On the Road with Tony Clifton
A Filmmaker's Life and Work with the Drunken, Racist, and Probably Fictitious Lounge Singer
Tony Clifton and the author's pet goat, Chauncey Gardner. All photos by Zack Smith
Scroll to the bottom of this piece to watch the exclusive premiere of Tony Clifton's music video for "Lonely Girl." It's safe for work... ish.
Before the flood, Jeremy Johnson and his wife were always in the process of starting or ending some new independent business venture. Nothing ever stuck. Before Hurricane Katrina filled their New Orleans home with poisonous water, they’d curated a personal museum of pop-culture knick-knacks that they eventually tried turning into a thrift shop. Looking back on it, the most important items in Jeremy’s collection included the official WWF Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler figurines, and a copy of Lynne Margulies's Kaufman documentary I'm From Hollywood, which told the story of the aggressively strange, groundbreaking comedian and performer’s venture into the wrestling ring. “Andy Kaufman hit me hard at a young age,” Johnson explains. “In sixth grade, this male friend of mine would get these girls in the neighborhood to come over, we would watch videotapes of Andy Kaufman wrestling women, and we would wrestle the girls in his parents’ living room while watching the videos.”
Katrina also flooded the school where Jeremy had been teaching moderately disabled high school kids, so in 2007, at the age of 27, Johnson began working at a coffee shop, while rebuilding his home. As an emotional booby prize, Johnson finally had the time to indulge his amateur filmmaking urges. “For a long time I’d been denying my creative side,” Johnson says. He slung coffee to a number of New Orleans layabouts, including an old gray-haired hippie type who began coming in every day to chat up Jeremy about pop culture, especially film. Not until the ponytailed fellow asked Jeremy to help him film a commercial for insult comic and “singer” Tony Clifton’s big comeback tour did Johnson recognize him as Andy Kaufman’s former writing partner, Bob Zmuda.
By the time he approached Johnson, Zmuda had been doing charity work for decades, pretty much ever since Kaufman's death in 1984. He founded the American version of Comic Relief in 1986 in Kaufman’s memory and put on a number of high-profile comedy shows to raise money for philanthropic causes, mainly benefitting the homeless. The organization has raised tens of millions of dollars and in the process helped break the careers of Dave Chappelle, Bill Hicks, Dane Cook, Sarah Silverman, and many others. In 2006, after an eight-year hiatus, Comic Relief reemerged to put on a show to benefit the victims of Katrina. When he hired Johnson as a videographer, Zmuda was working on a more ambitious project than a one-off gig: a tour featuring two dozen New Orleans musicians and dancers that would both raise money for performers still dealing with the effects of Katrina and restart the long-dormant career of Tony Clifton.
Clifton is a character, both figuratively and literally. Andy Kaufman claimed to have “discovered” the drunken, foul-mouthed nightclub performer in 1969, but in reality—if the word reality applies to any of Kaufman’s projects—he might have emerged from Kaufman’s head, like Foreign Man. In any case, since the 70s, the Clifton costume and persona has been passed around like a handle of warm whiskey in a green room. In his book Andy Kaufman Exposed! Zmuda copped to having first worn Tony’s signature thick prescription sunglasses, and starting in 1979 Kaufman impersonated Clifton as well—so often and with such hateful aplomb that audiences quickly came to consider the character Andy’s original creation and forgot that a “real” Clifton supposedly existed somewhere. In public, Zmuda and Kaufman played an elaborate, years-long Tony Clifton shell game that lasted until Kaufman’s death in 1984. In the 1999 Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey played Kaufman doing Clifton, and Paul Giametti imitated Zmuda imitating Clifton. Andy’s brother Michael Kaufman has also publicly donned the Clifton leisure suit, as has Criss Angel, though both Johnson and Clifton say Angel sucked at it.
“I work for the original Tony Clifton, though,” Johnson says, “the guy Kaufman discovered in a Vegas nightclub.”
