Tony Clifton may well be the rudest, crudest, most musically talentless lounge lizard ever to stalk a stage. But for those of a certain age and/or sensibility, he is an entertainer nonpareil.
As part of a national tour, his performing prowess will be showcased starting Thursday at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. Accompanied by the Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra, the bellicose balladeer will croon from a vast repertoire of Sinatra, Lynyrd Skynyrd and even Led Zeppelin to raise funds for Gulf Coast artists who were hit by the hurricane.
"This is an amazing, amazing showman," says Clifton's longtime pal Dennis Hof, who owns the Moonlite BunnyRanch brothel in Carson City, Nev., where Clifton is said to be a frequent guest and winter boarder. "And he's the last of his kind."
Hof met Clifton a few decades back, when the late hooker-loving comedian Andy Kaufman would swing by the cathouse (which then bore a different name) with his Chicago-born friend Bob Zmuda, who now runs the charity Comic Relief.
In those "crazy" times, Hof says, Andy wasn't always himself.
"I remember one time, Andy partied with 18 girls in two days," he remembers. "And sometimes it was Tony."
Then as now, the man beneath Clifton's garish garb and facial prosthetics never revealed his true identity, even when the toupee-topped lout got famously and forcibly booted from the set of "Taxi," Kaufman's hit sitcom. Aside from their predilection for prostitutes, Clifton and his original portrayer had distinct personalities, disparate world views and seemingly separate lives.
"Andy was very straight. Andy didn't drink. Andy was very gentlemanly," Hof says. "And Tony is very rough and nasty and talks dirty and smokes and drinks and is real stupid."
Devolved though he has into a parody of his former self, Clifton remains as odious as ever -- if suspiciously shorter. Less vertically endowed than his partner in put-ons, Zmuda began playing Clifton as part of Kaufman's act. When Kaufman died of cancer in 1984, Zmuda inherited the poorly tailored mantle for keeps and occasionally trotted Tony out in public.
Until the current tour, those outings were rare. During a recent interview at Chicago's famed Pump Room, Clifton revealed why he hasn't been seen in the States for a while.
"I am an international singing sensation," he proclaimed with comical hubris between swigs of icy Jack Daniel's. "This is true. This is true."
The swaggering superstar spoke in a gruff, nasally tone that approximated barking, was flanked by two babelicious dancers from his show and wore the ever eyesore-ish Clifton uniform: hideous peach-colored tux jacket, expansive dark sunglasses, cheesy rug, cheesier mustache and light blue ruffled tux shirt with bejeweled cuff links that he flashed proudly.
"I have sold more albums than the Beatles and Elvis combined," Clifton continued, amping up the bogus braggadocio. "That is a fact. I just came back from Peru. I was selling out soccer stadiums in Peru. And then I had to leave 'cause I had a little problem one night."
The problem, as Clifton described it, involved a "Mickey Finn," a drunken stupor, a terrified old lady and deportation by local authorities.
Hence his triumphant return stateside -- just in time to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Kaufman's death with a booze-soaked, adult-themed, multicity romp. A BYOB affair at the Chopin, it will feature top-notch New Orleans musicians and Big Easy-plucked beauties.
At the Pump Room, Clifton frequently pawed his dolled-up arm candy (Rocky and Keely), moaned pleasurably in their presence and made unprintable remarks about their private parts while holding forth in a semisecluded antechamber near the bar. Eminently game, the lasses just smiled and giggled and reveled in his playfully perverse attentions.
The restaurant was nearly empty, but a woman dining within earshot glanced over when Clifton's lewdness grew louder.
"Look at these legs!" he ordered, referring to Keely, a lithe and lively blond. "Lift that up! Show him that leg! That's my thoroughbred. F---in' amazing. Show him. Let him touch it. Show him how tight it is."
The hourlong monologue that followed covered an array of unrelated topics ranging from Irv Kupcinet's old TV show and Frank Sinatra's funeral to Hollywood big shot Danny DeVito, who produced the 1999 Kaufman biopic "Man on the Moon."
"DeVito. Now that's a little f---in' midget," Clifton snapped. He went on for several more seconds, then stopped midspew to scold Rocky for interrupting him with her thoughtless yapping.
"I'm telling a f---in' story about f---in' Danny DeVito is a f---in' midget in eight states," he said, exasperated. "Do people know that?"
Clifton also denied being Zmuda ("I ain't f---in' Za-pooda!") or, especially, Kaufman, who some zealots believe faked his death in the ultimate act of practical jokemanship.
"You know what I tell people when they yell out 'Kaufman?' " Clifton said. "You know what I say? 'If you came to see Andy Kaufman, get yourself a flashlight and a shovel -- heh-heh-heh -- 'cause that motherf----- is dead! He's a bunch of bones sittin' in some graveyard."
As for this particular blustering, blistering sliver of Kaufman's impish artistic spirit, it's still very much alive -- kind of like Frankenstein's monster, only less genteel.
"Do you know I got a mongoloid son? Yeah, I got a mongoloid monstrosity named Toby.
"This is true."