Does Society Need Andrew Dice Clay?

Andrew Dice Clay at home in Los Angeles. CreditCreditMichael Schmelling for The New York Times

Does Society Need Andrew Dice Clay?

He was the most notorious comedian in America. A lot has changed in 30 years. Has he?

Andrew Dice Clay at home in Los Angeles. CreditCreditMichael Schmelling for The New York Times

By Jessica Shaw

“I get it, girls. It’s rape.”

Andrew Dice Clay was contemplating Harvey Weinstein while pacing the stage at the Laugh Factory on New Year’s weekend, a 320-person club inside the Tropicana in Las Vegas, a casino with $10 tables and zero inferiority complex about it.

“But for guys in here 50 or 60 years old, it’s not the rape we grew up with,” he said.

Black jeans, leather vest, fingerless gloves, sunglasses at 10 p.m., a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The vibe was about as ’80s as parachute-pants-wearing Transformers that morph into ALF singing Megadeth.

Over the course of three not-quite-sold-out nights, Mr. Clay did his shtick on everything from erratic electronic soap dispensers (saying that’s how the Japanese, but using a racist epithet, “are getting back at us for Hiroshima and Nagasaki”) to the White House (“Donny Trump, he stole half my act to become president”).

A few days later, 61-year-old Andrew Silverstein of Los Angeles, by way of Brooklyn, was pacing the kitchen at his sensible suburban house in Sherman Oaks, this time in a short-sleeved hooded sweatshirt and elastic pants. His once jet-black hair is resigned to gray.

The sunglasses he had worn on stage were folded in their case on the brown granite kitchen island, the dishwasher cycle providing some background buzz.

“What do you want to eat?” he asked. “I got lox. I got bagels. Is the temperature O.K. for you in here?” The only thing Andrew Dice Clay wants more than to offend you is to be loved by you.

Three decades before his turn as Ally’s limo-driver father in “A Star Is Born,” Mr. Clay was on the Mount Rushmore of comedy as Dice, his outrageously offensive and especially sexist alter ego. Or at least he always insisted it was a character, a distinction that often felt blurry.

“It’s very hard to explain Dice,” he said, even after all these years. “I call myself ‘50 shades of Dice.’ There are parts of what’s on stage that’s real. I did smoke, I am from Brooklyn. I do have certain views on relationships.”

A Ten Commandments tablet, a kiddush cup and a candle depicting Jesus sit atop a table in Andrew Dice Clay’s home.CreditMichael Schmelling for The New York Times

The persona caught the eye of Mitzi Shore, the late founder of the Comedy Store in West Hollywood, Calif., where he worked the mic alongside Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and Garry Shandling. Mr. Clay went on to become the first comedian to sell out Madison Square Garden for two consecutive nights, in 1990. (Other comedians who have sold out the arena include Louis C.K., Kevin Hart and Aziz Ansari, no strangers themselves to controversy.)

His 1989 debut comedy album, “Dice,” sold 500,000 copies. His second, “The Day the Laughter Died,” made a big splash in 1990. Barry Diller, Mr. Clay writes in his memoir, “The Filthy Truth,” was eyeing him for a role opposite Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny.”

But by the second half of 1990 he had been branded with a scarlet “C,” for controversial. MTV banned him after he recited his trademark lewd nursery rhymes at the 1989 Video Music Awards.

Nora Dunn, a Saturday Night Live” cast member, and Sinead O’Connor refused to appear on the episode he hosted in May 1990. His manager dropped him; a three-picture deal with Mr. Diller was canceled. Mr. Clay uses the word “blackballed” when describing it now.

But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance. In 2011, Doug Ellin, a producer of “Entourage” and a fan since childhood, cast him in the final season as a fictionalized version of Andrew Dice Clay. That led to a critically lauded role in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” and eventually to “A Star Is Born,” just nominated for eight Oscars.

Mr. Clay turns in a well-received performance as Lorenzo, the doting and melancholy father of Lady Gaga’s character, Ally. Not in a “Huh, he’s actually not half bad” way. Andrew Dice Clay is not a double negative; the guy can act.

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“I’ll tell you a Bradley Cooper story,” he said of the “Star Is Born” director, actor and co-writer.

To listen to Mr. Clay deliver a story is to go along for a 40-minute journey of Mulholland Drive-worthy twists and turns, complete with show-and-tell stops in various rooms of his house. An unlit cigarette didn’t leave his right hand until it was thrown into the kitchen garbage, only to be replaced by another unlit cigarette, the fun extinguished by a heart attack in November 2017.

(Our scheduled one-hour interview turned into a four-hour marathon near-monologue that I eventually had to cut short so I didn’t miss my flight home. Mr. Clay was concerned about my trip, a redeye in coach, and offered to call Jet Blue with me to see if there were affordable, lie-back seats available.)


Mr. Clay has always been inspired by Elvis.CreditMichael Schmelling for The New York Times

A side table in Mr. Clay’s home.CreditMichael Schmelling for The New York Times

In addition to that Bradley Cooper story, he also had a Martin Scorsese story, a Jerry Lewis story, an Eminem story. Teaching Chris Rock how to walk on stage. Discussing a possible team-up with John Travolta in the Club Lingerie parking lot. Schooling Lady Gaga in cymbals. You get the idea.

“I got so many stories,” Mr. Clay said. “No one wants to hear all of them.”

(Perhaps John Singleton will, now that he has signed on to direct a Dice documentary, though Mr. Singleton has yet to reach out and Mr. Clay is itching to share the hundreds of video tapes in the drawer over there, the one underneath his son’s bar mitzvah picture.)