Most people believe today’s Tony Clifton to “be” Zmuda, who’s now old enough that he no longer needs prosthetics to approximate Clifton’s jowls. Either way, Jeremy has always served two bosses: Zmuda—who Johnson by now considers “a dick”—and Clifton, whom he much prefers. Johnson has spent over five years as Clifton’s de facto assistant, on-call videographer, and sometimes writing partner. People close to the duo have suggested that Johnson is to Tony what Zmuda was to Kaufman. Which still doesn’t mean he can answer the most basic of questions: Who is Tony Clifton?
Jeremy Johnson and Tony Clifton pose in a photo booth.
Jeremy’s employment with Comic Relief began in earnest in 2008, when Clifton and his Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra spent several weeks' worth of long afternoons practicing more than 100 songs at One Eyed Jacks in New Orleans’s French Quarter. A lot of work needed to be done if the crew was to revive Clifton’s career—other than a one-off appearance in 2004 commemorating the 20th anniversary of Kaufman’s death, Clifton hadn’t performed live onstage since 1985. Suddenly here he was, rising from Katrina’s toxic floodwaters for a second act.
Johnson’s job was to film the shows and also run the videos that played during the performances, like the footage of ships battling on the high seas that accompanied Tony’s nasal rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The show did not debut in New Orleans but rather with a successful run in Georgia. Jonhson was then asked to stay in Chicago for the summer, to shoot another set of Clifton’s live shows, a gig that turned into a cross-country tour. The show’s cast included famed burlesque dancer Trixie Minx and members of her Fleur De Tease troupe, plus musicians on the level of backup singer Whitney Meyer, who recently impressed the judges on The Voice. Clifton’s trumpet player Ashlin Parker has backed Aretha Franklin, while saxophonist Adrian Crutchfield has played with Prince and Lionel Ritchie.
Like so many other well-meaning Katrina charity projects based in New York and LA, Clifton’s show helped in one way but also removed a lot of important talent from an already weakened New Orleans music scene. Still, Clifton maintains, “I did a good thing getting them out of this hellhole.”
Despite fronting a charity project benefiting New Orleans, Clifton claimed to hate the town. “While Bob Zmuda, president and founder of Comic Relief, cared a great deal about New Orleans after the flood,” says Johnson, “Tony Clifton didn’t give a fuck about it.” Tony supposedly only ended up on the tour as part of a plea bargain in a New Orleans rape case. Tony calls it a drunkard’s simple mistake: he came back to his hotel very late and wasted, accidentally entered the wrong room, and crawled in bed with a woman who got the wrong idea, freaked out, and pressed charges. “That broad was old as dirt,” he says in his defense. “I do not under any circumstance fuck anything over half my age.” He claims to have only led his band of Katrina survivors as part of his community service. “Fuck New Orleans. New Orleans put me in fuckin jail," Clifton grunts. "I think the best thing that happened to this place was that big fucking wave comin’ here and cleaning out a lot of the nigs.”
Another thing about Clifton: he has the tendency to be as racist as you’d expect a weathered old alcoholic lounge singer to be, both privately and especially publicly.
The Katrina Kiss My Ass tour came to a close with two killer shows in New Orleans. The first night’s collection of songs, skits, racist and pedophilic jokes, and puppet shows was so awe-inspiring, I returned the next night and caught a completely different, equally hair-raising show. A lot of comedy is falsely described as “dangerous,” but at those two shows it genuinely felt like something bad might happen. Clifton doesn’t use the word nigger to break down its associations and our prejudices, the way Louis C. K. does with hot-button words; he spits it out with abandon. Tony makes Quentin Tarantino seem tasteful. You wonder how he would ever find even one black musician to work for him, much less five of his 11 band members—especially since he claims he doesn’t warn anyone what they’re in for before he hires them. Johnson admits, however, that the show’s musical director went behind Clifton’s back to explain things. “Think of Tony Clifton as Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse,” Johnson says, quoting the official line. “Heʼs a bigoted Archie Bunker–type man, and he says what he wants. Part of his shtick onstage is to always push boundaries. No matter how hard it hurts, he’s just going to go for it all the time.”
Carved into Jeremy’s shoulder is a large Public Enemy tattoo, which makes one wonder how he feels about hearing the N word constantly from a white man. Chuck D likely wouldn’t see it as funny. “I have felt guilty in certain situations, where I just don’t want to be there while he’s saying that stuff,” Johnson admits. “But then I remember this is part of the game, the ride, the act. And also, what the fuck else am I gonna do?”
