Tony Clifton is a fictitious character created and often played by 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.
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).
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 West. 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 Theatre in Athens, GA and will benefit Gulf Coast musicians, dancers, and singers affected by Hurricane Katrina. Clifton fronted the Katrina Orchestra along with the Cliftonettes. Later dates included August 15 at Chicago's Chopin Theatre.
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