Is There Any Value to Be Found in the Intentionally Offensive Comedy of Andrew “Dice” Clay?
Madison Square Garden has a capacity to fit over 19,000 human beings in one area. The fabled stadium is host to both the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers. Hundreds, if not thousands of musicians from almost every genre of music have played at this stadium, but only a handful of standup comics have had the ability to headline this vast monolith, most recently Kevin Hart and Eddie Izzard. However, only one comedian has performed here and completely sold out the stadium two nights in a row. That comic is Andrew “Dice” Clay.
Let that sink in for a moment. For a brief run during the late 1980s, Andrew “Dice” Clay was so popular that he was able to not only play Madison Square Garden, but also completely sell it out two nights in a row. And, should there be a need to point this out, he was no crowd-pleasing everyman comic like the great Brian Regan. His comedy was brutally politically incorrect and absolutely filthy. Groups for women’s rights, gay rights, and conservative values crowd regularly protested Dice’s shows. The controversy he engendered culminated in the departure of Saturday Night Live regular Nora Dunn when Dice hosted in 1990.
Andrew “Dice” Clay in fact represents the crass excesses of the 1980s and the last gasp of truly politically incorrect comedy. While it could be argued that type of comedy is alive and well in Anthony Jeselnik and Amy Schumer today, both utilize a wit and intelligence in their shocking humor that betrays a winking nod to the audience. It is a carefully choreographed dance the two perform, while Dice hits the audience over the head with a hammer that leaves no room for subtlety.
Although Dice had made the rounds as a character actor for a couple of years before breaking out after this Rodney Dangerfield special, he was relatively unknown at the time it aired in 1987. It is hard to tell, as he maintains a cocky swagger, fist raised above his head in triumph as he makes his way to the stage. Once he gets there, he wordlessly and without so much as acknowledging the audience, pulls out a pack of cigarettes, and flamboyantly lights up onstage. It’s only after taking a drag off his smoke that he barrels into his now famous nursery rhymes.
It is that cockiness and commitment to character that made Andrew Dice Clay an overnight sensation. Even for the 1980s, his character is anachronistic. Looking like a refugee from The Outsiders, Dice is old school in his attitude toward women and immigrants. Is he chauvinistic? Sure. Xenophobic? Of course. But he also encapsulates a virulent machismo that was quickly evaporating from modern life during the 1980s and continues to be a source of existential ennui for men even today.
In a way Andrew Dice Clay in his heyday served much the same purpose as the highly acclaimed television show Mad Men serves today; a guilty peek into the past in which men were authorized to be completely selfish and dismissive of the needs of women. They both share the same fascination with slick outfits (although where the boys of Mad Men wear sleek suits, Dice wears any number of garish leather jackets) and, of course, cigarettes. However the cigarettes, while inviting and glamorous, serve as symbolic warnings: the past is a seductive thing, but underneath the glamour is a disease that is corrosive and will ultimately lead to death.
For Mad Men that means the death of the characters’ very souls; they live in the pursuit of an American dream that never quite pays off the way they were promised. For Andrew Dice Clay the price to pay is his very livelihood. In 1990, Dice climbed to the very zenith of show business success. Sold out shows at Madison Square Garden, near constant press coverage, and a starring role in the feature film The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (a neo-noir detective film that neatly plays with the Phillip Marlowe conceit of a private dick as a man out of time, sarcastically commenting on the diminishing values of everything he holds dear; only in this film the ire is directed at hair—band metal and the soulless music industry). However, the film failed at the box office and the mounting criticism that Dice received throughout his climb to the top of the heap finally proved to be too much for him, culminating in a rather touching breakdown during an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show.
This type of pontificating is all well and good, but as Dice may ask, “Who gives a fuck? Is it funny?”
