Figures from the artistic provocateur’s past join modern comics to celebrate his work
By Michael Shashoua / Jester editor-in-chief
Andy Kaufman aficionados got a taste of the comedian/performance artist’s past and relevance to the present in a comprehensive afternoon program at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) PS1 Astoria, Queens location on February 17.
“The Andy Kaufman Effect: Comedy in the Expanded Field” featured three segments: an audience with Lynne Margulies, a girlfriend of Kaufman’s for the last two years of his life, a panel discussion featuring Kaufman-inspired comedians T.J. Miller, Brent Weinbach and Tim Heidecker, and lastly, a new concert film featuring the Kaufman-created character Tony Clifton in a Comedy Store stage show in L.A. from a year or so ago – introduced in person by Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s writer, buddy and sometime portrayer of Clifton.
Margulies provided a fun remembrance of her times with Kaufman, mostly focused on Kaufman’s stunts of wrestling women.
Of the three performers on the panel moderated by art and comedy writer Miriam Katz, Heidecker, best known for the cult cable show “Tim and Eric Awesome Show,” came the closest in the moment of capturing Kaufman’s boldness in challenging and even antagonizing audiences. Heidecker made fun of the venue – a seasonal dome in the outdoor courtyard of PS1 – intoning at one point, on a riff, that the “structure is not sound,” and to “proceed to the exits immediately!”
T.J. Miller definitely followed suit as well, claiming that he took his role in “Yogi Bear 3D” only as a Kaufman-inspired stunt, so he would always have to be introduced with that credit, and also showing an absurd “audition tape” where he tries to read lines from the movie with a real bear. Miller and Heidecker also made great theater in the audience Q&A, when one questioner – a Williamsburg hipster-type -- seemed poised to pontificate with comments. Heidecker immediately interrupted the guy, asking if he really had a question. Miller strolled over to him and started fondling the guy’s head and back, flustering him.
And the moment you’ve all been waiting for…
That brings us to “Tony Clifton: The Movie,” a curious piece. The genius of Tony Clifton as a character was always dependent on its brevity – often being so offensive, so quickly, that he might get thrown out of a venue, or get in a fight, or antagonize an audience into walking out. Filmed in a club setting where the audience was committed to staying, Clifton (probably being played by Zmuda here) presented a mix of his off-key performances of standards and deliberately dirty and offensive jokes (example – “Why does aspirin work? Because it’s white.”). After awhile, the barrage started to wear a viewer down.
But Zmuda/Clifton picked it up again about two-thirds of the way through the movie with a brilliant performance piece that captured the spirit of Kaufman/Clifton. He runs through a seemingly normal rendition of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” but when he gets to the big finish, does an incessant repeating of the ending (probably at least 15 times), that progressively devolved into ordering his band to stop already, but then starting up again, and also arguing with his back-up dancers and hot chick sidekick “Keely.” (Keely’s backstory, described by Clifton earlier in the show, is that he picked her up as a runaway hitchhiker on a highway outside New Orleans, and seems to have become her pimp/mentor, as she keeps calling him “Daddy” in an icky way during the between-song banter).
So in this piece, we get the full measure of the Clifton character as provocateur and the ultimate in sleazy lounge lizard-ness. [Kaufman’s backstory of Clifton was that he found him on Fremont Street in Las Vegas in 1969, performing in a dive neighborhood casino, after having made a pilgrimage to (successfully) meet Elvis]. There are snippets of the Clifton character in the Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon” that capture him effectively in short form, as previously mentioned. Most viewers will not need more than a small dose to get and appreciate the joke.
“Tony Clifton: The Movie” may turn up at some film and comedy festivals or home video in the future, and is an interesting curiosity piece for Kaufman/Clifton fans. It’s unlikely to have broad appeal because of the caustic nature of the character, explored for nearly two hours, but its creators probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
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© 2005-2017 Michael Shashoua