He swaggers onto the stage slowly, deliberately, looking like an overgrown juvenile delinquent with a grim menace and sneering fuck-the-world attitude that also exudes cool, and the years—the decades—seem to fall away. There is the same sleeveless black leather motorcycle jacket with the oversize wing collar, the same black fingerless gloves, the same black jeans, the same silver belt buckle the size of a serving platter, the same Zippo lighter that he flips open with a neat flick of his wrist and the same ever-present cigarette that he holds between his thumb and forefinger and puffs aggressively, the same Elvis sideburns, the same Brooklyn accent that was once described as being “as thick as a Peter Luger porterhouse,” the same sidewise head twitch, even a few of the same scatological, misogynistic, racist and generally politically incorrect jokes. Sure, the once-tall pompadour is a little flatter and the hair a little thinner; the aviator glasses compensate for failing eyesight and aren’t there just for hipness; the audience is now middle-aged, mainly men in T-shirts and polos, with a smattering of women who giggle embarrassingly when he calls them “piglets”; the room is smaller than the rooms used to be—maybe 375 seats and about three quarters full on this Saturday night—and there isn’t the same electric buzz that used to greet his performances. But for all intents and purposes, at 55, Andrew Dice Clay, once the self-professed “hottest comic in the country,” is back—not all the way back yet, but still back.
To be fair, he doesn’t call what’s happening to him—his five-episode story arc on the last season of Entourage, his comedy special on Showtime last New Year’s Eve, his featured role in this summer’s Woody Allen movie, his latest gig in Las Vegas at the Hard Rock Hotel—a comeback. He prefers the word resurgence, as if he’d never been away, and in truth he really hadn’t, though the more appropriate word may be resurrection, since Clay, by his own admission, had been “left for dead” by gloating detractors. From the highest heights—playing before more people than any comedian in history—he had plummeted to some of the deepest depths: small clubs, low pay and serial indignities that included a VH1 reality-TV show that was, thankfully, Clay says, canceled after seven episodes. He had even been exiled from The Howard Stern Show after a tiff.
But one reason Clay has been able to survive is that he knows what felled him wasn’t a sudden loss of talent or jaded audiences or even new comedic fashions. What destroyed Andrew Dice Clay’s career was a cultural war in which Clay found himself between two roaring armies, one conservative, one liberal, neither of which really understood him. In fact, you could say the Diceman was sacrificed on the altar of misunderstanding. His resurgence is certainly a function of a burgeoning sense of irony, of audiences that get what he is trying to do, but it is also a function of something deeper. Andrew Dice Clay is a living testimonial to survivability. If the Diceman didn’t die, it was because he simply refused to die. And audiences now sort of know it. It’s not just comedy anymore. It is respect.
When fans think about Andrew Dice Clay, one of the things they remember is “the Garden,” which is almost totemic with him. He begins his Showtime special, the aptly named Indestructible, with footage of his appearance at Madison Square Garden back in February 1990, when he became the first and only comedian ever to sell out two shows at the world’s most famous arena, though Clay is quick to add that he sold out even larger stadiums. That was the apex, not just of Clay’s career but perhaps of any comedian’s achievements, ever. There was a gold album produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, HBO comedy specials, a Hollywood movie—The Adventures of Ford Fairlane—directed by action maven Renny Harlin, who was fresh off Die Hard 2, and a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. And there were the profiles, dozens of them. Vanity Fair touted Clay as “Hollywood’s hottest comedian”—the consensus about him then.
But Clay was more than hot. He was one of those rare entertainers who become a cultural phenomenon. His comedy—which purported to be the comedy of unregenerate white male troglodytes, a comedy of derision that vented against everyone but white male troglodytes, a comedy liberally laced with “fuckin’” and “blow jobs” and “pussy” and “bitches,” a comedy of the most graphic sexual depictions—shattered every taboo and pushed every envelope. He made Lenny Bruce seem like Jerry Seinfeld. He scandalized, he antagonized, he brutalized, and in the process he changed not only the subject matter of comedy, he changed its attitude and style. He called himself the first “rock-and-roll comedian,” and he was.
