Andrew Clay has rolled his “Dice.”
But whether audiences will be willing to gamble is up in the air.
Clay, whose notorious foul-mouthed “Dice” character made him one of the most loved and hated comedians in modern times, is now ready for prime time. The comic, whose X-rated routines contained graphic depictions of sex and disparaging remarks about women, minorities and gays, is starring in CBS’ “Bless This House,” a blue-collar comedy airing during the so-called family hour at 8 p.m. Wednesdays, starting next week.
To distance himself from his stand-up character, Andrew (Dice) Clay has dropped the “Dice” from his name. In interviews, Clay has said that while he continues to do stand-up, “Dice” is gone. He said he became trapped by that persona when all he really wanted was to be recognized as an actor.
Officials at CBS, the executive producers of the new series and other observers of Clay’s career acknowledge that overcoming expectations about Clay is a formidable task.
Fans expecting him to appear in a rhinestone-studded leather jacket spouting vulgarities and raunchy nursery rhymes are bound to be disappointed. And people who were repulsed by his stand-up comedy may not be willing to give the show a chance.
Further exaggerating CBS’ dilemma with the comedy is that the network has not had a hit in the Wednesday 8 p.m. time slot since “Good Times” in 1977.
But Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment, said he felt that the network’s marketing of the actor and a positive response to the show would overcome anti-Clay sentiment. In on-air promotions, Clay is shown as a brash but warm-and-fuzzy husband and father.
“Yes, people do come to him with a preconceived notion, so that’s why with all the advertising and other things we’re doing, we’re letting folks know that this is a very, very different Andrew Clay, and it’s OK to watch him in a family sitcom at 8 p.m.,” Moonves said.
On the show, Clay plays a struggling postal worker, Burt Clayton, who lives in a rental home with his wife (Cathy Moriarty) and their two children. The style of the show and the bantering between the two main characters have drawn some comparisons to “The Honeymooners.”
In market research that CBS has conducted on Clay, “audiences come in with one notion about what they think, and they leave with an opposite opinion,” Moonves said. “Women have come in thinking that he’s anti-women. They remember what happened with Nora Dunn [a “Saturday Night Live” cast member who boycotted the program when Clay hosted in 1993].
“But after they’ve seen the show, they leave very surprised. They said they find him to be a very warm, likable man who genuinely cares about his wife and family on the show. It seemed to surprise a lot of people.”
Moonves said that Clay’s new persona is a reflection of his new lifestyle: “He is happily married and is the father of two young kids. I’m very happy with him. He’s a terrific talent.”
Jane Milmore, one of the executive producers of the show, said she also had some reluctance about Clay when she first met him last year when they worked together on six episodes of an unaired comedy, “The Ties That Bind,” with Ralph Macchio. In that show, Clay played a supporting role as Macchio’s working-class brother.
“I had been very reluctant, but it was clear right away that that character was just an act,” Milmore said. “He’s extremely courteous and nice to all the women around him.”
Added fellow executive producer Billy Van Zandt: “I think most of that stuff about ‘Dice’ is past. He’s very much a family man now. His comedic instincts are just wonderful. It’s clear that he is on equal footing with Cathy. We just feel that if people just give the show a chance, they will feel the same way we do.”
Clay, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said at a press conference in July that he was grateful to Moonves for allowing him to show there was more to him than “Dice.”
“Eight years ago, when my career took off, I was a stand-up comic looking to get acting jobs,” Clay said. “What happened, rather than me getting a part in a sitcom, maybe playing that character without that kind of language, is the Diceman took off before Andrew Clay took off. And to me, it sort of got out of hand. I had a lot of anxiety over it.”
Much of that anxiety had to do with the audience reaction to “Dice.” He said many of his fans didn’t want to hear jokes, just vulgarity and cursing.
He added that there was also an uglier side: “I would be in a mall and have guys come over to me and say how they would smack their women around. Now, I talked about sex. I didn’t talk about beating women.”
Clay also said the media helped bring “Dice” to an end.
“As an actor and as the Diceman, I wanted to put a mirror in people’s faces and say, ‘This is the kind of idiot that does walk around,’ but do it comedically because things are so tense today.”
He said the media never got the joke: “I would do it so real and so dead-on and so committed to that character that they would have to write about . . . the comedy of hate.”
Clay said things started getting out of hand, adding, “When it fell apart, I was sort of happy because it was time to get back to basics and get back to what you’re really planning to do in this business, which is television and movies.”
Mitzi Shore, owner of the Comedy Store, where Clay got his start, said she doesn’t think audiences will have any trouble accepting the Diceless Clay. “He’s very magnetic on the screen, and he’s got a good handle on what he’s doing now.”
Shore said she saw Clay perform at Bally’s in Las Vegas several months ago, and several audience members yelled for him to do his dirty nursery rhymes. She said Clay replied, “If you want that, go buy my record. I don’t do that anymore.”
* “Bless This House” premieres tonight at 8:30 and then will be seen Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).