Desperation is mostly inseparable from masculinity. Men strain for fame, for female attention, for sad, trivial triumphs over one another. We are a people perpetually trying to figure it all out—flexing in the mirror, using lines we've heard before, trying to seem bold and dignified. We're not cowboys or poets. If we are, we wear it as a disguise. Mostly, we are vulnerable and self-conscious and probably masturbating for the third time on a Tuesday afternoon, because we're off and that Lea Thompson scene in All the Right Moves just came on. We are not men, but almost. Note: columns may also contain William Holden hero worship and meditations on cured meats.
If the name Andrew Dice Clay has any significance to you, it is, inevitably, as the blockheaded, spectacularly leathered obscenity-dispenser who once looked like some combination of Mad Max and Liberace, who now looks like the guy who lives downstairs from your grandmother and can get you a great deal on calling cards. The perfect avatar for all that slimy, bicep-smooching late-80s male machismo, slicking his hair back in every reflective surface, winking at girls in skirts and when the girls snort in disgust he holds up his arms with a "WHATS-A-MATTA-HONEY?" and then tugs on his crotch and lights another cigarette. The definitive representation of the swaggering, filthy, bombastic "I’M HERE, WATCH WHERE YOU’RE WALKING" New York City, a place memorialized in heavy-handed Spike Lee montages, scored to car horns and relentless come ons, all intolerance and impatience and flamboyance, every accent like bad parody.
Andrew Dice Clay is that man. He is so that man. He is throwing you against a motel minifridge and he is chewing the button off of your jeans. He is shouting in your ear as you place his takeout order, and he is telling you to make sure they don’t forget his extra fucking ketchup, sweetheart. But he is also something else. In a sense, Andrew Dice Clay is the greatest comedian you’ve never heard of.
On December 26 in 1989, under the direction of the recently departed Def Jam maestro, Rick Rubin, Dice Clay, the biggest standup comedian on the planet, recorded The Day the Laughter Died, a two-disc, completely unstructured album at Dangerfield’s (capacity: 250) in New York City. Here, Dice Clay abandons all of his recognized routine. The small, tourist- and couple-heavy audience, there in its post-Christmas malaise, awaiting nursery rhymes and gay bits, instead gets a set almost entirely devoid of conventional jokes. It is an hour and 40 minutes of him squashing the crowd like bugs, making fun of the ugly sweaters some pathetic guy from Texas is dutifully wearing because his girlfriend got it for him, and asking where the telethon for hunchbacks is. It is a lecture on, plainly, not giving a fuck. It is one of the greatest standup comedy albums of all time. It is Dice Clay as empowered and undeterred as any comedian will ever be. You know Rockstar Dice. This Dice was more than that.
His insults are aerobic exercises, welding together as appalling and devastating a collection of words as he can without preparation. The thrill is not in reducing women to bologna-lipped cum troughs, or men to ugly gnomes with dicks the size of Gameboy batteries, but in doing this at all, doing it on the spot, indifferent to your reception. He thrives in those sweaty, claustrophobic settings. He lives to be the adversary.
Louis CK had this to say about Dice Clay: “I see him all the time at The Comedy Store, and he struggles through his sets. But he does it on purpose. Dice is a really interesting case, because he really likes the dark side of comedy. I have a lot of respect for that guy. The act that he packaged into this ridiculous character is very boring to me, the stuff that’s on his albums. But seeing him live in a club in front of, like, 12 people is a great study. He really knows what he’s doing, and he is really interesting doing standup when he is more himself.
“He actually has a double album that nobody really knows about called The Day The Laughter Died. It’s him on Christmas Eve, and there’s almost no one in the crowd, and he’s fucking dying, and he’s fighting with people in the audience and getting heckled. People are walking out. He put it on an album, and this was at the height of his fame.”
His arena shows are about FUCKIN' HOOERS and quotidian inconveniences, texting and Starbucks menus and lane changes, because his audience of howling white philistines needs something they can process easily and celebrate. In that context he is only the balding loudmouth with a keep-my-dick-in-your-mouth-so-I-don’t-have-to-hear-you-talk-honey chauvinism. The audience salutes the mirage, and he respects it because it’s his, but he lives in its cold shadow. The real Dice Clay, The Day the Laughter Died Dice Clay, is fearless and precise. He’s at his best not during rehearsed material, but in improvisational moments, shredding subjects in the audience for their blind adherence to societal conventions. To Dice Clay, they exist specifically to be exposed. It’s not so much target practice as it is shooting a bazooka at an anthill. Frustration swirls into an indignation uninterrupted by reason or basic human respiratory functions until his voice is just a frothy, spitted sputtering of words. The Angry Guy is a tired archetype in comedy, but there is a real beauty in a sincere irritation devoid of all that shrill, contrived Sam Kinison rage. He talks in a whiny, half-annoyed, half-disgusted tone, as if someone just told him they shit their pants and wanted him to change them. He alternates between insouciance and window-pane-rattling God wrath. In the second season of Celebrity Apprentice, when explaining to Donald Trump why his team lost a challenge, he said, “We get there in the morning and there’s no bagels, there’s no butter…”
The real Dice Clay is self-aware, contemplative and insecure, still loud and brutish, probably wiping his hands on his jeans in the parking lot of a Wendy’s with the car idling, but none of that casual disregard for women, morals, and condoms. He is volatile and almost fragile. The man perched on stage with the Tony Manero cool, smirking and taking long drags from his cigarette is cemented back there in 1987, talking about Old Mother Goose (he fucked her). His latter-day Howard Stern appearances see him interrupting Howard’s GOTCHA revelations with "See the thing is" and "Ya not LISTENING tuh me" insistences.
