How Cult Comedian Andy Kaufman Became Today's Hottest Performance Art Star

Tony Clifton at the Chopin Theater, 2008
(Bjorn Kavanaugh)

On Saturday night, Tony Clifton barreled onto the stage of the former Manhattan strip club Westway in his trademark ruffled leisure suit and dark sunglasses, spitting obscenities and slugging Jack Daniels.

“Shut the f*ck up!” he shouted at a heckler who dared to interrupt his rendition of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” “Let me ask you something, is your ass jealous of your mouth because of all the sh*t that comes out of it?”


That’s one of the more publishable jokes that the burned-out Vegas lounge lizard told over the course of his set, staged as a tribute to the late performer Andy Kaufman, and a kick-off to the new exhibition, “On Creating Reality, by Andy Kaufman,” at Maccarone Gallery through February 16.

Kaufman invented the character Tony Clifton in 1969 "as a way to get girls and kind of throw down the gauntlet," according to Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s longtime friend, collaborator, and frequent Clifton portrayer (Andy himself and his brother also played Clifton over the years). “Andy was a vegetarian, never smoked, never drank, but he had a black Cadillac that he only drove when he became Tony. It was him kind of healing himself after being bruised by Hollywood — because no one could touch Clifton.” 

The first in a series of upcoming Kaufman tributes, the Maccarone exhibition documents the entertainer’s brief, elusive life — he died of cancer at 35 — with a collection of ephemera, including photographs, hate mail, scripts, records, Elvis costumes, videos, and even his hand-scrawled will. Then, on February 12, Participant Inc. presents a two-day video series, “Andy Kaufman’s 99cent Tour,” while MoMA PS1 dedicates its February 17 “Sunday Session” to the New York debut of the film “Tony Clifton Plays Sunset Strip.” (And, for diehard fans, there’s a Tony Clifton album in the works featuring Sinatra-style duets with Billy CorganR.E.M., and others.)

Why is the art world taking notice now? Though Kaufman was largely regarded as a comedian during his lifetime (he starred as Latka Gravas on the TV hit “Taxi”), generations of fans have since reappraised his work as performance art. His varied output ranged from Elvis impersonations to wrestling matches with women to awkward TV spots in which he failed to tell any jokes at all. His work often maddened and confused audiences, which was all the more to his delight since, for him, it was never about getting laughs.

“I’d never heard the term ‘performance artist’ while Andy was alive, but as soon as he died, it was in all the obituaries,” said Andy’s brother, Michael Kaufman, at the opening. “It’s so great to see all these art people here. Andy would have been absolutely tickled.”

“Andy was performing for himself,” Zmuda added. “He turned the tables, so the audience became the performer and he sat back and became the audience. He was getting a kick out of watching them go through these emotional catharses. That’s why it didn’t matter if they loved him or hated him.”

Jonathan Berger, an artist and the Maccarone exhibition’s curator, attributes the renewed appreciation of Kaufman to his genre-bending practice. “He’s someone that existed outside the limitations of the worldview he was operating in,” he said. “As an artist, I feel really connected to him. I’m not interested in identifying myself in one way or another or in the hierarchies that exist, or even in participating in the art world or other cultural world structures. He really managed to do that for his whole career.”

Since Kaufman abhorred labels — he preferred “song-and-dance man” to “comedian” — Berger has eschewed traditional wall text in favor of hosting live, primary sources at the gallery. For each of the days during the month-long exhibition, Bill Boggs, Laurie Simmons, Lynne Margulies, Little Wendy, Carol Kane, Zmuda, and other friends and family members will be on hand to talk to visitors. “I wanted to make an exhibition that functioned more like an experimental biography or documentary,” Berger said.

Toward the end of the show’s opening, Michael Kaufman, who played Clifton at his brother’s landmark Carnegie Hall variety show, didn’t think he wanted to board the yellow school bus taking guests to the Westway performance. “Tony’s gotten more vile with age,” he explained. “He used to have a little vulnerability to him.”

Indeed, that night Clifton targeted every minority, plus women, pedophiles, and dead babies, all in between grating covers of Les Miserables’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon.” But then, in a final tender moment, he dedicated his encore to Andy Kaufman, “the reason we’re all here,” he said. “At last, after 30 years, this great artist is finally being recognized.”