As he will be the first to let you know, Bob Zmuda is a very important man. He is, as he has doggedly chronicled through the decades, the man behind Andy Kaufman. In his fever to make his contributions to comedy history known far and wide, Zmuda had stopped just short of pushing for legislation making it illegal to ever mention Kaufman’s name without also mentioning that Zmuda was his writer, idea man, best friend and partner in crime in springing repellent lounge lizard and Trump-level racist and xenophobe Tony Clifton on an uncomprehending and upset world.
Zmuda also helped bring Comic Relief into existence. In the process, Zmuda has helped raise tens of million of dollars for charity but these days Zmuda is less revered for his charity work and the central role he played in refining and perfecting Kaufman’s shtick than the much less distinguished role he has played shamelessly exploiting Kaufman’s blessed memory in the decades since Kaufman definitely died of Cancer at 33 in 1984.
The nadir of this sad secondary fame came when Zmuda collaborated, after a fashion, with Kaufman’s final girlfriend Lynn Margulies for The Truth, Finally, a repellent and deeply sad cash-in where Zmuda decides unconvincingly, that as long as there’s another book in it, then gosh darn it, you know what, Andy Kaufman did fake his own death, and is gonna make his grand re-introduction any day now, the big faker.
As if that weren’t creepy enough, he also outs Kaufman as bisexual and himself as a dude who isn’t exactly “woke” as the young people say, when it comes to sexuality. Or gender roles. Or women. Or, really, in any sense whatsoever. The entire book is sleazy and sad and problematic, most notably in a big sequence where Zmuda dresses up like Tony Clifton and heads over to the Playboy mansion to enjoy demeaning sex with Playboy playmates who thought they were having sex with Jim Carrey (who was playing Kaufman and Clifton in the biopic Man On The Moon around this time) and not a creepy old dude. Zmuda sees his Playboy mansion story as an all-time classic. I, and I suspect also the legal system, see it more as an act of possible sexual assault.
More than anything, Zmuda is a storyteller, a man with anecdotes he has clearly told a million times, polishing and perfecting and exaggerating them every step of the way. This makes him a perfect podcast guest, particularly for Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast. The podcast’s host can match Zmuda’s penchant for what the President of the United States refers to as “locker room talk.”
Even the famously ribald and freewheeling Gottfried seems a little troubled by Zmuda’s words and actions. There’s a wonderful moment deep into the podcast when Gottfried, upon hearing Zmuda’s deeply problematic Playboy mansion anecdote inquires, “Did [the Playmates] feel like they’d been raped?”
Zmuda doesn’t exactly help his case by referring to the women he tricked into having gross sex with him as “bimbos and “bitches” who deserved what they got for being shameless groupies. In the process, he quite literally adds insults to depravity. Zmuda is such a talker that even a chatterbox like Gottfried is reduced to listening quietly and patiently as Zmuda digs into his big bag of well-worn anecdotes dating back to the giddy, Wild West days of the 1970s West Coast comedy scene.
I’ve heard pretty much every anecdote Zmuda shares here, some of them from “Clifton” himself when I spent several strange hours interviewing him at Chicago’s legendary Pump Room for The A.V Club a few years back. Others I read first in The Truth, Finally, which is an awful, ugly, unforgivably sordid and self-aggrandizing tome, one that should have been aggressively rejected by every publisher. But within all the nastiness and character assassination and disingenuous make-pretend about Kaufman’s current whereabouts are a couple of really great stories.
In that respect, the podcast is the perfect way to process Zmuda’s gross cash-in book. You get to enjoy its highlights, like a surreal story involving a restless Garth Brooks campaigning hard for the role of Zmuda in The Man In The Moon, to the point where he canceled a big show and put on the Tony Clifton prosthetics in an attempt to win the gig, without having to actually support Zmuda’s crass exploitation of his dead friend’s memory for his own cynical ends.
Is Zmuda telling the truth? I don’t think there’s any part of Zmuda that genuinely believes that Kaufman is still alive and faked his death. Hell, Zmuda gingerly concedes, “[Kaufman] may be dead” in a manner so casual that it further undercuts what little conviction he brings to the whole “Andy pulled off the greatest hoax ever!” charade. Yet Zmuda has never been the kind of guy who lets the truth get in the way of a really juicy anecdote.
There was obviously a lot of Tony Clifton in Andy Kaufman. There seems to be far more Tony Clifton in Bob Zmuda. If Clifton was the shy and self-consciousness Kaufman’s id and alter-ego, on some level Zmuda clearly is Tony Clifton. Thankfully, in this podcast, Zmuda, like Tony Clifton (who pops up at the end here to accuse Zmuda of being an exploitative ghoul) manages to make being a sketchy creep deeply entertaining, at least in small doses.