Andy Kaufman and Bob Zmuda
January 1, 1980
Without a doubt, one of the most unique comic voices of the 20th century was Andy Kaufman. Hailing from a deceptively average upbringing in Long Island, NY, Kaufman amazed audiences with an act that deftly manipulated them into thinking one thing was happening on stage before revealing what they were watching was something else entirely. No mere standup comic, Kaufman played with his audience in such a way that could be described as interactive performance art. And of all of Kaufman’s bits and characters that could be described as “interactive” none were more so than lounge singer Tony Clifton.
Born out of the tales that Kaufman’s writing partner Bob Zmuda told him about a former employer, Tony Clifton was the distillation of every bad story that ever circulated about any 1960s lounge entertainer. An abrasive loudmouth armed with bad one-liners and an even worse singing voice, Clifton was the guy who clearly forgot to leave his ego in the wings but would bring it out on stage with him to hilariously disastrous results. Decked out in oversized sunglasses and a rumpled peach tuxedo, Clifton was frequently downright abusive to his audience, loudly berating them when they didn’t recognize and show appreciation for his obvious “talents.” He’s a character through which Kaufman savagely deconstructed celebrity in both how it can affect performers and how audiences react to its presence.
Once in the Clifton makeup, Kaufman’s commitment was absolute. The ordinarily tee totaling vegetarian Kaufman would down thick steaks and slug back whiskey while in character. Backstage at comedy clubs, “Clifton” would snap at the other comics if they made the mistake of addressing him as “Andy.” Kaufman and Zmuda even convinced the producers of Taxi, the sitcom where cast member Kaufman got to invade millions of Americans’ homes with a variation of his Foreign Man character in the form of mechanic Latka Gravas, to hire Clifton for a guest starring role on the show. Needless to say, Clifton’s obnoxious behavior to the cast and crew had him physically thrown off the studio lot before the episode could be filmed. Once people began to get wise about the “connection” between Clifton and Kaufman, Andy had Zmuda learn how to play the role so Andy and Tony could appear on stage together.
It was only natural, then, that when Kaufman, Zmuda and their manager George Shapiro turned their thoughts of expanding Andy’s career into film, a larger than life character like Tony Clifton only seemed like a natural to take to the silver screen. Shapiro would secure the duo a deal with Universal Pictures based on the strength of a story outline and pitch put together by Kaufman and National Lampoon alumni Ed Bluestone, who conceived their famous “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog” cover. However, Bluestone balked at Kaufman’s insistence that Zmuda, as Clifton’s co-creator be included as a writer, and left the project. Kaufman and Zmuda then put their heads together and came up with a screenplay that would become one of the greatest and smartest comedies to never be committed to celluloid.
The film opens with Tony Clifton residing in Philadelphia where earns a living screwing the tops onto salt and pepper shakers in a factory. Although he paints himself as quite the Lothario to his co-workers, they secretly know better, but humor him in any case. One night, after a disastrous outing to a discothèque with some friends, he stumbles into a seedy massage parlor. Armed with a new found sense of confidence fueled by a cheap cologne called “Purple Passion” given to him by a mens room attendant, Tony orders the “deluxe” three hour massage and finds himself entertaining several of the working girls by singing lounge tunes while soaking in a Jacuzzi. The girls, in no small way influenced by the twenty dollar bills Tony is throwing around, compliment his singing. Finally, a sweet natured prostitute named Anna takes Clifton upstairs to a private room for the rest of his “massage,” where we are not too surprised to learn that up to that moment he is a virgin. The next day, Tony quits his assembly line job with visions of becoming a crooning superstar.
The screenplay then takes us across the country to Los Angeles, where up and coming comic Andy Kaufman is working at the Improvisation comedy club while his friend and writing partner Bob Zmuda is working in the club’s kitchen. Following a killer set, Kaufman is approached by agent George Shapiro who tells Andy that he can get him an audition for a sitcom. A quick six months later, Andy is a national star thanks to his work on Taxi. He is just starting a cross-country concert tour and has been reunited with his first childhood love- Marilyn Comstack. Unfortunately for Andy, Marilyn quickly becomes bored with accompanying him on his comedy tour and walks out on him in Philadelphia. Zmuda tries to cheer Kaufman up by taking him out to a bar where they encounter Clifton. Intrigued by Tony’s clearly awful stage act, in which he sings along with a juke box playing Sinatra’s “Come Blow Your Horn” (shades of Kaufman’s bit where he lip synchs the Mighty Mouse cartoon theme), Kaufman decides to book Clifton as his opening acting for his tour closing engagement at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, Andy introduces Tony Clifton as “the next Eighth Wonder of the World” and “my own personal discovery.” As expected, he bombs disastrously, with the police being called to disperse a crowd that is dangerously close to turn into an angry mob. Of course, this delights Kaufman and Zmuda to no end. Sensing that he has a tiger by the tail, Kaufman begins aggressively promoting Clifton and soon Clifton-mania sweeps the country. Clifton even becomes the subject of a 60 Minutes report by Mike Wallace and even performs at the White House for the President and a delegation of Chinese diplomats, with predictable disastrous results.
