Twenty-five years after his death, Andy Kaufman receives almost universal adulation — even from those who lambasted his work as tasteless and unfunny when he was still alive. Those brickbats were most often directed at the character of Tony Clifton, played alternately by the late comic and Kaufman’s longtime partner-in-chaos Bob Zmuda — both of whom denied any involvement in the manufacture of the foulmouthed Clifton.
After many years on the sidelines, “Clifton” — accompanied by a ragtag musical ensemble known as the Katrina Kiss-My-Ass Orchestra — has re-emerged for a short tour designed to raise funds for artists displaced by the Gulf Coast hurricanes of three years ago. And while Zmuda still vehemently denies being the man behind the curtain, there’s no mistaking the sense of confrontational surrealism that permeated the Borscht Belt performance-art outing.
The sprawling performance that Clifton staged on Wednesday night was unquestionably the most unfettered expression of pure id to hit a Gotham stage in ages. Acting as ringmaster-cum-frontman, Clifton grew increasingly peripatetic as the evening wore on, recalling nothing so much as a hybrid of Jerry Lewis (in his telethon host role) and Bob Guccione’s imagining of Caligula.
At times, the 3½-hour gig seemed more like a test of endurance than a standard variety show. Clifton showered aud members in liquor — the real thing, not food-color-laced water — and tossed various projectiles at random. Likewise, he stretched various comic riffs well past the tipping point where nervous laughter gave way to even more nervous glances.
More often, however, Clifton white-water-rafted down his singular stream-of-consciousness with dizzy aplomb, riffing on hit-and-run accidents, dipping into the songbooks of Sinatra and Anthony Newley and berating his backing band with Buddy Rich-like acidity. Toward set’s end, he called his scantily clad dance troupe out for a vamp through Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” only to slag them for — in sanitized terms — not bringing in enough cash while moonlighting on street corners.
Some of the women seemed steamed enough that one got the idea the bit was entirely unscripted — the case with much of the evening’s more spot-on material. That was, of course, Kaufman’s greatest strength, and while Clifton’s delivery isn’t as nuanced, the spirit is similarly transfixing.