To hear him tell it now, it had always been according to the Plan. When Andrew Clay Silverstein was a boy growing up in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn, he was a poor student (“F was the favorite letter on every test I took”) and a terrible athlete and had no particular skills, save one. Andrew Silverstein knew in his bones that he could entertain. In fact, he felt he had failed at everything else only so he could succeed in entertainment. When he was seven his parents bought him a toy drum kit, promising to buy him a real one if he kept playing and assuming that, like most kids, he wouldn’t. But he did, four hours a day for years, while his sister, who was three years older, sat in his room listening to him pound away. That’s how he learned to become a drummer. Playing in the dance band at James Madison High School, he learned to become a showman. He took a 30-second drum solo at the spring concert and turned it into a three-minute Krupaesque virtuoso performance that had the crowd oohing, aahing and laughing. “That was the moment,” he says, “I knew I could thrill the world.”
Most would-be stars pose in front of a mirror or warble into a hairbrush, but Andrew Silverstein wasn’t your typical showbiz dreamer. He not only knew what he wanted, he knew precisely how he was going to get it: He had the Plan. He couldn’t do it behind a drum set, even though he spent two wild summers in the Catskills playing in a band. He had to do it where audiences could see him. So he abandoned the drums and began thinking about an act. He really didn’t care what kind, and he really didn’t think it mattered much. The Plan was that he was so good, the act would get him attention and win him popularity, and he would then parlay that popularity into an acting career.
That’s another thing about Andrew Dice Clay: He never doubted the Plan would work. He had utter confidence that he was destined to be a star. He knew it. He was so cocky that when he was 16 and watching a Frank Sinatra special on TV with his girlfriend Sheryl Brown in her family’s Coney Island apartment, he was thinking how great Sinatra was, but he was also thinking, I shouldn’t be here; I should be up there.
For a while he worked at a haberdashery and then helped his father, who owned a process-serving agency on Court Street in Brooklyn. But these were just diversions as he waited for the Plan to take effect. He was driving home with a friend after seeing Grease at the Oceana Theater in Brighton Beach when the act suddenly came to him. He looked like John Travolta. Everybody said so. He was lean and handsome, and he had that same urban strut. And he could mimic Travolta. He sounded just like him. So, wearing a gigantic tuxedo shirt that hung down to his knees, he would take the stage as nerdy, bucktoothed Jerry Lewis from The Nutty Professor. “Actually, ladies and gentlemen, I am what you call a human pity,” he would whine in Lewis’s adenoidal voice. Then he would announce that he was mixing a potion, drink it, turn his back to the audience, rip off his shirt…and he would suddenly be transformed into John Travolta. “So you thought it couldn’t be done,” he would mumble to the audience in Travolta’s voice. After a few jokes, up would come the music, and he would break into “Greased Lightning,” complete with Travolta’s gyrations and dance moves from Grease. When he debuted the act on an open-audition night in 1978 at Pips Comedy Club in Brooklyn, with his mother, father and sister in attendance, the mystified audience booed his entrance and yelled for him to “fuck off.” But when he wheeled around as Travolta, puffed on a cigarette, stared them down and launched into his number, the crowd went wild. The act was only 10 minutes long, but that night the club booked him as its headliner. “From the day I went onstage, I was onstage every day,” he says.
The Plan worked so well that at least as far as the local clubs were concerned, 20-year-old Andrew Clay, as he billed himself, literally became an overnight sensation, bringing home $600 a night from places named Electric Circus and Funhouse and from various discos in the boroughs.
It wasn’t long before an L.A. comic named Mitchell Walters saw him and recommended him to Mitzi Shore, who ran the Comedy Store, which was the preeminent showcase for comedians in Los Angeles. Though Clay insisted he wasn’t interested in being a comedian and wanted to be an actor—that was the Plan—he went to L.A. anyway and auditioned his Travolta act for Shore. Meeting him in the alleyway afterward, she was beaming. “You are a movie star,” she told him. “There’s never even been a comic that looks like you.” Whereas most comics were plain or even funny looking, Clay had a smoldering handsomeness. He was charismatic. Shore made him a regular. “You could go on in front of her for 20 years and not be a regular,” Clay says. He did it in a night.
