A couple minutes into the origin story that introduces The Diceman Cometh, Andrew Dice Clay’s 1989 HBO stand-up special, our hero services a bickering elderly couple at the Brooklyn clothing store where he once worked. The customer, a silent and bloated man, tries on suit after suit, and his wife, who speaks in a shrill New York whine, hates all of them.
“What don’t you know, he’s tried on every suit in the store, let’s make a move baby, c’mon!” the comedian says to his customers, his agitation apparent.
“It’s not really flattering,” the woman says of an inoffensive tan sport coat.
“You want flattering?” says Clay. “Tell him to drop a couple tons, the fat bastard.”
An emasculated blob of a man, a banshee-shrieking old woman—these people are the anti-Dice, and he openly resents having to dwell on the same planet as they do.
At that point, Dice was 32 and had become one of the biggest stand-ups in the country by playing a hypersexualized Brooklyn tough. In retrospect, that scene in the clothing store manifests an anxiety suggested in The Diceman’s entire macho, misogynist, leather-and-cigarettes comedic persona. In that scene, he’s confronted with time’s erosion of energy and purpose; the charisma- and libido-sucking banality of routine. The look of pure disgust on his face says more than any string of f-bomb-laden oral-sex jokes ever could. It’s this couple—not the critics, not his fellow comics, not social standards or political correctness—that was Dice’s real enemy.
Since breaking onto the comedy scene in the late ’80s, he’s been the prototypical alpha-male stand-up comic and a figure of almost brutish masculinity. Today, however, The Diceman is 58 years old. He’s still performing comedy for thousands of people. He’s still dispensing atrocious marital advice and reciting dirty nursery rhymes that people still know by heart. And he’s still smoking.
Dice is a large and graying man on the cusp of old age. His sideburns are twin shocks of white, and while it’s been over two decades since Peak Dice, the man probably still has the money to shell out for hair dye—it’s as if he wants to look old and out of place. He beat that couple from back in Brooklyn: he definitely isn’t them. But what is he?
His physical vitality is gone. The aesthetics of Old Dice are there: the leather jacket, the fingerless gloves, the whip of a Zippo lighter as he takes the stage. There’s even an audience of several thousand, complete with fist pumps and chants of “Dice! Dice! Dice!” which were started, in my section, by a crew-cut fellow in a Motorhead shirt.
But to attend a Dice show in 2016, to see the gut and the gray, and to discover how much or how little of his old shtick the decades have left intact, is to be immediately confronted by the paradoxes of time itself: Are we single people throughout our lives, or do we become different people as we grow and evolve and decay? What is the relationship between our current and past selves? What’s left of us when we become the embodiment of our deepest anxieties? How do we make sense of a world that is no longer our own?
“I was looking for Pokemon, and I ended up up here,” Dice begins. “The Pokemon I’m looking for has some big fuckin’ tits.”
This an imperfect shorthand—this is freakin’ Andrew Dice Clay we’re talking about—but bear with me for a second: The Dice of The Diceman Cometh was Prince Hal, wild and self-assured. The Dice of today is Falstaff: winking and world-weary. He’s been through it, man. He’s had sex with an obese midget, and he did it for you. Here’s here to help people, Dice promises us.
“I get married all the time,” Dice says, without even a hint of apology. Weddings are great right up until the “til death do us part” thing, says the man born Andrew Clay Silverstein: “That’s when I grab the rabbi by the fuckin’ throat: ‘Til death do us part?’ What’d I tell you in the office 10 minutes ago?”
“You’re married?” Dice patters with an audience member, before he lays it all on the table. “How old are you? 34? So it’s already starting to go wrong.”
It’s all there: the guaranteed disappointments of the future, the longing for a distant past.
“Remember in the beginning?” he booms with biblical nostalgia, speaking to a young married couple in the front row. “Rotary phones—remember that, with those sexy fuckin’ holes?” he asks. “No wimpy text, where you sit there like an asshole waiting for her to respond? Ra ka ka ka ka.” A solidly middle-aged crowd cheers his sultry impersonation of their generation’s most iconic type of phone. “Remember the way you’d fuck him!” he continues, before launching into a quite funny bit that’s just way too blue for a family Jewish magazine such as this one.
Everyone screams as the Diceman lights his third cigarette of the performance. And here’s where the anxieties really begin to unspool. Dice worries little for his soul (remember the rabbi strangulation joke all the way back during cigarette No. 2?), but is obsessed with the body—both his own and that of his current or future sexual partners. Female pubic hair “like Santy’s bead,” testicles descending to a comedically outlandish length, masturbation becoming “a three-day process.” God, the horror of it all. “Why does the back of my ass look like a basset hound’s neck?” he asks aloud, a question with an answer that must be too painful even for Dice to openly explore in public.
