A Filmmaker’s Life and Work with the Drunken, Racist, and Probably Fictitious Lounge Singer
Scroll to the bottom of this piece to watch the exclusive premiere of Tony Clifton’s music video for “Lonely Girl.” It’s safe for work… ish.
Before the flood, Jeremy Johnson and his wife were always in the process of starting or ending some new independent business venture. Nothing ever stuck. Before Hurricane Katrina filled their New Orleans home with poisonous water, they’d curated a personal museum of pop-culture knick-knacks that they eventually tried turning into a thrift shop. Looking back on it, the most important items in Jeremy’s collection included the official WWF Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler figurines, and a copy of Lynne Margulies’s Kaufman documentary I’m From Hollywood, which told the story of the aggressively strange, groundbreaking comedian and performer’s venture into the wrestling ring. “Andy Kaufman hit me hard at a young age,” Johnson explains. “In sixth grade, this male friend of mine would get these girls in the neighborhood to come over, we would watch videotapes of Andy Kaufman wrestling women, and we would wrestle the girls in his parents’ living room while watching the videos.”
Katrina also flooded the school where Jeremy had been teaching moderately disabled high school kids, so in 2007, at the age of 27, Johnson began working at a coffee shop, while rebuilding his home. As an emotional booby prize, Johnson finally had the time to indulge his amateur filmmaking urges. “For a long time I’d been denying my creative side,” Johnson says. He slung coffee to a number of New Orleans layabouts, including an old gray-haired hippie type who began coming in every day to chat up Jeremy about pop culture, especially film. Not until the ponytailed fellow asked Jeremy to help him film a commercial for insult comic and “singer” Tony Clifton’s big comeback tour did Johnson recognize him as Andy Kaufman’s former writing partner, Bob Zmuda.
[Editor’s Note: Welcome to “I’m Short, Not Stupid,” a weekly column focused on highlighting rare and obscure short films. Enjoy this flick (the video is at the bottom) and check back next week for another peculiar adventure in the art of short moving pictures.]
Bear is not a classic story of two lovers, two lovers fighting, two lovers making up, and two lovers living happily ever after. Jack, played by director Nash Edgerton, is a fuck up with a good heart. He also always seems to have something up his sleeve. The film begins with sage words from Jill, Jack’s ex-girlfriend who went all the way down the drain in Nash’s previous short film, Spider (which will debut on VICE next week). Unfortunately, Jack’s new girlfriend, Emelie, doesn’t know about his pension for pranks and has no idea the wild ride in store for her. Both Bear and Spider are crafted around the premise of a boyfriend messing up and attempting to right his wrong with a theatrical gesture.
Nash has been on the scene for some time, making his mark as an actor, stuntman, writer, and director. While doing stunts for big budget features—like the Matrix trilogy andthe Star Wars prequels—he made a number of music videos, including three for Bob Dylan. His original work is darkly comic, violent, and expertly executed. And Bear is no exception.
There are many reasons Bear is so effective: good actors, realistic characters, beautiful cinematography, and a smart script. However, what really takes it over the top is Nash’s closely controlled reveals in story and character that string the audience along so we’re just as stunned as Emelie is when Jack makes his big “transformation.”
What’s It Like Being a Stand-Up Comedian in Saudi Arabia?
Breaking into stand-up comedy is notoriously hard in Western countries where there’s an infrastructure of clubs and agents and laws that allow performers to say pretty much whatever they want. But in Saudi Arabia, where the notoriously oppressive government still uses beheading as a punishment and women aren’t allowed to drive, among other things, it’s nearly impossible to be a comedian. The country’s stand-up scene is “burgeoning,” to be kind, or “pretty much nonexistent,” if you want to be mean.
So when Ahmed Ahmed, the Egyptian-American comedian, was performing in Saudi Arabia in 2008 and the bookers wanted to find some locals to open for him, they had to hold auditions to find ordinary people who were funny enough to get onstage and tell jokes. An English teacher named Omar Ramzi got a Facebook message that said auditions were being held, tried out, and soon found himself in front of a thousand people doing stand-up for the very first time.