Back to the Bradley Cooper story, which began with … Guns N’ Roses. In 1992, Axl Rose talked Mr. Clay off a claustrophobic ledge about performing at the Rose Bowl. “He told me, ‘You’re going to be outside. Just look at the sky.’” Mr. Clay said. “He actually spoke common sense. For Axl, that’s big!”

Years later, Mr. Clay was touring Australia, had a smoke with Slash (the band’s guitarist), and long story short, says he got Guns N’ Roses back together. How is this a “Star Is Born” story? He was getting there. About 10 minutes to go.

In 2016, the newly reunited G N’ R performed a welcome-back concert at the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard. Mr. Clay was sitting on a bench in the V.I.P. section with Vincent Gallo, Nicolas Cage and “some huge girl singer, one of the biggest in the world. I don’t remember her name.”

Just as he was walking out at the end of the show, he passed Mr. Cooper, who had brought his mother to the show. “‘Hey,’” Mr. Clay recalled saying, one foot out the door, “‘I just want to tell you, you were great in ‘Sniper.’”

“‘Not so fast, you!” Mrs. Cooper hollered after him. “‘Do you know what you mean to my family?’” Soon Mr. Clay was in a recording studio improvising father-daughter dialogue and weeping like a baby into Lady Gaga’s blond mane. A casting story is born.

This was in the spring of 2017, months before the #MeToo movement would reframe our perceptions of provocative, and often offensive, comedy.

Over the course of the afternoon, I struggled to reconcile the comic on stage ranting about how the only reason his pal Louis C.K. is reviled for masturbating in front of women is because he’s ugly (“If he’d been George Clooney or Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio, you’d go, ‘Do it again!’”) with the vulnerable throwback who shares his own #MeToo stories about older casting agents expecting sex when he was starting out, and a fan who recently put his hand down Mr. Clay’s pants.

“I now know how a woman feels when they’re touched by a stranger inappropriately,” he quietly said, before clunkily joking: “Now there are so many accusations, it becomes like, ‘O.K., me too?’ I’m starting the #MeThree movement.”

Asked if he’s concerned with how a new generation may receive his comedy, Mr. Clay said: “Do I look scared?”

“You know what I hear when people come to see me?” he continued. “‘I’m glad you’re not buckling to political correctness.’ I’m a certain brand. I’m like Coca-Cola. When they changed their can, no one wanted to know from it. I couldn’t care less what anybody thinks.”

And yet he did care that I saw a huge photo collage he painstakingly hand cut for his father (the inscription reads: “Dear Dad, I hope one day my sons feel about me the way I feel about you”) and asked me to recite a framed poem written by his son Dillon at age 11.

Mr. Clay split from his second wife, Kathleen Monica, in 2002. They have two children, Dillon, now 24, and Max, 28, for whom their father converted the living room into a makeshift band rehearsal space. (There’s not a Jewish parent alive who brags more about the talent of his boys!)

He also exercises with them almost daily at Gold’s Gym, usually the one in Venice, where Mr. Clay listens to self-made mix tapes on one of his three portable cassette players.

“My personal life has always been more important than my professional life,” Mr. Clay said. “I didn’t care if I had 100 Academy Awards. I wanted to be there for my boys and bring them up right.” Unlike some other assertions that felt exaggerated by anywhere from 3 to 300 percent, this one rang completely true.


Mr. Clay and his son Max in Mr. Clay’s home.CreditMichael Schmelling for The New York Times

As Mr. Clay continued to explain, there’s Andrew (which he said I could call him) and there’s Dice. “There’s a lot on stage that’s real,” he said. “But if you took my set in the right way, you know he doesn’t realize what he’s saying, which I find hysterical.”

Do his fans understand that? “I have some really dumb fans and some really smart fans. I can’t say how everyone individually takes my material.”

At times, I wasn’t sure I could distinguish, like when Andrew went on a very Dice-like tangent about the term “body shaming” and said, “If there’s a 400-pound guy in the front row of my show, I’m going to shred him. Nothing funnier.”

He insisted that “the real acting award I should get is for what I’ve done in comedy for 40 years.” While I sat with him I remembered looking around at the audience in Vegas a week earlier. One fan was cackling with joy, and another had a look of horror and confusion on her face that screamed: “What exactly am I witnessing here?” I felt like both of them at once.

This weekend, Mr. Clay may take home an award as part of the “Star Is Born” ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Though he’s bringing the comedian Eleanor Kerrigan, a close friend, as his date, he’s hoping to meet a woman that night, as he did at the movie’s premiere, because he just doesn’t want to do the dating app thing that his sons have tried talking him into.

Of course, when he took the woman from the premiere out to Craig’s, a restaurant in West Hollywood, things ended awkwardly. “For two and a half hours I’m telling this girl I’m very regular and very grounded,” he said. “And when we leave, it’s bulb mania. The paparazzi was all over me. ‘Dice! Dice!’”

He ended up taking her to the Comedy Store that night so she could watch him do an impromptu set, as he sometimes does on Monday nights, because “I need to know if a girl can accept what I do.”

The only woman who couldn’t, he said, was his first wife. (He’s got a story about being served with those divorce papers while he was at an outdoor cafe with Mickey Rourke, if you’ve got the time.)

Whether or not he scores at the awards, Mr. Clay may come home, smoke a joint with Max and Dillon, and watch something on Netflix, which he signed up for a few months ago. The night before I visited, he and the boys were up until 5 a.m. watching Adam Sandler in “50 First Dates.”

But mark his words, if the cast does win, he will give a speech. “And they better not cut me off either,” he said. “I hate that. People have things to say.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page ST1 of the New York edition with the headline: Remember This Guy?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Published at Sat, 26 Jan 2019 20:32:08 +0000