Oh, but this younger generation. You think I’m bad, he says to a crowd that loudly cheered a passing mention of Shea Stadium during one of the warm-up acts. The real monsters are among you, but they’re not you: “This new fuckin’ generation,” he says, before luridly describing the sexual expectations that today’s youth have even on a first date. He then talked about vajazzling.
Dice speaks with the same fragile and cloying fake yenta voice when impersonating any female, regardless of their age or relationship to him. In Dice’s act, women are a kind of undifferentiated mass, without personalities or minds of lives of their own. What makes this arguably kinda-sorta OK, I guess, is the anti-heroic quality of it all: Just look at Dice. Just listen to him. This is a beaten man. The pettiness and loathing; the sex with woman so fat, he says, that you need “a 30-foot running start” to penetrate them; the anxieties about the sexually liberated young—it all proves that the female sex has exposed him and wasted him. Yet in their victory lies freedom: Dice is a lecherous old man, closer to the grave than to his prime, with no more enemies left to make. Life is a flickering shadow, and there’s no going back. Why not light another cigarette, and explore the finer points of anal bleaching?
“I love the Kardashians,” Dice tells us. “I’d fuck any of them.” He also feigned amazement at Kim Kardashian’s behind, describing its ability to melt servers worldwide—a sort of neo-Luddite sequel, if you will, to the rotary phone reenactment back during Cig No. 2.
Andrew Clay Silverstein was born in Brooklyn in 1957, a few months before the Dodgers skipped town, and grew up during the now-heralded Bad Old Days of 1970s New York. It would be very un-Dice-like to wallow in sentiment, but perfectly Dice-like to allow just the slightest fleeting moment of sentiment—a reminder of the human being lurking behind the act, and of the deeply personal stakes haunting any half-decent comedy. “I feel like I’m with thousands of people I haven’t seen in awhile,” he says to a cheering crowd of, like, 3,500 people.
Of course, that’s a bit less than the 40,000 who showed up for two back-to-back sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in 1990. Times have changed, tastes have changed, standards of decency have changed. And Dice has changed: There’s no racial humor tonight, period.
In the creepiest and most crypto-Trumpian moment in The Diceman Cometh, Dice bellows that “They should have a sign at the airport that says, if you don’t know the language, get the fuck out of the country,” as the audience finishes his line for him, yelling at a fever pitch. There’s none of that sort of thing tonight. Just an old man in old clothes, alone with his lasciviousness—alone, give or take the few thousand people who still thrill to his defiant if self-consciously exhausted assault on decency and taste.
In comedy, hyper-masculine bulldozers like Dice have long been eclipsed by insecure, Louis C.K.-type beta-males. Dice is like a living ghost of a lesser time in comedy and in American life in general. But it turns out he’s at his best when reduced to a harmless and slightly pathetic curio. It’s a mode that suits him, and us, more comfortably than Peak Diceman-type machismo. “I’ve fucked girls bigger than the beds I could fuck them on,” he simultaneously brags and laments during Cig No. 6, in what I have to admit is actually a pretty clever turn of phrase, horribleness aside.
It was rainy in Coney Island on Saturday night. The drop towers of the Thunderbolt and Cyclone rollercoasters were cloaked in a thin mist; Deno’s Wonder Wheel and Luna Park were deserted on what would have been one of their biggest revenue days of the year, had the weather cooperated. Not even the Parachute Jump was illuminated: Why put on a light show when there’s no one still around to look at it? Everything exuded the waste of a ruined summer’s day.
But under the billowing white canopy of the Coney Island Boardwalk Amphitheatre, the Diceman would salvage some not-insignificant piece of it for a not-insignificant number of people. He lit his last cigarette, and took the first drag backhanded while wrapping his arm around the top of his head. The iPhones came out; entire sections began pumping their fists. Here it was. The dirty nursery rhymes.
My favorite nursery rhyme from The Diceman Cometh is the one and only clean one: “Three blind mice, see how they run. Where the hell are they going?” He didn’t do that one Saturday night, but he did the rest of them.
And that was it. After 45 minutes or so, the Diceman was gone, and on the way back to the subway I would see entire groups of polo-shirted bros in their early-to-mid-thirties looking for places on the beach to piss.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.