Andrew Dice Clay has been taking his lumps lately from the media intelligentsia, so to speak, but you wouldn’t know it by seeing his act. Vile, crude, misogynistic, racist, homophobic --these are some of the terms with which critics, reporters and temperature-takers of the nation’s moral and cultural climate have tried to size him up and dress him down.
And he’s been shocked, shocked , to hear it, telling every earnest interviewer and talk-show host nodding in sympathy his heartfelt explanation of how the Diceman attitude is all a meaningless act and that at heart he’s really still a sweet Jewish boy from Brooklyn who wouldn’t even have Dice Clay as a friend if he could afford to get rid of him. Then he goes out live to packed houses--not houses, packed sports arenas and amphitheaters-- all over the country to meet with thunderous receptions that border the delirious.
What meets Clay when he walks out onstage is not just the pleasurable recognition and cheer by which an affectionate audience greets a familiar comedian. It’s more like a sonic boom laced with whistles and cries that seem torn from the audience’s viscera, and it happened again Friday here at the Sports Arena. To call Clay vile, crude, racist, homophobic, etc., is only to place him as a normal soldierly practitioner of what stand-up comedy has become-- everyone is foul-mouthed and reflexively derisive these days. That shock wave tells us that Clay has plugged into something deep in the psyche of his audience.
Clay addresses the sexual fear that grips the heart of virtually every male who passes through adolescence, as well as those who never quite make it out. He has partial antecedents in Rabelais and Henry Miller, Rusty Warren and Redd Foxx, all those wild party animals whose ribaldry was a tonic release from the fearsome Gorgons of the sexual subconscious. Even his biker look suggests one of the guys hanging out on the stoop or the street corner, swapping outrageous preemptive macho fantasies about those foreign objects of their turbulent desire: women.
In that context, Clay’s comedy has its place, for whether you like it or not most humor is rooted in fear--the put-down is an attempt to make the strangeness of the Other, whether sexual, racial or ethnic, manageable.
Once it gets out of locale however and onto a national hookup, a strange metamorphosis takes place. The inside joke one would in the name of decency have the good sense not to repeat suddenly becomes a broad reference that subverts the culture’s best intentions--as opposed to its deceits. The joke isn’t a fanciful and tacit recognition of shared uncertainty anymore, or of feeling a victim of fear or suppression or exploitation; it’s about finding other victims and exalting one’s self by putting them down, by dehumanizing them.
No one could construe Clay’s act as an exchange of comedic pleasantry. The energy that billowed from that audience was a tidal release of aggression and hostility, of a tamped-down rage that seems more and more to characterize the surface features of American pop expression, and which Clay, among others, shows a demagogic genius at exploiting.
And what of the women in the house? Also young, mostly attractive and decked out in leather, or in form-fitting black or bright sexy cocktail dresses, they were as responsive as the men, laughing along at Clay’s sneering depiction of them as “dumb pigs.” They dismiss it later by saying the Diceman is only an act. But an act is a suspension of disbelief in order to arrive at certain truths--that’s what theater is about.
What’s at the root of this masochism--a lifetime of being made to feel inadequate by endless storms of accusatory commercials, as well as male bluster? The deeper truth that roils up through Clay’s calculated triumphal ignorance has only in part to do with sexual frustration. Most of it appears distinctly 1990 American, the howl of a generation malled in, cineplexed, media-manipulated, undereducated, self-disgusted and cut off from the wellspring of an inner life, a proportionately real experience.
It’s easy to think that by smearing paint on the Diceman’s billboards and boycotting his movie we’re striking a blow for civility, and maybe we are. But it’s a mistake to think that he’s just another indifferently talented self-promoter swaggering along American show biz’s disingenuous scene. He’s touched an involuntary reflex in his audience that seems to emanate from something deeper than shared loneliness.
It feels more like the primal rage of true alienation; the relief bursting from them suggests that at least this is one thing they share that isn’t a fantasy.