Exploiting the Archives: Bob Zmuda/Tony Clifton edition: the Tony Clifton Interview, Tony Clifton Live! and the Truth, Finally


Many, many years ago, I was doing a poorly rated, extremely disreputable basic cable television nostalgia TV show with Jimmie “J.J” Walker, Butch “Eddie Munster” Patrick and Erik Estrada of Chips fame, and let me tell you, hot diggity, did that Erik Estrada name-drop a lot. You literally could not talk about any TV show or actor from the last fifty years without his eyes lighting up and him insisting that he has a great personal anecdote about that person, whether it was Jack Lord or Robert Mitchum or La Toya Jackson. 

Estrada seemed to have done at least a guest shot on every TV show of the 1970s and while I was annoyed at times by his irrepressibly annoying, attention-grabbing personality and desperate need for attention, I was also impressed by it. Besides, Estrada really had lived a remarkable and noteworthy life. If he wanted to tell stories from it, I sure wasn’t going to stop him. Nope, I was going to sit there and be grateful that I had found myself in such a surreal and unique situation. 

I was grateful to be around a man with stories, a man who had lived. And by doing bad Canadian television alongside an irrepressible and overwhelming Erik Estrada, I was of course adding to my own stockpile of anecdotes and names to be dropped. 


So just as Estrada could draw a very straight, short line to him and every TV show of the 1970s, I have a history with a whole lot of pop culture, particularly the stuff I write about. When I wrote about Bob Zmuda’s “The Playboy Mansion Story” for Monday’s Big Whoop blog, I came to it with a whole lot of baggage and personal history involving Zmuda and Tony Clifton. 

In one of the crazier experiences of my years at The A.V. Club, I accepted an invitation to interview “Tony Clifton” at Chicago’s legendary Pump Room, where folks like Frank Sinatra used to kick it back in the day. I had no idea what to expect, yet a very good idea of what I was in for. I was interviewing a fictional character, after all, during the day and while imbibing a great deal of whiskey. 


I just kind of went with it, and allowed myself to be both entertained and a little repulsed by Zmuda/Clifton’s shtick. It was a whole different experience in person and at close range and while I feared the three hour long interview would be either unpublishable or unreadable, it ended up doing quite well and getting a lot of attention. It’s not everyday, after all, that you do a boozy three hour interview with someone who doesn’t exist. 


Speaking of endurance tests featuring Tony Clifton, as part of my ongoing fascination with the character and Zmuda, I took my dad to see Clifton do a three hour show alongside sexy ladies and a lounge lizard band. It was an experience, an overwhelming one, and I tried to do justice to it in an A.V Club blog, back when that was a thing. 


Things got less glowing after that. I despised Zmuda’s The Truth, Finally, on every level. It was a repellent, disingenuous cash-in that I eviscerated in a Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club article and when Zmuda promoted it on Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast, I wrote about that as well, this time for Pod-Canon. 



Now Zmuda has succeeded in getting his behind-the-scenes footage of Jim Carrey in character as Andy Kaufman in The Man on the Moon made into a documentary in the form of Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, which lists “Tony Clifton” among its Executive Producers. I’ll probably end up seeing it, and while I’m genuinely excited about it, I also know enough to be skeptical and weary of anything Zmuda is involved in. 


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