Now he was a budding star. He lived behind the Comedy Store in the residence Shore owned to house her struggling comedians. Everything was painted red, and as he remembers it, there were mounds of cocaine (though Clay has never done drugs) and scores of women. “The chick came in; I’m getting laid,” he recalls. “That’s it. Just one after the other. When they do a movie of me, that’s what you’re going to see: girl after girl just falling back onto a bed.”Right: Clay because the only comic to sell out Madison Square Garden two nights in a row.
But for Clay it was never about the perquisites of stardom. It was always about stardom itself—about the Plan. And what Clay came to realize was that he could never achieve movie stardom by imitating John Travolta. He needed something else. He needed movie executives to see him in character.
Now all he had to do was create one.
It may have begun with the Shed. The Silversteins were peripatetic. The family moved from Marine Park to Staten Island when Clay was seven, then five years later to Florida, where his father walked girders on construction sites, then back to Brooklyn to move in with Clay’s grandmother and then to Nostrand Avenue back in Marine Park, which is when his father began his process-serving company. Fans, not knowing his real name, assumed Clay was a roughneck Italian, but he was a Jew who of necessity became a tough Jew. During his stay on Staten Island, where Jews were scarce, he’d had to battle his way to and from school. “All I know is that when they called my name, Silverstein,” he remembers, “and I raised my hand, I knew there was going to be a fight.”
The Shed was a tough Irish gang that got its name from a shed in Marine Park that became their hangout. Clay remembers one night his mother sent him to the store, and on his way home the gang accosted him. When he refused to show them what was in the bag, they pummeled him—about 15 of them—then knocked him over and kicked him in the face, splitting it open. He had no sooner recovered from plastic surgery than the Shed attacked him again, blackjacked him on the head and sent him back to the hospital.
It was no wonder his heroes were sensitive tough guys—Travolta, Stallone, Presley, guys who could take care of themselves. And when he hunted for a stage persona that would catapult him to stardom, he determined he would do for comedy what Elvis had done for music. Other comics didn’t really understand performance. They told jokes, but they didn’t move, they didn’t excite the crowd, they didn’t create an experience. He would. And he decided that to do so, his stage character had to be larger-than-life, a kind of comedic superhero, a fellow who could tap the inner thug in every man in the audience who ever felt put-upon as Clay had been put-upon by the Shed—a character totally without fear. In fact, at the beginning, the idea of a metamorphosis from weakness to strength was so integral to his new act that he would take the stage as a nerd he named Moskowitz, who would transform—just as his Jerry Lewis morphed into Travolta—into a leather-jacketed, chain-smoking brute.
And that was how the Diceman was born.
Clay never rehearsed his routines—he still doesn’t—never tried out jokes, never hired writers. He worked on the fly. The first time he appeared as the Diceman—he refuses to say how he came up with the name—was in late 1981 or early 1982, at the Comedy Store. He didn’t even have the full costume yet, only a black vinyl jacket. But he strode to the mike and just stood there staring at the packed house. Then he flicked open his Zippo and lit his cigarette. Then he took a few puffs, letting minutes pass in silence. And then he began: “You know, I’ve been up here for, I don’t know, two minutes, and I haven’t told you any jokes. Sort of just been smoking a cigarette. But you see I could come up here, and only I could come up here, and sort of just smoke a cigarette for two minutes and yet keep your attention. And the reason I could do that, ladies and gentlemen, is the fact is…I’m just that fuckin’ good. You’ve been a great crowd.” And he left. The crowd loved it, and Clay knew it.
