Hollywood Needs to Make Andy Kaufman’s ‘Tony Clifton Story’
In 1980, comic performance artist Andy Kaufman and his friend/writer/partner-in-crime Bob Zmuda put the finishing touches on a second draft of The Tony Clifton Story, a biopic of Kaufman’s (and sometimes Zmuda’s) fictional alter ego. Clifton wasn’t the first meta-joke, but he was a pretty damn good one — an obnoxious, paunchy entertainer in a salmon tuxedo jacket whose apparent show-biz goal was to alienate and insult audiences into asking for their money back.
A young Kaufman, wary of the traps of sitcom stardom, only agreed to star in Taxi if Clifton was signed for guest spots as well. (The temperamental Clifton’s outrageous tantrums eventually got him fired, though Kaufman kept his job.) Through it all, Kaufman insisted that Clifton was a real person, a lounge singer who supposedly sold more records than Elvis and the Beatles combined. When talk-show hosts and others began to out Kaufman as the man behind Clifton, he staged appearances where both men would appear at the same time. That’s where Zmuda came in, taking on the Clifton mantle when Kaufman could or would not.
It’s understandable why Universal Studios would have been hesitant to build an entire movie around the detestable Clifton. The character repulsed audiences by design, not exactly a blueprint for box-office success. As for Kaufman and Zmuda’s screenplay? You could practically say the same thing. It’s meta-joke layered on meta-joke, a combustible formula that likely would have been met with a collective “what in the holy hell?” in 1980. And 2023 audiences just might have the same reaction. But in an entertainment world primed by the works of Charlie Kaufman (no relation), Spike Jonze and films like Nic Cage’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, I think we’re ready.
Here are the reasons why now, more than ever, we need The Tony Clifton Story…
‘The Tony Clifton Story’ Is the Perfect Amusement for Our Troll Society
While baseball might have once been America’s pastime, we now have adopted trolling as our national sport. Online comments designed to agitate the oblivious, TikTok videos mocking suburban Karens, entire subreddits devoted to trashing the celebrities they purport to celebrate — it’s not always pretty, but as a society, we really enjoy messing with people.
“Messing with people” could be The Tony Clifton Story’s logline. The story spins around a bored Kaufman (presumably played by a bored Kaufman) hiring the spectacularly untalented Clifton to be his opening act. It’s a big “eff you” to his manager George Shapiro and to the dopey audiences who only want to hear Kaufman’s Taxi catchphrase “dank you veddy much.” And when Clifton improbably catches on and becomes a big star? That’s just Kaufman’s gag proving the stupidity of the masses. How else to explain the people’s love for Clifton, a man who lives to pour water on audience members or waste their time with his “rhymin’”?
Shine ... let's see. Shine ... vine ... kind ...
dine ... fine ... gine. (gradual pick up in tempo)
... hind, line, nine, pine, cline, rine ... (fast now)
sign, tine, vine, wine, yine, gine, zine -- That's every word in the
world that rhymes with shine -- I just went down da alphabet.
“They’re going to hate him more and more,” Kaufman predicts of his protégé. “They’re going to love to hate him. And more important, they’re going to pay to hate him. I got myself the next hoola-hoop.”
‘The Tony Clifton Story’ Is a Hilarious Period Piece
Written in 1980, The Tony Clifton Story is set a few years earlier in a world full of discotheques, soulless manufacturing plants and men’s room attendants ready to spritz cologne in exchange for a tip. In other words, it’s Boogie Nights set in the world of sleazy saloons and cocktail lounges. It’s also a colorful snapshot of The Improv, circa 1978 or so, with Zmuda working as a fry cook, Kaufman perfecting his Foreign Man act and Budd Friedman discovering new talent. For comedy nerds, this stuff is gold.
‘The Tony Clifton Story’ Is the Andy Kaufman Comedian Origin Story
How did Kaufman become a comedian? We find out in The Tony Clifton Story when Kaufman reveals a childhood crush on a grammar school classmate. Too paralyzed by shyness to talk to his young love, Little Andy (as he’s known in the screenplay) develops a plan: He’ll become famous “because then and only then would I have the confidence to talk to her.”
But how? After some nights of soul searching, Little Andy hits on a solution: “For a while, I looked into various fields to become famous in. But after careful consideration, I decided on show business. It seemed easier than anything else. Besides, it was a field where total idiots could become famous overnight! And since fame was my only prerequisite, it was the logical choice.”
Not only do we learn the (real?) story of how Kaufman embarked on a comedy career, Little Andy perfectly sums up the premise of The Tony Clifton Story: Comedy is a field where total idiots can become famous overnight.
‘The Tony Clifton Story’ Is the Ultimate Meta-Joke
Do you like twist endings? The Tony Clifton Story has about seven of them. We won’t give them all away, but if you want a general idea of what happens, think back to Michael Scott’s pitch for a Scranton version of a Dunder-Mifflin commercial: “Little girl in a field holding a flower. We zoom back to find that she’s in the desert and the field is an oasis. Zoom back further. The desert is a sandbox in the world’s largest resort hotel. Zoom back further. The hotel is actually a playground in the world’s largest prison.”
That’s the third act of The Tony Clifton Story in a nutshell. Just when we think we understand the story’s reality, a layer of skin is pulled back to reveal another, weirder membrane underneath. Then it happens again. And again. Kaufman is Kaufman is Clifton is Zmuda or some other actor playing Clifton — or wait, was it the other way around? It’s one of the best comedy mindscrambles ever committed to paper and it deserves to be on a streaming service near you.
‘The Tony Clifton Story’ Just Might Be True
Right until his “death,” Kaufman swore that Clifton was a real guy.
Sure, Kaufman might have dressed up as Clifton now and then for a goof. Same with Zmuda. But that was just Clifton enjoying a night off and Kaufman having yet another laugh at our expense. Even in the screenplay, there are multiple Cliftons — an army of impersonators ready to meet the world’s demand for more Clifton. But Clifton is his own man in The Tony Clifton Story, discovered by Kaufman and unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
If we entertain the thought experiment that Clifton might have been real, could he still be around? Let’s take it a step further. Zmuda claims that the Tony Clifton Story screenplay is documented proof that Kaufman is still around as well. “Here we go again,” you might say, but hear Zmuda out: He claims their screenplay, archived at Universal for all these years, is proof that Kaufman was either psychic or the greatest fake-death prankster of all time.
“It appears for all to see in black and white on page 124 of The Tony Clifton Story,” says Zmuda in Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally, a book he co-wrote with the love of Kaufman’s life, Lynne Margulies.
Four years before his own death, Kaufman scripted that Clifton would die of cancer at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Hollywood (that death, in the screenplay, was yet another hoax). Zmuda points out that Kaufman died exactly the same way — of cancer at Cedars-Sinai. “A statistician from the University of California, Berkeley ran an odds-predictability study listing all the possible ways one could die and a total of all the hospitals in the U.S.,” Zmuda has explained. “Statistically, the odds of someone’s predicting what he would die from and the hospital he would die in are 780,000,000 to one. Basically an impossibility. That S.O.B. knew back in 1980 exactly what he would supposedly die from and where.”
Why Kaufman would fake his own death is a story for another article. But the notion that Zmuda believes it’s possible is intriguing. Could Kaufman be waiting somewhere out there, just waiting to yell “gotcha!” when we least expect it? If he does indeed return, we know the perfect script for his Hollywood comeback.