Andrew Dice Clay, who played to a sellout house at the Universal Amphitheatre on Thursday, is riding the strangely schizoid phenomenon of a comedian who may be one of the most reviled figures in entertainment while remaining one of its hottest tickets, like a truly dirty secret everyone wants to hear.
Newspaper columnists deride his grossness, his misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and the expletives that fill up his act like lumps in a vile stew. Improv owner Budd Friedman has said that Clay is the only comedian he's ever bad-mouthed in his life.
Clay earns every epithet thrown his way, but anyone who is either loved too much or hated too hard requires a deeper look. He isn't, after all, working in a vacuum. You could say that there are millions of pretend tough guys like Clay hanging out, indolent and dull-eyed, entertaining rapacious sex-fantasies.
So why has this one become such a cause celebre?
First, Clay's a showman. He knows how to play big. Ten minutes into his act, when your ear is beginning to tune out material that's already run its course, he still holds your eye.
Second, the macho image he struts, part Elvis Presley glitter idol and part Sylvester Stallone biker, strikes a vibrant chord in the obscure and secretly fretful hearts of the young men who make up the bulk of his audience. There were a lot of weight-lifter types out there Thursday, a lot of guys in black leather jackets, blue-collar figures and people who looked as though they'd left school early to go to work; men who, when they get together, talk about car engines and admire the Raiders for being the most vicious team in the NFL (there were some Raider jackets there, too).
There were younger frat types as well, who looked as though they were checking Clay out as a prelude to a beer bust. The entire crowd, in fact, was amazingly charged, long before Clay took the stage, with the visceral intensity that surrounds a championship prizefight or an NBA final. Clay spoke to their sexual energy and their confusion at the same time; if all the women he mentioned were just a series of pliant orifices accompanied by plaintive little nagging voices, he could take the blunt physical pleasure he wanted, any way he wanted it, and disdain the rest (female, during sex: "I just wanted to be held." Clay: "Well, ya got the bonus plan, baby").
It could be said that with all the legitimate and painful struggles women have had over the years to gain recognition as equals, it hasn't been all that easy for men, either, in their deep apprehension of modern society as a lonely crowd with few compass points on which to peg an identity. The macho strut can be part sexual vigor, but it can also be part delayed adolescence, where all the messy ambiguities of the flesh disappear in the totalitarian allure of the sex video in one's head.
Clay speaks to those fantasies of complete physical conquest and emotional disengagement. His play at being dumb also appeals to America's stubborn penchant for hanging on to ignorance, as though it were a surrogate for youth. When he says things like "I hate to use these propatactics" or "I don't have anything against gays, it's those transtesticles I can't stand," those mispronunciations are a play at one's early clumsiness at learning (he even has a litany of obscene nursery rhymes).
Or they're a play, too, on the Latinisms of the educated, those authoritarian symbols of the duplicitous, the corrupt, the impotent, the irrelevant. The wise leaders who, when not on the take, ceded national pride to Iranian terrorists, and the economy to Japan. ("You can't speak the . . . language," goes one of his famous lines, "get out of the country!")
Clay also restates one of the underlying tenets of the '80s: In the face of so much of our cultural phoniness, attitude travels. Watching him at work and hearing his adoring audience call out the lines in his routines in unison, high-fiving and cheering, you can understand how a demagogue works the anxious hearts of his audience by providing an image, something specific, something clear. A sequinned leather jacket. A swastika.
A lot of people fear the ripple effect that Clay's mock-thuggish attitude will have on other talent that wants to emulate his success, show-biz success being the supreme arbiter of popular taste in our time. And there's no question that the retrograde simplicity he plays to is perilously allied with our mounting tolerance for barbaric self-expression. What's surprising about Clay in person, though, is how much of his act seems to be amiable goofin' on a very low level. It isn't John Rambo we see up there; it's more an undiluted street version of the Fonz.