Even though he has become a huge overnight success, Tony is finding the whole experience more than a bit hollow. Andy notices, and after a heartfelt talk with Clifton, he flies the Philadelphia prostitute Anna to Los Angeles to keep his star’s spirits up. However, as the two spend time together, they fall in love. While watching a late night airing of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Clifton decides that he would like to move his career in a different direction, starting with a dramatic remake of Hunchback. Kaufman, of course, sees the possibility of further humiliating Clifton by making the film an unintentional comedy. What Kaufman doesn’t count on is Clifton deciding to walk off the film- not the remake of Hunchback of Notre Dame, but The Tony Clifton Story itself!
Much like Kaufman’s multilayered standup bit where his Foreign Man character delivers a dead on Elvis Presley impersonation, the third act of the script relays on several reversals of the audience’s expectations. After Clifton walks out of the production of his own film, Kaufman takes the screen to tell the audience that Clifton had passed away during shooting and that he, Kaufman, would step into the role of Clifton in order to finish the picture. But Clifton hasn’t died and his return is just one of several surprising twists and turns that make up the last section of the film.
Interestingly, for the purposes of the script, Kaufman seemingly has flipped personalities with the Clifton character, making himself the self-absorbed show business star warped by his own celebrity and making Clifton the kind-hearted person, even if he lacks in some if not most of the social graces. Was Kaufman perhaps expressing a fear of what his own celebrity could do to him? On a deeper level, since the script’s ultimate point of view is that of Clifton’s, we may doubt – as we are forced to do to several other story elements in the script – the reliability of the depiction of Clifton as good natured buffoon and Kaufman as Svengali by way of Elvis’ Col. Tom Parker. Once again Kaufman and Zmuda have played with the audiences expectations and perceptions, leaving the reader (and the theater-goers for whom the film was intended for) laughing in surprise and questioning the reality of all that has transpired. After all the trouble that Kaufman and Zmuda put into presenting the Clifton character to the world as a complete strutting ass, would they dare suggest that Tony has a warm and fuzzy sentimental side? And would the public buy it? It feels almost audacious that they would even attempt such a move, but in the script, it works.
Zmuda reports in his book Andy Kaufman: Revealed that while Universal executives were very excited about the script, there was some concern over Kaufman himself, as he was an unknown film prospect. This, despite his voluminous television work appearing on Saturday Night Live, David Letterman and numerous other talk shows and the popularity of his character Latka, a reiteration of his Foreign Man character, on the sit-com Taxi. Kaufman’s only previous film appearance of note was in comic Marty Feldman’s colossal bomb In God We Tru$t (1980). Although Kaufman was only hired to act in the movie (he shared representation with Feldman) and had no creative role in the film, he still wound up tainted by its dismal reception. Cautious Universal executives arranged for Kaufman to star opposite Bernadette Peters in the science-fiction comedy Heartbeeps to test how well he could be counted on to carry a film. Zmuda, having read a copy of the script, pleaded with Kaufman not to make the film, realizing that if it bombed the way he felt it was going to, their chance to make The Tony Clifton Story would evaporate as well. In a rare moment, Kaufman ignored the advice of his friend and went ahead and accepted the role of a robot who falls in love with another robot (Peters). Unfortunately, the movie proved to be a box office disaster and in quick order Universal cancelled any plans to make The Tony Clifton Story and Kaufman and Zmuda were asked to leave the studio lot.
(Bill Zehme, in his book Lost In The Funhouse: The Life And Mind Of Andy Kaufman, reports that The Tony Clifton Story script would undergo several revisions before the film was cancelled, ultimately transmuting the evil Andy Kaufman manager character into an evil manager named Norman who would consign both Kaufman and Clifton to a mental asylum.)
In final analysis, it’s easy to conclude that, barring some horrible production disaster, Kaufman and Zmuda’s original script would have yielded a comic masterpiece. True, addressing the audience or “breaking the fourth wall” was not a new concept in movies- Buster Keaton did it in Sherlock Jr. (1924) as did the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson in 1941‘s Hellzapoppin’. Bob Hope and Groucho Marx also have had numerous cinematic moments were they’d face the camera and comment directly to the audience on a scene’s action. Even James Bond, in the form of George Lazenby, infamously turned to the audience and commented “This never happened to the other fellow,” after losing a girl to another man in the opening moments of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Even less than a decade after the script was written, the television show Moonlighting was utilizing the concept of “breaking the fourth wall” regularly.
But despite the familiarity of the concept, Kaufman and Zmuda managed to bring something new to the concept, twisting the fourth wall breakage back on itself in a funhouse mirror reflection. Is the real Tony Clifton alive or dead? What’s reality and what’s a movie? Does it really matter though? As Tony says to the audience at the climax of the film’s grandiose musical finale – in which everybody gets a happy ending, including Kaufman who is reunited with Marilyn Comstack – “If I made just one person happy it’s all been worth it.”
One interesting postscript- After Clifton walks off the film and Andy takes tells the audience that he died, one should take special note of the “details” of Clifton’s passing- at Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles from cancer. Only five years after Kaufman wrote that scene, he himself passed away in Cedar Sinai Hospital from lung cancer. A coincidence? Or was Andy, as some conspiracy-minded fans would have it, already setting up what would be his greatest prank ever- faking his own death. Either way, with Universal passing on making Kaufman’s and Zmuda’s The Tony Clifton Story, the world lost its chance for one more great Kaufman performance.