Zmuda claims to not like the racial component to Clifton’s act either. “I don’t agree with people saying the N word onstage,” he says. “But Tony’s able to get away with it because people perceive him to be a character. Use your own name and say it? You’re dead. It’s different when said by a character. But to do it at all, it has to be well thought out.”
It was Clifton’s offstage verbal abuse, however, that finally sunk the ship. “One night Tony didn’t like the ending of a song, or something,” Johnson recalls. “He was hammered as usual, and backstage, I’d never seen Tony Clifton more pissed. He was runnin’ around with his shirt off, stomping up and down, yelling, screaming in the hallways, ‘Just fire these fucking niggers!’ And the band was like, ‘Wait a minute. We were cool with what you were doing onstage, but you’re not on stage right now.’” At the next night’s performance in Denver, Colorado, an extra large dose of N words finally compelled four black members of the Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra to abandon Clifton midset. Trombone player Kyle Rothchild got behind the drum kit and moved the awkward show forward. “Some of the burlesque dancers came out on stage crying,” remembers Jeremy. “They still felt they needed to do the numbers to get the paycheck.
“I came to tears, too,” he admits. “I mean, this really wasn’t what I signed on for. It was too much, every day for a month, with no relief, stuck out on the road with Tony Clifton.”
When asked why he abruptly quit on Clifton, respected New Orleans sax player Khris Royal answers simply, “Somewhere there has to be a line.” While he doesn’t regret walking off stage that night, Royal does feel conflicted. “Tony just wanted to see where our line was, so in some ways I was a sucker,” he says. “I did maintain my line, but he got the reaction he was after.”
Clifton claims that “the Denver Massacre,” as he calls it, made him realize he needed to henceforth really befriend all of his employees. “I am now very close to my band members,” he says. “I’ve learned that I need to be talking with my people and communicating with them directly. People who work with me now know who I am, and know where I’m comin’ from... Some of the people who decided not to leave the band that night, by the way, were also black. But they saw the bigger picture. So, it’s not like all the blacks left the band at once. Just the niggers left.”
Tony Clifton's house.
After that precarious first tour, the remaining employees were rewarded with an invitation to Clifton’s killer digs on Lake Tahoe just south of Reno, Nevada—a grand estate equipped with a recording studio, movie theater, dance studio, and hot tub. His backyard opens onto 10,000 acres of protected forest and mountains. When Johnson arrived there with the rest of the staff, he had been working for Clifton for seven months. “In Tahoe, Tony was the most relaxed I’d ever seen him,” recalls Jeremy. “He pegged us all with a lot of questions about what happened on the road, and a lot of truth came out. He also needed to know where his loyalties lay. He invited us out there so he could figure out who had to go, and who needed to stay.”
At that two-week retreat, Johnson and Clifton grew close, as the story of Comic Relief’s new Sony Z7U camera illustrates. “I was at first using old hand-me-down gear from the 90s,” says Jeremy. “But I wanted to stay on the Clifton project so badly I went into $7,000 worth of debt for a serious camera. Then, after a while, I told Comic Relief we really needed a second camera. I got shut down by Zmuda. But when the cast was out in Tahoe and we finally got to hang with Tony as a real person, I brought it up again. After a few drinks, he asked me, ‘Will the HD make me look good?’ I said, ‘The HD is gonna make you look fabulous.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll talk to 'em.’
“So the next morning I got a phone call from Zmuda. He said, ‘I’m kind of angry about something. We hired Tony to do this thing mainly because we don’t have to pay him, and it’s not costing us much money. But I got a phone call from Tony this morning, telling me that he thinks the HD is going to make him look good, and that we really need to get this second camera. You’re not in trouble this time, but any time you’re fucking hanging out with Tony Clifton don’t you ever talk to him about money or ask him for any kind of fucking equipment. He will always want it, and we’ll have to pay for it. And we really don’t have any money, Jeremy.’”