He is someone who sees comedy, the stage, the canvas for performance, simply as an amplifier. When you know, with such profound certainty, exactly who you are, you are able to pretend to be anything else for recreation. Dice Clay has played the racist, the homophobe, the inattentive sex-haver, the repugnant philanderer. It was all for you, for them. It should be seen as no less a stain on his character than it is on Scorsese’s for portraying unrepentant gangsters as protagonists, than it is on Notorious BIG’s for portraying ruthless thieves as urban heroes. It is an artifice. It is a means of engaging, of grabbing you by the throat and making you reconsider why people behave the way they do, but more importantly, making you laugh at something that is ridiculous.
“Why do they call it multiple sclerosis? Can’t you get it just once? Everybody I meet’s got multiple sclerosis.”
He does three voices— voices women make, voices dentists and nerds and people who use Twitter make, and the voice he makes. You either get fucked or never fuck or fuck like he does, like some rabid Caligula disciple. He sees the universe in such absolute terms. There is no subtlety or room for nuance. As he once said, “I don’t understand bisexuals; you either suck dick or you don’t.” He is crude and indelicate, blowing money on garish furniture, his dih-vawse, blackjack, walking to get the newspaper in his underwear.
Few people have ever so willingly abandoned discretion and decency just for a laugh, detonating everything in sight and cackling as the pieces fall to the ground. He’s Paulie Walnuts making conversation on a car ride from New Brunswick to Binghamton to pick up stolen iPod Nanos. On Dice Clay’s podcast, which debuted last week, in the back of a truck in Las Vegas at two in the morning, a question from the audience about his favorite TV show growing up spiraled from “Petticoat-fuckin-Junction” to “Petti-cum-junction” to “Petti cum all over my fucking dick,” to a six-minute absurdist recollection of his first orgasm, which was reached when he had an itchy penis and decided to scratch it by having sex with a “furry glove that my mother got me at Sears.”
In 1990 the New York Times said witnessing his standup is to “come to a fresh realization of what a Nazi rally must have been like.” But to say he is just some wretched misogynist is an inaccurate, lazy hypothesis reached by a generation prone to immediate outrage. On Howard Stern, Dice indirectly admitted to his wife regularly licking his asshole; in a Slate interview he talked about how exciting it is when the girl gets on top and “bangs the shit out of you.” He says he doesn’t watch porn because it’s artificial and implausible. He has an entire bit about being “Richard Nixon in that ass,” and he talks about girls needing to make sure there aren’t any toilet paper bits in their vaginas because he loves to eat pussy. He is maybe not a Romantic, but he is not a lecherous date rapist either. Dice is an instigator; as eager to elicit a human response as he is curious what the response will be. He is the deal with it dog, a giant neon billboard of him squeezing a waitress’s ass with "HI, HATERS" written in blinking Christmas lights at the bottom.
There is a kind of spectacular wrongness and stridence to the Dice Clay persona that is almost charming, the way it captures a specific place and time in America. It is like seeing a cartographer’s map before the discovery of a spherical Earth. Whether or not he—Andrew Clay Silverstein—actually is this person should matter little to the audience’s consumption of his act; there was and is something identifiable about it, a familiarity that you can recognize and that makes you smile, even if it also makes you groan. He is the taste of cheap light beer or your uncle farting on the couch in his sleep. He is a character you could revile if he were real, but repackaged as a comfortingly blatant imitation. Laugh at this guy you recognize without worrying about him calling you a faggot. He is someone so willing to be the douchebag, debasing himself for our enjoyment.
Photo by Adrienne Brawley, via
If you see him now, the aesthetic is the same, but Dice is more subdued—kind of a lumpy, deflated, stubbly symbol of excess, of hubris stretched thin over a smoldering ball. He holds his cigarette but rarely lights it, compulsively putting it to his mouth, waving it around, holding this whole routine like a relic from a better time. You wait, you nod, you chant along to the bits in unison. If you’re patient, there’s something else there, too.
Previously by John Saward:
John Saward likes O.V. Wright and eating guacamole with no pants on. He lives in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter @RBUAS.