Omar stuck with comedy, and four years after his debut he had become famous enough to acquire a nickname (“the White Sudani”), made good money doing underground comedy gigs, and was featured on national TV and in the Saudi Gazette, an English-language daily newspaper. The catch was that despite being born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Omar had never received Saudi citizenship and was living illegally in the country thanks to a string of mishaps. After navigating the not-funny joke that is the Saudi bureaucracy, he eventually managed to flee to Cairo. I reached out to him through Skype to talk about the turns his life has taken.
VICE: So your nickname is “the White Sudani”? How did that happen? Omar Ramzi: Yeah. See, my mother’s Irish and my dad is Sudanese, and obviously most Sudanese people are dark-skinned, with African origins, but there is a small minority of white Sudanese that came from North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, and places like that. My dad is from that small minority. We’re like the bluefin tuna of the human race—almost extinct.
What was it like growing up as part of that tiny minority? So, I was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but I lived a very different life than most people—I lived in a compound, which is like a gated community. There’s several of them all over the country. The one that I lived in was called Saudia City, which is for the employees of Saudi Airlines. They had everything: They had their own schools—American schools, British schools—medical centers, pools… It was like a little city where the rules of the country did not apply. Women could drive and wear whatever they wanted to. There were parties and alcohol. And just outside the gate, you would see women all covered up with the black [burqa], like all ninja’d out, you know? They were like completely different worlds.
When you started doing stand-up, you were doing it in that wider world of Saudi Arabia. What was that like? It must be a lot different from what I think of as stand-up in America. The thing is, in the West, heckling is part of the norm in stand-up comedy. In this part of the world they don’t know about heckling. There’s no such thing. People sit down and they will respect you, even if you suck ass.
Omar’s first show ever.
That must be nice. Yeah, but it’s a bit of a challenge because they had a lot of rules. You can’t use profanity. You can’t talk about the government. You can’t talk about the royal family. You can’t talk about religion. So what is left to talk about? What is left to make fun of? I ended up making fun of the students I was teaching English to. I’ll tell you one of my jokes. I was teaching them the difference between “to” and “too.” After like three weeks of going through it, I thought, They must finally understand. So I asked who could give me an example of the difference between the words.
[heavy Saudi accent] “Teacher, teacher, I have the answer for you, teacher!”
[normal voice] “OK, go ahead.”
“For example, teacher, the one with the one ‘o’ teacher: ‘I want to go to the supermarket.’”
“Oh, very good, good job. What about the other one?”
“Yes teacher of course teacher. For example: ‘I want to go tooooooooooooooooo the beach.”
So you know, things like that, things that everyone could laugh at and that weren’t insulting.
Kaufman on Kaufman: An Interview with Andy’s Brother Michael
When I was a kid I used to love Taxi. It had been cancelled for a number of years by the time I got into it, but I watched the syndicated episodes whenever they came on Nick at Nite. Thinking back on it now, most of the characters—even the ones who went on to be megastars—are blurry and ill-defined in my memory. Andy Kaufman’s portrayal of the bizarre immigrant cab mechanic Latka, however, is crystal clear. That’s not surprising. As with everything Kaufman did, Latka was memorable because he was so damn unique. He was miles away from any other character on television—on Taxi, he sometimes seemed to be on a different, more surreal show—and Kaufman was just as far away from any other human in real life. Whether he was standing alone on stage nervously playing the Mighty Mouse theme song and lip-syncing only the chorus, orwrestling women and declaring himself the World Intergender Wrestling Champion, or fucking with Letterman decades before Joaquin Phoenix, he was one of a kind, which is why he is still so widely respected today. Oh, and he was also Elvis’s favorite Elvis impersonator.
On Saturday, an exhibition presented by Jonathan Berger, titled On Creating Reality, opens at Maccarone gallery in the West Village. The show will feature a boatload of Andy’s personal effects, as well as a rotating cast of his close friends and family members, at least one of whom will be at the gallery at all times. These people—who are part of the exhibition themselves—will be available to chat with visitors and offer a unique look into the life of one of contemporary culture’s most enigmatic figures. In preparation of the show, and because I am a gigantic Kaufman fanboy, I called up Michael Kaufman, Andy’s brother, to talk about the show and his brother’s life.
