COMMENTARY : Live From New York ... It's a Sorry Spectacle Indeed : Comedy: After all the hype was said and done, 'Saturday Night Live' with Andrew Dice Clay was pretty much a disaster.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was supposed to be the night when Andrew Dice Clay came out of the wild kingdom of cable to face the nation for the first time on network TV and answer the question, for now at least: Is he really as vile as all that?

But the image that lingers in mind after "Saturday Night Live" signed off isn't that of Clay's Lords of Flatbush swagger, his adolescent jokes, his soft shape and washerwoman's gelid arms, his cue-card acting, or his languid, faintly aggrieved Bensonhurst voice.

What hangs on as an after-image instead is Kevin Nealon's smarmy satanic grin. It's the look of a man who pretends to reach for you while you're drowning and then steals your watch, an expression he's cultivated in his character of the news interviewer who hounds his celebrity subjects to tears--the smug triumph of having located their sorrow and then gutted them for the viewer's Romanesque pleasure.

That was one of a number of "Saturday Night Live" touches that distracted us from what we thought would be the main issue of Clay's appearance: Was he someone who gave comedic vent to base sexual pleasure--albeit that of the white male gripped in a terminal state of arrested adolescence--and therefore revealed certain truths we like to keep suppressed in the name of propriety? Or was he a racist, homophobic misogynist who played to the yahoo mentality of what is becoming an increasingly dysfunctional American culture, an anticipatory growl from the black maw of hell?

The stage had been set ever since his appearance on "SNL" had been announced, for the drumbeat had been out on Clay for a year-and-a-half at least, when after a decade of mediocre impressions and so-so jokes he began to zero in on what he calls his baloney pony and re-connected his act with the blunt energy of the street.

It was simple: Mix the images of John Travolta's Tony Manero with the Fonz, Sylvester Stallone, Brando of "The Wild One" and any number of other TV and screen street toughs with an affinity for leather, and serve them up to a culture that's always looking for quick fixes for its ongoing identity crisis, and is being sundered by economic, racial and sexual tensions.

Give attitude and you gain definition--that's the credo right now. Clay gives great attitude, cool, contemptuous and drowsily self-satisfied. That the Diceman's view of the world is formed on the stoop, hanging out with the guys, has an appealing simplicity for the embattled American male ego which finds so many traitors to its sex in other men. So what did the women's movement give us, Roseanne Barr? Thanks a lot, America. Best, thinks Clay, put them in their place. Upside down. To Clay, a woman isn't a sometime thing, she's a dispensable orifice. She: "I have a boyfriend." He: "I don't care. Uh! I'm through. Get out."

That's the act, with variations on the theme. Some might view it as our most recent manifestation of trashcult excrescence. Others might consider it an amiable goof, a harmless comedic pig-out that intends no one in real life any ill-will (you keep hearing reports of what a sweet guy Clay is when he's not doing the act). What's indisputable however is that he's become some kind of national sensation--he's sold out both the Universal Amphitheater and Madison Square Garden in the past year, and it isn't just the bellowing Wrestle-o-mania types who're egging him on. There are plenty of women in the audience too. And celebrities. Stallone is a regular fan. So is Cher.

Nora Dunn's protest towards Clay's appearance was only one of many. What distinguished it of course was that Dunn is a regular "SNL" cast member, and if one was going to protest any of the company's endlessly dumb, snotty routines in which satire is confused with derision, you would've thought someone might have acted sooner, during the years, say, when Garrett Morris was demeaned week after week. And where was Executive Producer Lorne Michaels, nee Lorne Linowitz, when the cast put together a game show sketch called "Jew or Not Jew"?

It's conceivable, though unlikely, that one of "SNL's" original cast members might've have taken a walk over something he or she found offensive (though John Belushi plainly had no use for the company's women), except that they were all more or less of a like mind, energetic, anarchic, dedicated to overthrowing the Establishment. They may have been naive--how far will a rock 'n' roll ethos get you in the world of Realpolitik ? But they had a kind of free-for-all joie de vivre; if someone wanted to bow out for a week over a sensitive issue, the likelihood is that there'd be beer and pizza and maybe a welcoming toke waiting in the office for the dissident's return. After all, in those days, who could take offense at someone who took exception? But things have changed over the years. An "SNL" insider observed last year: "(The show) doesn't address itself to being funny anymore. It has some obscure system of laughter that's inbred and non-humorous. An unfunny vibration permeates the show."

When Clay came on last week, the vibration became a sonic boom. Even if his routine was stripped down to its mainframe by the censors, you heard enough to get the message. Unless you consider his lame comeback to a heckler a paradigm of devastating wit, you knew that this was no new rival to Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, as some, including his agent, have maintained.

It was strictly a one-note samba. A drag on a cigarette and a strip-show one-liner. Dead in the eyes. It was hard to focus on Clay however because the "SNL" cast kept throwing in the distraction of its discomfiture, not about Clay, but about Dunn.

In an opening segment, when Jon Lovitz's Satan showed Clay around the set, we saw a pair of female legs sticking out from under a battered amplifier. "That was Nora Dunn," Lovitz said. The audience howled and your stomach sank. That prop wasn't built in 20 minutes. The company had gambled that the audience wouldn't consider Dunn's action a gesture of courage and conscience, but of spoilsport pique.

The company gambled right, and took heart. "We're all feeling uptight because . . . Stepfanie Kramer has left 'Hunter,' " said Dennis Miller, disingenuously. "I've decided to protest by giving a lackluster performance," said Jan Hooks, with a grin. But "All the protests won't make Andrew Dice Clay go away." Whitney Brown came on as an uptight Planned Parenthood spokesman in a suit claiming that Clay's terms were unsuitable. "For 'honey pot' we think a better phrase is 'the vertical smile.' " The implication was that Dunn was some kind of censorious Republican schoolmarm.

"I've expressed my protest by appearing in only three sketches," said Kevin Nealon. "I only meant for you to like me." Then that kiss-of-death grin.

Long before the show dribbled to its pitiable end, several things became clear. If you knew that one of the classic uses of comedy was to make experience manageable, this troupe, working in the comedy Zeitgeist of 1990, had made it irrelevant. Dunn never said that Clay shouldn't appear. She just didn't want to dignify his presence with her own. What was most shocking was that for years she had been part of a family of performers that prided itself on iconoclasm, but the moment someone in their midst expressed personal conviction, she was expelled. Her epitaph was writ in sarcasm.

The Village Voice's comedy critic Laurie Stone summed up the trend in a conversation last year when she said, "Comedians like Clay and Sam Kinison are hyped by their promoters as dangerous and risky when in fact they're conventional--they're telling the audience what it already believes. The true radical bucks the power position. The comedians who're really funny never align themselves with power."

Clay's act was deflected not by censorship but by the sleazy undertone of treachery from a new variant on Ezra Pound's "generation of the uncomfortable and smug." And in most of the media coverage of the event, when you saw few give Dunn any credence, you had to realize that in 1990 America, the entertainment media had become a sacred institution that looked on dissent as sacrilege. Last year, when "Saturday Nightly Live" celebrated its 15th anniversary, a lot of people knew it had long ago become a mediocrity. Last Saturday, it became a disgrace.

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