Is America ready for a fully realized Tony Clifton performance? I’m not sure. Because what I witnessed earlier this week in New York City completely blew my mind away. Three and a half hours. Twenty-two songs! Really.
Let me tell you upfront that this is not the Tony Clifton you remember. For historical purposes, consider the record: That legendary comedian Andy Kaufman "discovered" Clifton and forced TV executives to give him an appearance on Taxi, that Kaufman and Bob Zmuda turned Clifton into a performance artist as much as a comedian or a parody of a lounge singer, who delighted in horrifying audiences. This summer and fall, Tony Clifton is on tour with the "Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra," and the performer who showed up Wednesday night at B.B. King Blues Bar in New York City’s Times Square was a wholly different production in many respects. Not that you’d know that by the way the show began. Awkwardly. A younger, in shape Clifton roamed the back of the room. A video highlight package got interrupted first by a shouty audience member, then by an annoucement that "Mr. Clifton" was not yet ready to perform. A guy at the back bar led chants of "Tony" and "Zmuda." But within a few minutes, the show could truly begin. And what a show it was.
Clifton provided some banter upfront that proved he could be topical — "What did Obama say? That lady has pig lips?" — as well as old-fashioned, and I mean old-fashioned, offensive material, with one-liners about blacks, gays, Polish jokes, sex advice, pedophiles. If the original Clifton was all about shocking the audience, this new Clifton was shocking in how professional he was, even if it’s a very "alternative" view of professionalism. What was a joke about lounge singers has become instead an actual, very real, big-time lounge act. Remember, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you couldn’t imagine anyone doing what Neil Hamburger does now in the name of "anti-comedy," or Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional alter-egos running rampant on TV and film. What Clifton did changed America’s comedy conversation. And now, a full generation later, the act has turned meta unto itself. You get a full show now. Some performances on the tour, which began earlier this summer, have lasted upward of five hours. It’s a concert — yes, Clifton drinks a lot and his between-song banter more than nods back to Kaufman and tries to provoke outrage — but between the burlesque and the full big-band sound of the New Orleans-based crew of musicians, you’re really getting an actual jazzy, old-school concert. As Clifton himself said from the stage at one point Wednesday: "Hot babes, great band, Tony Clifton onstage, what more could you f&*$ing want?" Some fans lingered around the stage afterward hoping for a glimpse of Clifton, or whomever was inhabiting his character for the night and could pull off a performance like this. I like to imagine that it’s still Kaufman, because even now, almost a quarter-century after his death, it’d seem like quite a way to get the last laugh. You may ask yourself: Why? Why would Clifton put on a concert like this? Perhaps his opening lyric after the short intermission offers an answer: "I guess you wonder where I’ve been…I came back to let you know I’ve got a thing for you and I can’t let go." Clifton and the Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra take Albany on Friday night, then Boston on Sunday, with shows later this month in Denver. Consult his schedule for details.
Here is an old TV news reel about Clifton, for those of you who need reminding: