Tony Clifton’s Katrina Kiss-Off

A late-night excursion and a misidentified hotel room almost landed self-described “international singing sensation” Tony Clifton in a New Orleans jail. Instead, he’s on the road for a Comic Relief-sponsored tour in support of Big Easy artists still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

One might think he’d be grateful.

“What’s this called? Comic Relief? This group, this bunch of liberal do-gooder bastards. I’m working pro bono on this show because I’m doing community service,” Clifton told Pollstar of his contribution to society.

As Clifton tells it, he was in New Orleans for Jazzfest to see Keely Smith and, during a late-night, booze-fueled tour of Bourbon Street, somebody slipped him a “Mickey Finn, swear-ta-gawwwd.” He wound up in the hotel bed of a 70-year-old woman instead of in his own, police were called and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, at least it’s as good a story as any to explain why the performance artist linked to the life and death of pop culture icon Andy Kaufman is headlining a benefit tour.

Comic Relief, the nonprofit charity founded by longtime Kaufman associate Bob Zmuda, is sponsoring a tour with Clifton fronting the “Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra” that is expected to culminate on May 16, 2009 – the 25th anniversary of Kaufman’s death from lung cancer. Huka Entertainment of Mobile, Ala., is arranging it.

It has long been rumored that Clifton was, in fact, Kaufman’s obnoxious, chain-smoking, booze-swilling, prom tuxedo-wearing, swearing, womanizing, personal creation and alter ego. After Kaufman’s death, Zmuda was fingered as the one donning the Elvis wig, aviator sunglasses and powder-blue tuxedo that are Clifton’s hallmarks.

Pollstar and Clifton spoke at length about the tour, his career and philanthropic endeavors – very little of which can be published.

“I’m not a comedian, I’m a singing sensation. That comedy thing got linked to me because of that bastard Kaufman,” Clifton loudly protested. “He used to do an impression of me, so that started linking me to comedy. I am not a comedian. I don’t even like comedians. I wanted to sue his ass.”

Clifton rarely tours and, prior to the Comic Relief effort in progress, was last sighted at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, Calif., on the 20th anniversary of Kaufman’s death.

People used to shout at him to reveal he was actually Kaufman faking his own death, but no more, Clifton claims. His show, described as “a psychodrama play meets the Grateful Dead,” reportedly runs well over three hours and stands on its own.

“I put the whole orchestra together. I got a six-piece horn section,” Clifton said. “I got all these hot chicks, dancers. A bevy of beauties. Those people, those morons, they don’t yell that stuff anymore. I told them if they was looking for that Kaufman bastard to bring a flashlight and a shovel, because he’s dead as a doornail.”

The tour has already rolled through Chicago, Boston and Atlanta and garnered hilarious reviews. Still on the books in October are stops in Pittsburgh, Asheville, N.C., a return stop in Chicago and winding down the current leg Oct. 19 at West Hollywood’s House of Blues.

“We do a lot of Chicago, a lot of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Then I do a lot of music for the kids today. I do the Zeppelin. I do Tom Petty. We do the whole thing.

“I do Frank, Sammy and Dino, of course, but we’ve got a repertoire of probably 135 songs, so people come back to our shows over and over again. I didn’t do one ounce of advertising in Chicago. I said, ‘Just open the doors.’ Within three weeks, we were sold out and had a line around the block. The Chicago Tribune said ‘Tony Clifton says things that Howard Stern would not dare say.’” Clifton then proceeded to say them.

Somebody has to play ringmaster to Clifton’s circus of chaos. Mauro Di Gioia is the tour’s executive producer and artistic director for Tony Clifton and the Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra tour. The tour is booked by Crescendo Artists’ Brandon Mann and HUKA Entertainment’s AJ Niland is tour manager.

The idea to take Clifton on the road came out of Comic Relief’s 2006 telethon hosted by Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, Di Gioia told Pollstar. Comic Relief has been raising money for several different initiatives and, even though it’s been three years since Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, many New Orleanians are still reeling from its effect.

Those displaced and left without are not only musicians, but production personnel and other music industry people. Clifton’s orchestra, singers, dancers, stage manager, sound and lighting techs, and even seamstresses and merch crew are nearly 100 percent New Orleanian, according to Di Gioia.

“Comic Relief wanted to go ahead and develop that initiative and bring a touring production on the road along with a commitment to support these artists by offering viable employment opportunities,” Di Gioia explained.

“We took people who had never been out of New Orleans or Louisiana and they’re getting vast experience, getting new skills in the entertainment industry – getting experience at venues like theatres, nightclubs, arenas, even just being on a bus.

“Because of Tony and his history and cult following, it’s allowed this to happen and bring attention to not only Tony but the cultural treasures of New Orleans,” Di Gioia said.

Comic Relief will distribute funds raised by Clifton and his orchestra on a case-by-case basis. Previous contributions have gone to such noteworthy projects as New Orleans’ Preservation Resource Center’s Operation Comeback, the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, as well as supporting ongoing efforts to help displaced Katrina animals and support animal rescue operations in times of natural disasters.

New dates well into 2009, including a hoped-for residency in Los Angeles, are expected to be announced shortly.

“I have no idea how long it’s going to go,” Clifton said. “That’s why people need to come out and see this show if they know it’s coming to town. We might just stop. Then after that, if the 60 hours of community service is up, if those liberal bastard Comic Relief do-gooders want me to do some more, they’re going to have to negotiate with my Jew lawyer.”