Few people may be aware that a taboo exists, but everyone knows when it’s violated. A stand-up comedian appears on stage and, with no preface, simply yells an obscenity; people are likely to laugh and applaud as if he has said something funny. When the comedian refers matter-of-factly to women as ”chicks,” ”whores,” and ”sluts,” offering the observation that they ”are always looking for someone to treat them like the pigs they are,” among those who laugh and applaud most enthusiastically are women — in Andrew Dice Clay’s audiences, at least. Because taboos are part of what we are taught as children, their violation — and the rowdy applause it engenders — is a defiant cry to parents, elders, and custodians of authority: You don’t control us after all.
At least you don’t control us so long as we’re in the presence of Andrew Dice Clay, the ”most phenomenal” of the new shock comedians. Clay, 32, born Andrew Clay Silverstein, poses as a semi-articulate 11- or 12-year-old. Foul- mouthed and mock-macho in black leather, he describes himself as ”the most vulgar, vicious comic in history.” Five years ago you could have fit Clay’s fans into an Airstream trailer, but in the past year the comedian has been able to sell out Madison Square Garden two nights running (38,000 people total) and fill such enormous facilities as the Forum in Los Angeles and Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum.
Having heard and read a great deal about Andrew Dice Clay, most of it critical, I was not prepared for the persona the comedian projects in The Diceman Cometh, his HBO special, or in his album, The Day the Laughter Died. (Or in his new movie, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.) As a physical presence he is funny, at least initially: goofy, clumsy, parodistic — a blatantly synthetic concoction of Mean Streets Italian images appropriated from Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and John Travolta. The dumb-guy look; the spasmodic motions of head, neck, and shoulders; the recitation of primer sentences studded with shopworn expletives — these constitute the onstage person to whom Silverstein has given the name ”Andrew Dice Clay,” or ”Diceman.” He is a street-corner punk whose performance is a rambling, disconnected, monochromatic monologue. Clay also seems to intend his act as a campy homage to Elvis Presley, who early in his career was widely denounced as obscene, and very likely to the Marlon Brando of The Wild One as well.
Commenting somewhat disingenuously on his limited repertoire of dirty humor, Clay has said, ”I don’t write the material. You write it for me.” Meaning that, like an orator drawing sustenance from his audience, he is a conduit for its suppressed or repressed energies. I had speculated, before watching The Diceman Cometh, that the much-reviled comic might be in the subversive tradition of the legendary Lenny Bruce; but, though Diceman surely has been influenced by Bruce, his act is fairly tame and predictable once the shock value of his opening remarks has worn thin through repetition. There is none of Lenny Bruce’s passion, moral indignation, or courage. Diceman’s targets are few, and familiar: women, figures of authority (parents, teachers, nurses), ”foreigners.” (But not blacks, for as Diceman says, condescendingly, ”I get along with blacks all right.”) If some of his material really offends, such as his paranoia regarding ”faggots,” he will drop the line from his repertoire. In performance, supported by a howling, uncritical audience made up almost exclusively of young whites (male and female both), Diceman is all flat surface, wallpaper covered with cartoon doodling. His routines begin and end on the same note. He doesn’t go for the jugular — his comedy isn’t surreal, intellectually engaging, or imaginatively disturbing on any level. When Andrew Dice Clay singles out women in the audience to insult, this too seems risk-free. You have the sense that for these giggling women, such abuse — and in public! — will be the most exciting thing that has happened to them.
The packaging of Andrew Dice Clay comes with the boastful warning, ”Guaranteed to Offend.” He tries. But it is ever more difficult to offend in a culture that also serves up rap groups like 2 Live Crew, heavy metal, ”slasher” films, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of superviolent movie epics.
The most offensive element in Diceman’s routine is what critics call his racism, but I see it as a kind of fleeting opportunism, abruptly taken up when the ”dirty-sex” motif is in danger of flagging. (Indeed, opportunism seems to rule Clay’s career. Fearful that Clay the raunchy comedian might harm the career of Clay the budding movie actor, Twentieth Century Fox has dropped its plans to release the concert film of his performance at Madison Square Garden last March.) Still, it is disconcerting when the affably clumsy persona of Diceman turns into a paranoid schizophrenic who bawls out to the crowd, ”Hey! Where’re all them Japs coming from? Didn’t we drop bombs on them?” Or delivers a harangue about ”Chink bastards,” ”slant-eyes,” ”geeks,” ”nips,” and ”urine-colored” New York taxi drivers. There’s a disturbing moment when a neo-Nazi solidarity is expressed by members of the audience who raise their fists and chant, with Clay, ”If you don’t know the language, get the f— out of the country!” Nor are fellow Americans spared, if they happen to be poor and homeless: ”Get away from me, you piece of shit!” Diceman yells to an imaginary beggar, ”Go and rob somebody!” How the audience loves it, how they laugh and applaud!
”I admit I got problems,” Diceman confesses to the audience, ”I’m seeing one of these psychopaths.”
It has been observed that, in contrast to iconoclastic comics of the ’60s like Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, whose targets were men of power, today’s comics choose as their targets those without power. They haven’t the slightest interest in educating their audiences, only in rousing them to debasing laughter. The Reagan years have made it ”permissible” to ridicule, abuse, and dehumanize people different from ourselves.
In this, comics like Andrew Dice Clay are symptomatic of our era, when ethnic and racial hatreds suddenly seem to abound. Is it fair to blame Diceman, a self-evident concoction, for giving voice to these prejudices, or is he, and his new celebrity, a symptom of the era’s moral insensitivity? Diceman is an entertainer — his primary goal is not to bore audiences. He is without a political agenda as he is without a coherent moral sensibility. As that entrepreneur of the Prohibition era, Al Capone, once remarked, ”Nobody ever put the barrel of a gun against anybody’s head and forced him to drink.” So too with Andrew Dice Clay: Nobody is forcing anyone to watch him. In the United States we get the politicians we deserve — and the celebrities.