What happens when you take a joke to its grave? Find out Friday at Green Gravel Comedy Festival

Green Gravel Comedy Festival Presents: Tony Clifton & the Cliftones

The Mill — Friday, May 12 at 8:30 p.m.

Tony Clifton plays The Mill on Friday, May 12. — image courtesy Green Gravel

Following comedy legend Andy Kaufman’s death in 1984, the character of Tony Clifton — the lounge singer with the pornstar moustache, known for his belligerence and berating his audience — lives on through a puzzle of impersonators, including but not limited to Jim Carrey, Paul Giamatti, Kaufman’s brother Michael and Bob Zmuda. Now, for the first time in the character’s history, the lounge lizard will perform at The Mill with a musical backing trio at Iowa City’s Green Gravel Comedy Festival on Friday, May 12 at 8:30 p.m., piloted by Zmuda (who maintains, however, that he’s more akin to Clifton’s manager — not the character).

“Clifton sadly roams the Earth now because his master, his creator, his Dr. Frankenstein is gone,” Zmuda says. “ So he roams the countryside terrorizing the villagers. And I think part of that will happen in Iowa City.”

If the name Bob Zmuda doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because he’s spent most of the last three decades behind the scenes, capitalizing off the legacy of his late friend, Andy Kaufman. Zmuda’s written two books, featured in the biopic Man on the Moon (starring Jim Carrey) and is working on a new documentary (which will star Jim Carrey) about Kaufman.

Why the fanaticism? Well, Zmuda was Kaufman’s best friend and writer. Kaufman was known for his Dada-esque antics as a performer. He became a household name for his role in the television show Taxi, an adaptation of his Foreign Man character. He also had a bit where he would make fun of women’s stature, and then challenge them to wrestle. Tony Clifton, however, is perhaps one of Kaufman’s most famous aliases.

“He made Howard Stern look like a kids’ show,” Zmuda says, harking back to the initial shock value of Clifton.

Kaufman and Zmuda created the character of Tony Clifton in 1969. Zmuda tells me, though, that the two “discovered the real-life Tony Clifton” at a watering hole in the part of Las Vegas no one visits. Clifton became the vessel for notorious public hoaxes, the muse of the Gruesome Twosome, if you will. Their greatest hoax? The Death of Andy Kaufman. Zmuda has gone to great lengths to feed the conspiracy, over and over again, that Kaufman faked his own death. Furthermore, Zmuda not-so-coyly insinuates that Kaufman could still be taking the stage as Tony Clifton — it’s out of the question, however, that that’s Zmuda under the toupee.

The validity of the Kaufman’s feigned death aside, Kaufman’s masterplan for the end-all, be-all prank, as Zmuda highlights, was to publicly fake his own death. Kaufman wanted to blend reality and fiction so well as to fool consciousness. So he harped on faking his own death for years prior to the actual death. In this writer’s opinion, the most successful hoax, then, is to dupe people into still believing that he actually faked his own death, regardless of the truth.

One way or another, Kaufman still lives in the character of Tony Clifton. He’s the kind of dude whose politics were once acceptable at the dinner table when shag carpet was trendy, the kind triggered snowflakes of late lambast on Huffington Post or Vice. In the era of identity politics — some dystopian degree of political correctness — Clifton’s sleaziness might ruffle some many feathers. He’s an “equal opportunity offender,” as Zmuda puts it, and should require a disclaimer attached to him.

(Full Disclaimer: Clifton once advertised a show where he would pay each person in attendance cold-hard cash if he didn’t drop the N-Bomb at least five times in his set. He is the stereotypical white male comedian who still finds blatant racism funny under the flimsy guise of defending freedom of speech.)

Despite college campuses being bastions of PC culture, Zmuda says he believes “all walks of life” will be able to latch onto Tony Clifton and his trio, whether they’re veterans of Clifton’s (read: Kaufman’s) humor or skinny-jeaned hipsters (not the English major hipster, one would assume — they’re too woke — but the Business School variety). He somehow still manages airtime on cable television — though that’s obviously getting phased out culturally. In recent years Clifton has appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and The Jimmy Kimmel Show.

To see Tony Clifton is like visiting a living history museum, kind of like still owning a cable box. He’s an antediluvian comedian. As long as people pay to see him, Zmuda can keep this joke alive.

Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Full weekend passes for the Green Gravel Festival are $45 and day passes for Friday only are $25. Proceeds from all of the festival events will go towards the ACLU Action Fund and Planned Parenthood. Supporting Clifton will be stand-up performances by Alex Mesrobian of Los Angeles, Sophia Smarandescu from Ames, Iowa and Iowa-boy-turned-Brooklynite Brandon Ream.

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