A gray-haired, faintly distinguished-looking man leaned over a table at the Comedy Store Thursday night and said to his companion, "He was a prominent young actor who died young of lung cancer."
He was explaining who Andy Kaufman was. His companion was probably the only one in the packed house who didn't know who Andy Kaufman was. At best, Kaufman was a mediocre performer in everything he did, except one thing--he may have been the greatest con artist in modern entertainment history.
He was so extraordinarily skilled at keeping people guessing that, a year after his death, he had Hollywood out to see if he had pulled the ultimate stunt--the successful faking of his own death.
The evening was billed as the "American Cancer Society (Van Nuys Chapter) in association with The Andy Kaufman Memorial Fund . . . invite you to attend 'TONY CLIFTON LIVE' (And Guests)." Top price was $100.
Everyone, or almost everyone, in the audience knew that Tony Clifton, the aggressively untalented Vegas lounge singer, had been Kaufman's alter ego, a role played out with such impeccable dead-pan logic that Kaufman never whipped off the wig and glasses to give it away. That was Kaufman's game--to go you one further, to stare down an audience with a deliberately bad act and thereby challenge the rules of the spectator-performer relationship. In theater parlance it's called "demystification," and Kaufman was a master at it.
During the last couple of weeks, a banner announcing Tony Clifton had stretched across the Sunset Strip. Tony Clifton came to town and gave interviews. A macabre groundswell of rumor began about how Kaufman, after successfully staging a contretemps and a walkout from a TV show, had said: "If you think this is something, wait two years. I'm going to stage my own death, go underground in Paris and re-emerge as Tony Clifton." The photo we saw as Clifton in the news looked stagy enough.
Could it be? The street outside the Comedy Store was packed. Inside, paparazzi swung their camera packs perilously over the little tables clustered with drinks, holding their cameras at the ready, like gunfighters. David Lee Roth was there. Eddie Murphy was there. Whoopi Goldberg, Shari Belafonte Harper and Rodney Dangerfield were there, along with a couple of hot young film directors and other industry types to whom it's crucial to be in the know.
Byron Allen, a gifted young mimic-comedienne named Pam Mattison, Paul Rodriguez (in good form with new material) and the rock 'n' roll band of Billy Swan and Buddy Hollywood preceded the appearance of Clifton, whose delay was milked to the limit by emcee Gary Owens' dilatory buildup, which took so long that the audience became bored and talkative.
Then, some film clips. David Steinberg introducing Clifton. Steve Allen and Dinah Shore introducing Clifton. George Hamilton, David Letterman, Merv Griffin. Was there anyone who wasn't in on the joke? Was it a joke? "It's gotta be him, it's gotta!" said a man in the rear.
Clifton came on in front of his band, the Cliftones. He wore a pink tuxedo jacket over a blue shirt with ruffles. Obviously he was wearing a pad to beef up his front. The wig was terrible. The shades hid his eyes. The audience looked hard, straining.
Could it be?
But some things you couldn't double-fake. The height, for example--this guy was shorter. And older. The jowly jaw line gave it away. He didn't have Kaufman's bone structure. He spoke with a faint Chicago accent; Kaufman grew up in Long Island.
We had the purposefully bad act, then. The lounge trip down memory lane, Vegas-style, with "I Gotta Be Me," "Volare," "New York, New York" and the sine qua non of every Vegas act, "My Way," all sung in a rough, catarrhal voice, off key. Tony challenged the audience. He was rude to people he invited onstage ("Get off the stage, pal! Get the hell off!"). He did bad impressions. People began pelting him with wadded-up bills and programs, paper airplanes.
At one point he turned his back to prepare for an Elvis impersonation; the lights went down. Suddenly there was a pause in the mounting din: If ever there was a moment for Kaufman to declare himself redux , this was it.
But it wasn't. Clifton flapped his lips in a deliberately bad parody of Kaufman doing Presley. Now he was exploiting us in the name of Kaufman.
So it went for a while longer. It wasn't funny and it wasn't entertaining, and you began to wonder what kind of morbid symptom this was, not only for the producers to press this consciously awful act beyond midnight, but for the audience to sit with it.
What had redeemed Andy Kaufman was a perpetual sense of play; there was always something in the eyes, a glimmer that indicated he was playing with the idea of being watched, and that he was looking back. If we were good, we got milk and cookies at the end, and maybe a mass bunny hop out into the street. He absorbed us into his fancy.
What we saw Thursday was a rendition of Kaufman's play turned ugly, and an audience turned boorish with disappointment, but peculiarly stuck in its own image-obsessed milieu where fantasy and reality are abnormally confused.
At the end, depending on how much punishment you felt you had absorbed, you could have looked at this cheap trick two ways. Either you could appreciate the extra helping of milk and cookies the great demystifier in the sky was enjoying tonight, or you could wish the American Cancer Society had given the audience its money back.