From there he began developing jokes—what he called “attitude jokes,” because they were all dependent on attitude. “I know what you’re saying: Cute comic, but he’s got an attitude. It’s where I come from. Jail. I was originally put in jail for killing my first wife. I never forget. I was in court, and the judge goes, ‘Why did you kill her?’ So I said, ‘Hey, I needed the phone.’?” With the attitude came the costume, and with the costume came the full performance, and with the full performance came the electricity. It got to the point where Mitzi Shore had to put him on last, after midnight, when the crowds had begun to dwindle, because no other comic wanted to follow him.
By this time, the Plan was working. As Deborah Miller, who headed the TV variety department at the William Morris Agency, puts it, “He was as much an actor as a stand-up.” He had been spotted by talent agents and signed by William Morris, he was landing small movie roles playing variations on the Diceman, and he had won a regular part on the mob series Crime Story, which was produced by Michael Mann—the creative force behind Miami Vice—while continuing to do his Diceman routine during the series’ hiatus. When Mann told Clay the show might be canceled after its second season, Clay took Mann aside and told him how unwise it would be for NBC to do that. “I’m going to be the biggest thing in the world,” he said. NBC canceled it anyway. Right: His controversial appearance on Saturday Night Live sent his career into a tailspin.
What had given Clay this new boost of confidence was an HBO special hosted by Rodney Dangerfield that featured hot new comics and aired in February 1988. (An earlier Dangerfield special had launched Jerry Seinfeld.) Dangerfield had seen Clay’s act at the Comedy Store and signed him up. (“Man, you’re wild,” Dangerfield said.) Dice killed on the show. He recited ribald nursery rhymes: “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet/Eating her curds and whey./Along came a spider, he sat down beside her/And said, ‘Hey, what’s in the bowl, bitch?’” Or: “Jack and Jill went up the hill/Both with a buck and a quarter./Jill came down with two-fifty,/Oh, what a fuckin’ whore!” Or: “Little Boy Blue,/He needed the money!” And his closer: “Mother Goose, remember her? I fucked her.”
Again, Clay never doubted this would be his breakthrough. He even took out a full-page ad in Variety, just before the special aired, predicting his conquest: “Murphy and Pryor are great no doubt/But in ’88 it is Dice they’ll shout.” After the Dangerfield special, “I didn’t have a buzz,” Clay says. “I had people screaming for me.” He was immediately booked at Town Hall in New York and sold it out. Then he was booked at Rascals Comedy Club in New Jersey, and people lined up in the snow to see him. He played 28 shows. His agent, Dennis Arfa, who also repped Billy Joel, got him an engagement at a 500-seat theater in St. Louis, but Clay wasn’t interested. He was thinking bigger. “You’ve got to make believe you’re Colonel Parker and I’m Elvis Presley,” he told him. So they made a deal. Arfa could pick any theater anywhere, and if Dice didn’t sell it out, they would do it Arfa’s way with smaller venues. Arfa picked a 2,300-seat venue in Phoenix, just because it wasn’t Brooklyn or Jersey. Dice sold out three shows.
Meanwhile, about a month after the special, Clay got a call from Barry Josephson, who worked for Sandy Gallin, one of the biggest talent managers in show business, inviting him to attend an all-star benefit dinner but with a warning: If he was called up to the dais to perform and he bombed, “the game is over.” Clay arrived as the Diceman in a black leather motorcycle jacket with an American flag on the back. After the MC, Carl Reiner, introduced him as an advisor to the Bush administration, Dice strode to the dais, slapped Jack Lemmon on the cheek, lit a cigarette and looked at Reiner. “I notice all night you’ve been telling little stories. Well, you know, I got a cute little story,” he said, pausing a beat. “I’ve got my tongue up this chick’s ass.” Clay says there was five minutes of laughter. “Well, you know how boring it is on line at the bank.” He closed with a riff on the size of black men’s penises and asked Sidney Poitier, sitting in the front row, to “throw it up here.” When he left, Reiner retook the mike and said, “I don’t know what just happened in this room, but I’m seeing these old cockers who I think are dead for the last 20 years, laughing their balls off, and all I can say is, in this room here tonight, this young man, Andrew Dice Clay, became a star.”
