Showtime recently aired a six-episode run of “Dice,” a semi-autobiographical series that charts the comedian Andrew Dice Clay’s attempts to revive his career amid the usual array of showbiz roadblocks and wise-cracking naysayers. The show has its share of laughs, and it brings to mind Clay’s standup act, circa 1990. You know, the Diceman—the swaggering, leather-jacketed, chain-smoking, Fonzie-pompadoured comedian with the Brooklyn tough-guy guido shtick and jokes so filthy the antiseptic moniker “adult humor” could barely capture their shock value.
Or you might remember him as his critics portrayed him: racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and every other label our culture can bestow on a heretic. He was a caveman, a hater of all things not male and not white, a harbinger of Western civilization’s decline and fall. Pundits and activists outdid one another in describing Dice’s nastiness, and demonstrations followed him wherever he performed. When he hosted “Saturday Night Live,” cast member Nora Dunn and musical guest Sinéad O’Connor refused to attend.
Never mind that the Diceman was acharacter, and never mind that plenty of comedians in those days assumed an outsized onstage persona, e.g., Bobcat Goldthwait, Gilbert Gottfried, and Emo Philips. What mattered to critics was that Dice was saying things that were beyond the pale. They didn’t much care if they were hearing the character or the man himself. (Besides, it was hard to tell them apart.) His fans didn’t seem to care, either. Whatever else you can say about Dice, he was wildly popular at the turn of the 1990s. He was the first comedian to sell out Madison Square Garden, and he did it two nights straight.
Was Dice funny? Meh. He went for the lowest-hanging fruit with lots of faux bravado, dirty nursery rhymes, and simple punch lines, and most of his stuff doesn’t hold up today. (Apologies if you think his “hickory-dickory-dock” rhyme was pure genius.) It’s not so much that he was too “offensive” to be funny, it’s that the jokes were almost ancillary to the full effect of the exaggerated character. The Diceman was pure, unadulterated ego; you were supposed to laugh or cringe at his stuff, not analyze it.
What, then, was Dice’s appeal? In short, it was truth. Not “truth” in any kind of noble or literal sense, mind you, but the truth that dwells in the bowels of undistilled honesty. Simply put, Dice’s fans reveled in the novelty of hearing somebody say forbidden things. Just when the term “politically correct” was becoming part of the popular vernacular—and a rallying cry for an inevitable backlash—Dice’s uninhibited male ego carried the standard for that very backlash...