Honoring the antagonistic and enigmatic entertainer Tony Clifton.
As a kid, I distinctly remember seeing Andy Kaufman singing the “Mighty Mouse” theme on Saturday Night Live and thinking he was funny—not just “haha” funny, but strange funny. Of course, this was long before I came to worship his avant-garde comedic genius. Of all the pranks Andy ever pulled on the public, none was more epic or enduring than the character of Tony Clifton.
“Discovered” by Kaufman in a seedy Vegas lounge in 1969, Clifton was the crooner from hell — perpetually drunk and obnoxious, wailing nasally and insulting the audience until driven from the stage (or the set of Taxi). And while the world speculated as to whether Clifton was a fabrication or a fiasco, Andy just sat back and laughed at the confusion he’d created. Since Andy’s death in 1984, Clifton has resurfaced to cause trouble numerous times — most visibly around the release of the Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. I hadn’t heard anything about him in years, so imagine my shock when my buddy B-Doe, a DJ at Austin’s KLBJ, mentioned that Tony would be at SXSW promoting his own film (Tony Clifton: The Movie) and asked if I’d like to have him attend the Doobie Awards. Attend? Hell, I replied, I’d give him a Lifetime Achievement Award!
When Clifton arrived at our Cowboy Cup party, I was fully expecting the annoying asshole of modern lore. Instead, the Tony I met was a total pussycat. Despite his sweet disposition, however, that old tasteless Clifton humor still shone through — particularly when he told me about the first time he’d toked up.
“It was at the  Democratic National Convention in Chicago,” Clifton recalls. “The Yippies wanted people to come to Lincoln Park to their protest, so they put up posters around town with pictures of young hippie girls, saying: ‘Come smoke grass and make free love in the park.’ So I go over there and I meet a girl. She was on acid, I was boozing … it was the first time I had grass, and also the first time I had anal sex — she really wanted it up the old keister! I fucked her in the pussy and in the ass, back and forth … nine months later, come to behold, she’s pregnant. Now I got a son — his name is Toby. I love him, but he’s a mongoloid monstrosity. He’s a grown man with the brain of a 7-year-old. I’m convinced it was the mixture of my sperm, her egg, her shit on my cock, and the grass and the acid she was on that created the monstrosity.”
When the topic of medical marijuana came up, his thoughts turned to Andy.
“Maybe Kaufman shoulda done that”—smoked marijuana –“he’d still be alive today,” he speculates. “People still come to my show and ask, ‘Are you Andy Kaufman?’ I say, ‘You wanna see Andy Kaufman? Get yourself a shovel and a flashlight.’”
Before parting ways, Clifton presented me with a photo of himself signed, “From one wild man to another — your pal, Tony Clifton.” At his request, I returned the favor, signing a Doobies poster for him that read, “Tony—thanks for mentoring me all these years.”
The next day, just after 4:20, I took the stage to present Mr. Clifton with his trophy.
“Each year, we recognize one legendary performer with our Lifetime Achievement Award in music,” I proclaimed. “Past winners, such as Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg, are all artists who have devoted their lives to values that we at High Times stand for — values like integrity, activism and courage. Unfortunately, this year’s recipient reflects none of those. He does, however, embody other principles that we represent—like individuality, irreverence and indulgence. Ladies and germs, stoners and stonettes, it’s my great honor to present the Doobie Award for Lifetime Achievement to the King of Las Vegas … the man, the myth, the jackass … Mr. Tony Clifton!”
Handing him his award, I could almost see Andy laughing up in heaven … if he made the list, that is.
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