Now came the deluge: the stadium concerts and a 26-city tour that ended with an HBO special of his own, the two shows at Madison Square Garden and finally the fulfillment of the Plan—acting in movies. Studios were vying for him with three-picture deals. Joel Silver, the action-film producer and an attendee at the benefit dinner, offered Clay The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, playing a character very much like Dice, and he took it. He saw it as his ticket to superstardom, to $5 million and $10 million pictures, to the end of stand-up and the beginning of acting, though clearly the idea was that he would be acting as Dice. Left: A guest spot on Entourage was Clay’s first step toward a comeback.
It was intoxicating. He was making as much as $500,000 a night as Dice and dropping or winning that much in a single sit-down at the blackjack table. Cher and Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger came to see him, and he was hanging out with Stallone, who introduced him to a former Mr. Yugoslavia named George Pipasik—Pipasik had trained Stallone for Rocky and would train Clay for Ford Fairlane—and Mickey Rourke and Axl Rose, who would sometimes call him up in the middle of the night or come over to his Hollywood apartment and hang out, and later invited him to appear with Guns N’ Roses at the Rose Bowl, where Clay performed before 70,000 people. Clay knew comedians didn’t hang out with these sorts of folks. These were movie and rock-and-roll stars. One New Year’s Eve, when Clay was playing Bally’s in Las Vegas for the first time, Wayne Newton threw him a party and then grabbed him and drove him to the Sands, took him in a back entrance to an Italian restaurant and introduced him to Sinatra. And Sinatra took him aside, to an empty booth, just the two of them, and gave him advice about how to cope with being a phenomenon. “If you have any problems, call me,” he said. It was surreal. And sometimes Clay would think of this new life and look out into the cavernous halls he was now playing—15,000 seats or 20,000 seats—and “I couldn’t believe I had reached the goal I was aiming for.”
And then it all began to unravel, though “unravel” doesn’t convey the rapidity with which it happened. As early as the Garden shows there had been rumblings of discontent. Jon Pareles’s review in The New York Times was titled A Little Hate Music, Please, and it opened with “When Andrew Dice Clay called himself ‘the most vulgar, vicious comic ever to walk the face of the earth’…he left out two other adjectives: juvenile and calculating”—calculating because he “exploits the tensions that are arising as white heterosexual males find that the days of unquestioned dominance are over.” Some of his shows were picketed. At a concert in Cleveland, 40 policemen packed his dressing room and demanded to know what he intended to say onstage.
But the real backlash came with his appearance as host of Saturday Night Live on May 12, 1990. Clay says he was called into producer Lorne Michaels’s office the week of the show and told, after cooling his heels in the waiting room for an hour, that cast member Nora Dunn had decided she couldn’t appear on the program with him and that the musical guest, Sinead O’Connor, had also left the show because of Clay’s misogynistic, racist and homophobic humor. Clay had never heard of Nora Dunn—he didn’t watch SNL—but underneath the bravado, he was hurt.
And then came the attacks. “The man who has turned comedy into a hate crime is being handed a passport to the center ring,” snarled syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman. “The chain-smoking, leather-jacketed ‘Diceman’ is clearly a persona,” wrote Caryn James of The New York Times, “but it is a role without any redeeming irony.” The Village Voice described his act as “hour-long vituperations on women, dwarves, dogs, Latins, Pakistanis, Arabs…beggars, paraplegics and Oriental business acumen.” Even the Borscht Belt comedian Henny Youngman weighed in with an op-ed eviscerating Clay and closing, “Be a mensch. Tell jokes. If you’ve got to go ethnic, take out the hate and bring us together.”