VICE: Hi, Michael. I just wanted to ask a little bit about the show. Do you know what sort of artifacts are going to be there? Michael Kaufman:I know some of them. His most recognized Elvis jacket will be there, as well as his famous pink Foreign Man jacket that he would take off to become Elvis, and also the mock shirt he tore away. Andy was an author and we published three books for him after he died. Not only will the books be there—that’s not a big deal—but you’ll be able to see handwriting of Andy’s. The World Intergender Wrestling Belt will be there. His 11th grade report card, which has a lot of red on it.
How did he do? One of his 11th grade teachers said to my mother, “The only reason I’m passing your son is I don’t want to take a gamble at having him in my class again next year.” Also in the collection is a wonderful series of communications where Andy went to visit a girl who was dying. She was a fan of his, and when his plane was delayed in Chicago on its way to Washington, he drove out to Demotte, Indiana, to visit her. Word got out at the hospital and Andy wrestled three people. I have pictures. They were supposedly nurses and maybe one patient’s mother. It’s the only time he ever lost a match. He let them beat him. And then there’s a letter from the mother, thanking Andy for doing that. Seven weeks after his visit, she died. That whole correspondence will be there. Andy never told anyone about that. I only knew about it because I went through the stuff.
What was it like being Andy’s brother? Were there times when you saw a bit he was doing on TV and didn’t know if it was real or not? Yes. One time I told him not to let me know what was really going on, because when people asked me questions I didn’t want to lie to them.
Can you tell me about one of his gags that duped you? A couple of months after I told him not to tell me anything anymore, he was on the TV show Fridays.
In this episode of All Around Losing, Harry attempts to follow in the footsteps of Louis CK and other schmucks-turned-comedy-idols by trying to become a stand-up comic. He starts at the very, very bottom, subjecting himself to New York City’s brutal open-mic scene, and quickly discovers that 1) making people laugh is nightmarishly difficult and 2) he is not good at it. It’s funny to watch him fail, but not ha-ha funny.
Anthony Jeselnik is my ultimate dream crush. In fact, I’m going to have to type this entire article with just one hand. Most famous for the roasts of Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump, and, as of yesterday, Rosanne Barr, Anthony is making a name for himself as the new bad boy of comedy. (Has anyone actually called him that? I don’t know.) Conducting an interview with him was one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever had to endure, because not only was he incredibly handsome, sharp, and unexpectedly kind, but he was also peering into my soul and conceptually dangling his balls in front of my face. See for yourself!
I’ll start by giving you a compliment: I like your jokes because they are so well written. Do they just come to you or do you— Or do I have to just like grind on them to get them good? It’s a little bit of both. You know, I’ll say, “I have to sit down and write ten jokes today.” Or 50 jokes this week. So it’s a little bit of a numbers game. But when you do that work, things will just come to you.
What’s one of your favorite jokes that you’ve written? My new favorite right now is—you heard it—the one that goes: My mother actually should have been on one of the planes on September 11th—
So simple, and so hilarious. Yes, even with the interruption.
What? You stopped me in the middle of the joke.
I didn’t want you to spoil it for the readers! Would you like to say it again? Nope.
I’m so sorry Anthony Jeselnik. It’s OK. It still works.
One week before my birthday this year, I was talking to someone at work about the time I took a shit-ton of mushrooms in Amsterdam during New Year’s and had a life-changing experience that has since made me a better person and far more focused in life. No less than 24 hours later, I was in a cab en route to perform stand up comedy with a head full of acid and a stomach full of puppies shitting themselves in horror.
I wasn’t coerced, talked into, or persuaded to do something as nerve-racking as telling jokes to a room of strangers—paying customers, no less—for the first time ever while simultaneously tripping on powerful psychedelic drugs. I didn’t really think through how terrible it could go at the time. I was stupid, not brave. I took out most of my anger on Jamie Lee Curtis Taete, whom I remember saying things like “you’re such a twat” and “I fucking hate you, prick.”
It would be great if I could say that doing stand up on acid was profound and moving. But I would be lying. I just thought it would be funny. Maybe it was. But it’s also a dumb, fucking terrifying thing to do. So, please do enjoy this video, but please don’t ever try anything like this yourself. It nearly cost me my sanity.
