Tony Crowd

Andrew Hultkrans on Tony Clifton at Participant

New York

Left: Singer-songwriter Paul McMahon with Participant director Lia Gangitano. Right: Performers Trixie Minx and Tony Clifton. (All photos: Mark Tusk)

AS FAR AS POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GOES, the art world has come a long way since the 1980s. How else can one explain downtown gallery space Participant Inc.’s hiring of über-offensive Andy Kaufman/Bob Zmuda character Tony Clifton for a cocktail party/benefit feting their new programs director, Stephen Hepworth? This was like booking Andrew Dice Clay for a Planned Parenthood mixer or Paul Mooney for Farm Aid. Nevertheless, as I entered the gallery and noted the combo of offerings on display—the tail end of a My Barbarian show, previews of an exhibition inspired by the life and work of performance artist/generalized eccentric Stuart Sherman—the Clifton booking made more sense. The host committee, too, was telling, including alt-music stars Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Adam Horovitz (Beastie Boys), and Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill). (If she actually approves of Clifton, Ms. Hanna’s sense of humor has come a long way as well.)

Conceived by Kaufman and often performed by him in disguise, Tony Clifton was a pink-dinner-jacket-and-ruffled-tuxedo-shirt-wearing third-rate Vegas lounge singer and comedian who, through Kaufman’s fame from the popular comedy series Taxi, was able to appear on a surprising number of mainstream TV shows in the late ’70s and early ’80s, attempting duets with everyone from Dinah Shore to Miss Piggy. Loud, drunk, and obnoxious, Clifton was created as a counterweight to Kaufman’s meek, sweet Foreign Man character, which was adapted for his role of Latka on Taxi. He was also an elaborate, extended media prank; Kaufman’s collaborator and close friend Bob Zmuda played Clifton more often than Kaufman himself, and the pair seemed to revel in the confusion over Clifton’s identity.

Left: Participant board president Adam Ames, Lia Gangitano, curator Jonathan Berger, and artist Alexandro Segade. Right: Bibbe Hansen.

With Andy long dead (despite what some think), Sunday night’s Clifton was clearly Zmuda (or someone who looked and sounded exactly like an older Zmuda/Clifton). After a mutual group introduction/lovefest between My Barbarian member Alex Segade, curator Jonathan Berger, board president Adam Ames, Hepworth, and Participant proprietress Lia Gangitano, the lights dimmed for a video reel of everyone from Merv Griffin to George Hamilton to Robin Williams introducing or talking about Clifton in his heyday. Afterward, Clifton emerged onstage, apparently in the same clothes he wore for his infamous ’80s Letterman appearance. Bearing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and accompanied by a burlesque dancer named (naturally) Trixie, Clifton looked uglier than earlier iterations, with bright red gin blossoms decorating his distended, ravaged face. He flicked a lit cigarette into the tightly packed audience, took a swig of Jack, and got down to business.

Calling Participant’s East Houston space a “shithole” (he’s used to “playing the big rooms in Vegas”), Clifton complained about not being provided a limo or luxury hotel room. Then he began the comedy portion of his act—a series of mostly awful jokes targeted at every historically maligned demographic group in existence—starting with (who else?) Poles. In rapid succession, women, Jews, gays, African Americans, pedophiles, dead babies, et al. were pilloried on Clifton’s altar of bad taste. (I believe Asians, Indians, and bisexuals were spared, but I may not have been listening closely enough.) Sample joke: “Q: What does eighty-year-old pussy taste like? A: Depends.” (Want more? Thought not.) There was a lot of nervous laughter, some genuine laughter, and, eventually, scattered boos and hisses. A woman yelled, “It’s 2009!” “Oh, yeah?” Clifton retorted. “I’m not living in 2009.” (No question about that.) Later, he responded to boos by saying, “It’s all for charity. Fuck you.” (Which was actually sort of funny.)

Left: Artist Matthew Barney. Right: Artists Lois Weaver and Charles Atlas with Lori Seid, Squid, and Joe Westmoreland.

Segueing into the same Rat Pack medley he performed on Letterman years ago—including “I Gotta Be Me” and “Volare”—Clifton “sang” spiritedly while Trixie bumped and ground beside him. (She ended up on her knees under a gold sheet performing simulated fellatio on the singer.) More jokes followed: “Q: What do you get when you put a baby in a microwave?” Actually, I’ll spare you the answer. Then, Clifton became uncharacteristically gracious (thanking the Participant people) and sentimental (recalling Kaufman and warmly introducing Andy’s brother, who was in the audience). Clifton concluded by disputing rumors that Kaufman faked his own death, and, after sending brother Michael backstage so he didn’t have to watch, sought to prove it by playing a video, allegedly made by a German film crew, of someone driving to the Kaufman family plot in New Jersey and exhuming Andy’s corpse. If the film is authentic, there is a real, desiccated skeleton in Andy Kaufman’s coffin. But as with everything Andy, we’ll never know for sure.

Behind me, a middle-aged woman, who several times during Clifton’s set had asked her companion whether they could leave, sighed loudly and said, “I need a drink.” So did I.