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Misleading Men: The Diceman Cometh

How Andrew Dice Clay somehow went from funny to not funny and then funny again

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Plenty of stand-up comedians have made the transition to movies: Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Amy Schumer. Then there’s the man born Andrew Clay Silverstein, who was perhaps the biggest comic in the world for the shortest amount of time. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of people loved Silverstein — better known as Andrew Dice Clay — and even more people couldn’t stand him. Along the way, he sold out Madison Square Garden twice and became the star of a cult action-comedy. Then, quite suddenly, he went away, only to be reclaimed by a new audience that appreciated his vulgar, misogynistic comedy for the self-aware caricature he always swore it had been.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Clay developed a routine he’d try out on promoters and club owners. It included impressions of Jerry Lewis’ Buddy Love character from The Nutty Professor and John Travolta’s Danny Zuko from Grease. He would play somebody else so he didn’t have to be himself, adopting the stage name Andrew Clay. “I did the singing, I did the dancing, I did the moves, I did the leaping and loving, I did everything perfectly,” he’d later recall of his Zuko routine in his 2014 memoir The Filthy Truth. “I was not imitating Travolta. I was Travolta.”

You’ll remember him as the “Diceman,” a character based on Buddy Love — the alter ego of The Nutty Professor’s kindly Sherman Klump (originally played by Jerry Lewis and then again by Eddie Murphy). But Clay’s riff on Love was abrasive and weasel-y — a guy who erroneously thought he was god’s gift to women — and Clay amplified the persona, adding a leather jacket, sunglasses and a foul mouth. He christened himself Andrew Dice Clay, and the “Diceman” became, essentially, a coarse ethnic stereotype of a sexist pig. (In 1990, Clay recalled a run-in he had at the gym with someone who said to him, “Oh, so you’re the Jew trying to act like an Italian, huh?”)

“The more Dice-like I got — cocky and rude and ready to say anything to anyone — the funnier I became,” he wrote of this new persona. “When I got offstage and called Mom and Dad back on Nostrand Avenue to tell them how great I was doing, I was sonny boy. I was Andrew.”

But it was the Diceman persona that helped make him a sensation in the ’80s, a time in which stand-up became a growth industry because of aspiring comics seeking the fame and fortune of Steve Martin and others. Clay did some acting, appearing in Pretty in Pink and on Michael Mann’s crime show, Crime Story. But his most memorable performances came from his stand-up, as he honed the Diceman character. He modeled the leather-jacket, motorcycle-punk aesthetic on Marlon Brando from The Wild One — but Brando always wore his masculinity like a burden, as if he was wrestling with the limits of what it meant to be a man. Clay transformed that turmoil into an uncomplicated cartoon, Dice exaggeratingly lighting his cigarettes and wearing a championship belt in the most uber-macho way possible. He came up with dirty variations on old nursery rhymes full of sexual innuendo and four-letter words. He insulted every minority group he could think of. And by 1987, it was all coming together, Dice gaining national attention by appearing on his hero Rodney Dangerfield’s HBO special Nothin’ Goes Right.

Dice’s mindset was simple: As he once put it, “I [thought I could be] the biggest comic in the world, because I’m giving them an image they’ve never had in comedy. I was adding rock & roll.”

He wasn’t the only stand-up at the time doing that: Rage-fueled comics such as Sam Kinison spewed their discontent, strutting and prowling the stage like they were cocksure rock stars. And like too many rock stars, these comics had serious women issues. Clay making a staple of his humor his distrust of females, whom he’d often describe as “bitches,” “whores” and “cunts.” Clay’s comedy was condemned in some quarters — MTV banned him after he did his act on the 1989 Video Music Awards — but it tapped into an ugly national mood among some men, who overreacted to the rise of feminism by embracing a regressive boys-club ethos made popular by self-pitying self-help books such as Iron John: A Book About Men. Diceman may have been all an act, but it resonated.

It doesn’t seem coincidental that Iron John hit stores in 1990, the same year that Clay blew up. In February, he played two nights at Madison Square Garden, becoming the first comic to sell out the historic New York venue, his audiences lapping up his chauvinistic routines without any sense of irony. A month later, he released The Day the Laughter Died, a stunt concert album in which he appeared in a small club to an audience who didn’t know he was going to be performing and intentionally bombed, resulting in two discs of painfully awkward, antagonistic anti-humor. (The idea was partly cooked up by Clay’s friend, the revered music producer Rick Rubin, who later recalled, “We laughed the hardest at the shows where the audience didn’t like Dice. It was just so funny and combative, like performance art.”) Then in May, he hosted Saturday Night Live, prompting the boycott of one cast member, Nora Dunn, and the evening’s performer, Sinéad O’Connor.

If controversy sells, then the stage was seemingly set for Clay’s ascension to Hollywood. That summer, he starred as a self-styled rock & roll detective in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, which stiffed at the box office. Indicative of the film’s childish tone, the trailer itself contains a homophobic joke:

One of Ford Fairlane’s screenwriters, Daniel Waters (who had previously written the great high school satire Heathers) wasn’t familiar with Clay before working on the film, so he went to see him do his Diceman act. “I watch him perform in this small bar and I thought he was great,” Waters later said. “I thought he was brilliant. … [He was] making fun of a macho asshole. This [movie] is going to be funny because I’m making fun of those kind of characters. Then, unfortunately, he became too popular while the movie was being made. Instead of what I thought was a parody of a macho asshole, he actually became a macho asshole.”

The tide turned quickly on that asshole. The following year, his concert film Dice Rules made less than $1 million, inspiring one of Roger Ebert’s few zero-stars review. “Andrew Dice Clay comes billed as a comedian, but does not get one laugh from me in the 87 minutes of this film,” the late critic wrote. “I do not find it amusing to watch someone mock human affliction, and I don’t find it funny, either, for him to use his fear of women as a subject for humor.” An act or not, audiences tired of the Diceman, and Clay drifted into obscurity. He still put out concert albums, and he even tried his hand at a sitcom, 1995’s Bless This House, but Dice became a relic of a cruder, less-enlightened age, his toxic persona swept away by cleaner, wryer comics like Jerry Seinfeld — not to mention more feminist rock bands like Nirvana and Bikini Kill.

And yet, in recent years Clay has enjoyed an unlikely renaissance. In 2013, he received good reviews for a small dramatic part in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and this year he’s the star of his own Curb Your Enthusiasm-like Showtime sitcom Dice, which ends its first season Sunday. It’s weird: People suddenly seem in on the joke. He now receives sympathetic, we-always-got-it-was-an-act profiles in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, which have celebrated the Diceman character, comparing it to the audience-challenging routines of groundbreaking anti-comedy titans like Andy Kaufman.

“It’s very simple,” he told the Los Angeles Times in the buildup to Ford Fairlane’s release. “Andrew Clay Silverstein is the person. Andrew Dice Clay is the show.” More than 25 years later, nostalgia has softened our memories of that show we once hated so much.

Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.