Johnson got down on a more personal level with Tony after the cast all left the estate and Jeremy stayed behind. Soon, a snowfall made Tony’s driveway impossible to traverse—and Johnson didn’t have the money to return to New Orleans even if the ice melted. He was trapped, forced into living alone with Tony Clifton in Tahoe for a winter that turned into an entire year.
During that time, Johnson never saw Zmuda—meaning he either never broke character, or else Clifton's not his character. Jeremy and Tony filmed continuously and made six music videos. “There’s so much beautiful green space there around Tahoe,” says Johnson. “We shot tons of stuff up in Reno, Carson City, in the woods, up on a mountain.” It wasn’t all beauty though. “Tony Clifton was all up in my shit the whole time,” Johnson recalls. “Once he had me there, he had me. I was on the clock the entire day, and the day would stretch into weeks and then months. I just couldn’t get any fresh air. We started to not have such a great relationship after a while because I was trapped in his magic castle. Any time of the day he could bombard me. I mean, I like talking about ideas, but it was just nonstop.”
Meanwhile, back home in New Orleans, Johnson’s marriage began to crumble and he was losing his house to bankruptcy, situations aggravated by his absence. “I was having a total breakdown,” Johnson says. “The only thing I had that I could almost call stable was the Tony Clifton gig. It sounds fucked up because you should also have a commitment to marriage but… it’s not every day that an historic comedy icon gives you a job. Sometimes something will cross your path and you have to have the gumption to take it."
Predictably, Clifton wasn’t exactly Ann Landers when it came to marriage advice. “When I first mentioned divorce to Tony, he immediately said, ‘I think that sounds like a good idea,’” Johnson remembers. “He has a strict policy: no relationships with women except hookers. So there were a lot of times in Tahoe that I just wanted to say to him, ‘This is not the life I pictured for myself at 32 years old, you know? Getting divorced and having no friends and being trapped in the snow sleeping on your couch… Can’t you just act like a human being?’”
Clifton and companions.
By Thanksgiving of 2009, Johnson was officially separated—and thus free to be taken by Clifton for the first time to Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Mound House, Nevada, the whorehouse most famous as the set of HBO’s Cathouse. Though Clifton admits to being a “big supporter” of legalized prostitution, and to visiting Thailand multiple times a year, he denies he bought his Tahoe property 22 years ago to be close to the Bunny Ranch. “He claims he lives there because he likes the fresh air,” Johnson chuckles. “But yeah, absolutely, he’s a 45-minute drive from the biggest legal brothel in America, with the best girls.”
Clifton tells anyone else who’ll listen how he's the “official tester” at the Bunny Ranch. He calls Bunny Ranch owner Dennis Hof “the PT Barnum of booty” and claims, “Nobody gets laid more than Tony Clifton... As soon as Hof gets a new girl, I go down there and test to make sure they can do all the nasty things that clients want. I’ve fucked, on average, two or three girls under 25 years of age every week for the last 12 years. And they get nervous that I’m not gonna give them a good report! So they’re like, ‘Do you want me to suck your cock again? Do you want me to swallow your cum? Do you want anal?’ I am the luckiest guy on the Earth.”
Zmuda has never joined the crew at the Ranch, so Johnson has gone either with Clifton or alone on all of his roughly 40 visits so far. Clearly, Tony has rubbed off on him. “Not that I have participated every time,” Jeremy says. “But I was completely alone in Tahoe with the snow, and I was going through divorce, and I didn’t have any friends. So just going to the Bunny Ranch and hanging out at the bar and shooting the shit with the girls, those were some of the most fun times I’ve ever had. You don’t have to be fucking ‘em.”
Johnson remains most impressed by the Thanksgiving feast he shared that first night with the girls. “There is always food at the whorehouse,” he says. “The Bunny Ranch has this immaculate kitchen. Hof hires special chefs. Great people come from all over the place to cook and eat in there.” Once, around an opulent Thanksgiving spread, Clifton gathered Johnson, Hof, and all the girls to make a poignant toast. “Today is not a day for thinking,” he said. “I don’t want to intellectualize, or think too much today. The only serious decision I want to make today, is: Will I have white meat? Or dark meat?”