While in LA working on our Showbiz issue, we met up with comedian and VICE columnist Rob Delaney for a chat about hairiness, Twitter, and funny meat words. He’s a wise man who knows a lot about these things, and a few other things, like vaginas and not drinking, so give this video a spin and learn some stuff.
A while back VICE contributor, hot-shit Breaking Bad star, and cornerstone of modern comedy writing Bob Odenkirk pitched a show to Adult Swim. Its title was Let’s Do This and it followed the storied adventures of North Hollywood film mogul Cal McKenzie Goldberg and the various lunatics who work at his mouse house, Cal-Gold Productions. Adult Swim said, “Sure, Bob, you’re one of the funniest people alive, so why don’t you go film us a pilot and we’ll take it from there.” Then it sat in development purgatory (i.e., not quite development hell) for a bit until the Adult Swim guys came back and said something like, “Sorry, Bob, we love it and all… but it’s just too logical and has too much of a narrative for our viewers. They like stuff filled with non sequiturs and edited by rhesus monkeys inside a gas chamber that pumps meth vapor.” So there it sat again, for some length of time, until today when the righteous dudes over at the Swim released the pilot onto the web for all to see. This first—and as of now only—episode focuses on the challenges Cal faces while trying to complete a docu-fantasy “wizard picture” for a Ugandan warlord that will “knock the plates out of their lips” and stars a man named Harry Podder (that’s right—two Ds). Anyway, please enjoy, and afterward you might also find the short interview I did with Bob about the show and the pitch process and Hollywood pleasurable as well. And if any television executives who are into laffs are out there, get on the fucking train and make this show happen.
VICE: What’s the pitching process like for TV shows? Yours is interesting because it’s about a guy making movies—a comedy about The Industry. Bob Odenkirk: Nobody likes to do anything about Hollywood. They’ll say that nobody in America cares about how things are done in Hollywood or whatever. Of course, that’s kinda weird, because people keep track of the box office and there’s shows like 30 Rock that are a lot of fun to watch. But it is kinda true that executives get pitched a lot of things about Hollywood. I love Best Worst Movie and American Movie, and I love watching a bunch of people with no money trying to make movies and scheming and getting things done. Because, in some ways, everyone out here is that. Even the biggest mogul is really just a guy putting his money behind a bunch of people who’re all doing a fantasy and play-acting. I’ve gotten to act a little in ways where people are saying, “Oh wow! You’re doing good acting!” I’m like, “You mean, I’m a good pretender?” We’re pretending, you know? Robert DeNiro is just a really good pretender. I like thinking about those people and I always wanted to make something about them.
I think what Adult Swim liked about it was that we do that little trailer every week. Every week there’d be a trailer that could invoke something from pop culture—it could be almost a stand-alone piece. Like in this pilot,Harry Potter and the Lost LeBaron. You could almost just watch that. In fact, one of the reasons I did all this was as part of a benefit show that my wife and I put on at New Year’s. We showed the Harry Potter piece, just the trailer, to a bunch of kids—it was a kids’ show that we put on, called The Not Inappropriate Show. And they loved it so much I thought, “Wow, it’s pretty good! Why don’t we put this on the air?” And that made me call Mike Lazzo and ask him if he would host it or anything. Mike is the coolest TV executive of all. He genuinely is what every artist dreams executives would be like. He’s a very rare kind of person. He goes with his gut and when he says “I trust you” or when he says “You go ahead and make your thing the way you want to,” he means it. So he’s a very rare guy in this business. He even expressed to me like, “It’s about Hollywood. I don’t know if people care,” but he trusted me a lot. He also felt like—I really wanted to make some story happen where my character has an ex-wife who keeps coming around and they have a spark together even though they’ve been married twice. And he’s got this new son who’s kind of a dope… I wanted to get that story going in there. And he’s like, “Story doesn’t really work on our channel. The kids who watch Adult Swim just want to see craziness. But go ahead, if you want to do story go ahead. We’ll see.” Anyways, it is what it is. I think it came out well.