his own family in on the joke. The only people who ever knew what was really going on were me, Lynne Margulies (the love of his life), and George Shapiro, his manager. And that was it.

GI: Still, even now, when people talk about Andy Kaufman, there seems to be a very simplistic mentality, where all the questions are along the lines of "Was he crazy or wasn't he?"

BZ: I must tell you that he did realize that this was his mystique. This was his signature, just like Rodney Dangerfield does "I get no respect" -- with Andy it was the idea, "Is he out of his fuckin' mind or what?" And he knew that was his thing. That's what I wanted to show in the book: the method behind the madness.

I knew him as pretty much a sane guy. He had a great stability. And you got the sense, everybody that got to know Andy always got the sense, that he was very developed -- that he had something figured out that we didn't have figured out yet.

Evan O'Sullivan is a freelance writer and video producer. He is best known for his alter-ego, comedy performance artist Evan O'Television.