Through the character Andrew “Dice” Clay, Andrew Clay Silverstein developed an act that was purposely shocking. While we may not agree with anything that the Diceman has to say, we find ourselves enthralled in the blunt and brutal way he says it. Anyone who comes from a working class background knows someone like Dice, a charismatic, likeable, but ultimately vulgar guy that you can’t help but find amusing in spite of yourself. He says the things he says not because he necessarily believes in what he is saying, but because he knows it will get a rise out of you. Dice appeals to the 13-year-old boy in us and despite our liberal, enlightened natures, we can’t help but laugh at what he has to say.
Now, if you made it to the end of the clip, you’ll find some good old-fashioned homophobia that is too strong for even the Westboro Baptist Church to go along with. Make no mistake, Dice’s act is incredibly homophobic, not to mention sexist. In fact, much of his act is, quite frankly, indefensible. Hell, even his jokes are pretty weak when we break them down, but that’s the interesting and queasy area standup comedy sometimes takes us. Certainly, Sam Kinison (who had a heated rivalry with Dice back in the day) is difficult to listen to today because of those attitudes. Hell, even Eddie Murphy’s stand-up films Raw and Delirious have parts that are hard to sit through, but it’s that danger that people seek out when they go to comedy clubs. Back in the 1950s, Redd Foxx became a cult sensation by releasing several “party records” which were considered very dirty at the time, so this seeking out of controversy is nothing new for standup comedy. Lenny Bruce sacrificed everything for the right to freedom of speech, although his vulgarity was often utilized in service for civil rights rather than against them.
However, as times have changed, so have Dice’s views about gays. Well, kind of. Here he is talking about gay marriage during his recent Showtime special, Indestructible.
After watching previous clips of Dice and this recent one, we see the evolution of the acceptance of gays and the concept of gay marriage in America. When even bozos like Andrew Dice Clay are advocating for its acceptance and legality in America, although in perhaps not the most enlightened way possible, it shows a remarkable sign of progress in an era in which the gay community was an easy target for comedians of this ilk, but have now come around to the acceptance of LGBT rights.
Of course, Clay would argue that this acceptance is nothing new. Throughout his controversial career, he has never made any claims to be anything other than a clown, although in interviews he sometimes has a Norma Desmond vibe about him. In a 2008 interview with the AV Club, he states that “it’s not about the character, it’s about the material.” However, it seems to be rather an obtuse statement from someone who’s been performing comedy for over thirty years. Good comedy material is a bit like a good song. It can be covered by anyone in their own way and still be delightful, but try telling a Dice joke in any other voice than Dice’s and it will be stillborn.
This is not to say that Andre “Dice” Clay is afraid to push boundaries or to get experimental. In 1990, under the production of the Rick Rubin (the genius producer behind some of the greatest albums of the 1980s and 1990s who worked with The Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, LL Cool J, Johnny Cash, and co-founded Def Jam records with Russell Simmons), Dice recorded a comedy album at Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy clubs, Dangerfield’s. It was an unannounced visit, meaning that unlike most comedy records, the room was not packed with fans of the comedian. What results is one of the most fascinating comedy albums ever recorded.
The album was called The Day the Laughter Died and it’s simply a brutal assault on the audience. At a certain point, the listener must pause to reflect on what it is they’re listening to. Is it a comedy show or a punk rock piece of aggressive performance art? Dice is confrontational toward audience members, walking out many in the room and gleefully so. At the end of the album, he goes on a bizarre rant that is practically Kaufmanesque in its obliqueness.
It’s an album recorded as a defiant answer to the critics who claimed that he was not a real standup comic. It’s raw, unrehearsed and downright uncomfortable. It shows Andrew “Dice” Clay as a young comic at the height of his success purposely burning it all down in front of us. For those who gravitate towards standup comedy, it is this willful self-destruction that is part of standup’s appeal. The ability to get up on stage and be a raw nerve of emotion and destroy everything and slowly build it back up is a powerful and alluring skill to have in life and in art and it is something that Andrew Dice Clay has been doing for decades. It’s certain that Dice would not be comfortable with this type of dissecting of his art and career, though. He lives in a different world where he makes the rules up as he goes along. Or as he puts it more succinctly in his “hour back…” bit: “doesn’t matter if it’s funny…doesn’t matter if anybody gets it. It’s funny!”