It wasn’t until Christmas 2009 that Johnson finally came back to New Orleans for a visit. His marriage was officially over, but he had a partner in Tony Clifton.
Following the stint in Tahoe, Johnson moved to LA and says that only recently, finally, have his prospects improved. This year Clifton and Johnson premiered their Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra concert documentary Tony Clifton: the Movie to a sold-out crowd at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; afterward, Tony and crew traveled to Austin’s South by Southwest festival to again screen their documentary, hang with the Flaming Lips, and accept High Times magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “For a couple years after those Katrina tours, there was a lull,” admits Johnson. “And I wondered if the project was going anywhere. But MOMA reinstituted my faith, and [New Orleans-based event-planning company] Huka Entertainment has hooked Tony into events with all kinds of musicians and comedians. He’s working with R.E.M. and Smashing Pumpkins. I think Tony is about to blow up, finally. And maybe I can one day buy a house again.”
Johnson hadn’t been back to New Orleans—which he still considers home—until earlier this year, when he made the trip with Clifton for Buku Fest, where Huka had booked Tony to judge an air sex competition.
It’s a more corporate vibe than Andy Kaufman traveling the country, challenging women to wrestling matches to be sure—Huka is owned by SFX Entertainment, which is in turned owned by giant Clear Channel. But Clifton is clearly excited for new opportunities to do his act for a younger crowd who know nothing of the dead comedian who popularized him. “I have energy and I have a big fucking heart,” he brags. “And the trick is to keep yourself associated with young people. Going back to Dennis Hof: I don’t fuck any girl over half my age, and I promise you.” He pokes my chest for emphasis: “Fucking, young, girls, will, keep, you, young. Their pussy juice is the nectar of the gods. It’s my secret to life.”
Clifton and Johnson at work on the set of one of the singer's videos.
Like the Republican party, Clifton may have to remake certain aspects of himself to appeal to this younger demographic. These days, Tony rarely unpacks the mean version of his act for strangers. “He’s trying to adapt to people he wants to work with,” Johnson says. “After 30 or 40 years, he’s learning to respect people.” And that includes respecting Jeremy. “One thing that changed after our miserable year in Tahoe,” Johnson says, “is it made us much more honest with each other, and helped us keep less secrets—secrecy being a huge part of this project. Up till then I’d been a good little soldier, but after that I just said what I thought, regardless of the consequences.” This mostly meant Johnson limiting his work hours, and not answering his phone for every one of Clifton’s drunken 3 AM epiphanies about women or performing.
When I accompanied him and Johnson to the Buku Fest, Clifton didn't insult even one young person, all of whom were clearly rolling their faces off—he was feeling the contact high and seemed enamored of the incredible bass and ear-splitting squiggles that the kids these days call music. He smiled and waved at the oblivious young’uns who shouted, “Nice costume, man!” In New Orleans he’s just another costumed kook.
“I don’t think Tony’s ever been able to come to life the way he has in the last five years,” Johnson shouted over the blaring dubstep. “Ever since he finished his community service, he’s felt rejuvenated to actually want this career again. And now that he finally has Andy Kaufman off his back, this is the first chance Tony’s had to just be himself, to be who he wants to be.”
A scantily clad Lolita led Clifton into some heavy, molly-induced flirting, and we all danced a bit as Kid Cudi performed “Man on the Moon,” which is named after the movie named after the R.E.M. song about Kaufman. An extremely high young man cut between us, aimed his swirling eyes down at Tony and asked, “Andy? Are you in there?”
As we headed towards the scheduled air sex contest, I noticed Johnson didn't walk beside Clifton, so I took the chance to ask Jeremy, finally, if he and Clifton are friends. “We definitely are on a certain level,” he replied. “But I’ve separated myself somewhat because I realized it wasn’t a good thing to be friends with my boss. Because one day everything’s good, then the next day he’s screaming at me. And then I’m like, ‘Wait, aren’t you my friend?’”
Here's the premiere of Tony Clifton's new video:
The Katrina relief funding that had paid Johnson's salary has now run out. He is now moving home to New Orleans, where he will continue to do Comic Relief’s bidding on a more limited basis.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.
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