In less than a month he had gone from being the hottest comedian in America to possibly the most reviled entertainer of all time. Certainly no one had ever had so sudden a career reversal. Ford Fairlane opened that July to harsh reviews—“a resounding belch from the belly of the new Neanderthal,” read one—but fair box office. Still, the picture was pulled after a week. Clay says that Fox chairman Barry Diller called him into his office and explained that gay groups had threatened to pipe-bomb Diller’s house. “I love you,” Diller told him. “We all love you. But it’s just too hot. We’ll bring you back one day, but now is not that moment.” But they never did, and Clay’s film career was effectively over. Fox deep-sixed his concert movie, Dice Rules, too, keeping it out of release for nearly a year. “It was over for the industry,” says Clay’s former agent Deborah Miller. “The career was done. There was nothing to talk about. There was no reason to go see him.” And if the industry exulted in his demise, so did his fellow comics who resented his success. “There was a cadre of comics who were gunning for his ass,” says Roseanne Barr, a longtime friend. “They wanted to take him down.” Now they did.
The funny thing was, stage persona aside, Andrew Dice Clay was basically an innocent, and he was blindsided by the attacks. Rather than let them go, he defended himself, insisting that his audiences were really laughing at themselves, that he was a conceptual comedian like Andy Kaufman, turning the audience reaction into part of the act, that no one could possibly have taken him seriously, that he was playing a character, that his comedy was observational, not hateful. “I didn’t make up the fact that people use women for sex or that marriage can be horrible,” he told the Los Angeles Times. To this day, Clay says, “Anybody buying a ticket to see me who thinks this is how I live my life and this is the gospel, well, I don’t even want those assholes coming to my show. I’m not one of you.” But his defensiveness only enlarged the target. When he appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show on July 10, two months after SNL, and drew the distinction between the Diceman and Andrew Clay as a guy who “believed in himself” and “became the hottest comic in the world” and then began to tear up, the audience began to titter. He had gone from Dice to Moskowitz.
Clay never understood exactly what happened to him. When he began he was a naughty Fonz, an X-rated Archie Bunker, Ralph Kramden with a lascivious streak. For all his macho bluster, or because of it, he was essentially a bozo—not only an expression of male insensitivity but a parody of it. Roseanne Barr says his act was basically “a Jewish guy seeing a non-Jewish world”: the world of chest-thumping machismo. That was the joke. And you can hear in those early days, on his second album (whose title captures the idea: The Day the Laughter Died), that most of the audience seemed to get it; they are laughing at him more than they are laughing with him, moaning, “Oh boy” and “Oh man.” Those who didn’t became butts of the joke. When a woman gets up during the show, Dice says, “She’s got some sense,” and when another audience member yells, “You are such a jerk,” Dice ripostes, “Maybe it was something I said.” He was so aggressively offensive that he transcended real offense.
Clay thinks that what turned the tables was his success. As long as he was playing clubs, no one cared what he said. When he began playing stadiums, he was suddenly a cultural marker—a danger. He isn’t entirely wrong. But the stadiums not only boosted his profile and made him a cause, they changed his relationship to the audience. The fist pumping, the chants of “Dice, Dice, Dice,” the constant acclamation, in which one critic saw shades of Nazism, converted his show from routine to rally, from making fun of sexism, racism and homophobia to channeling them. Clay was certainly victimized by liberal anger at the post-Reagan years, for which Dice seemed an ugly avatar, but he was also victimized by his own obtuse reactionary audience, though he invited that victimization because he let audiences keep feeding his stardom. The Plan had been to become an actor. But the audience demanded that Dice be their spokesman, and as such he now often crossed the line between being funny and being cruel, as in routines about AIDS or midgets. As Deborah Miller sees it, “All the people who used to laugh at him being a loser—those aren’t the people who were laughing now. The people who were laughing were the losers seeing another loser being a winner.” And for this she blamed the managers who exploited Clay by turning him into a comic demagogue. “That was all about money.”
The house, which is off a cul-de-sac in a gated community near the Las Vegas Strip, is unostentatious, with a white stucco facade and a red tile roof and a silver mezuzah near the door. It is the sort of home you might expect a suburban office worker to live in, not the Diceman, and in fact the Diceman doesn’t live here. Andrew Silverstein does. The only traces of the Diceman are the framed Variety ad and a gold record over the bar. Everywhere else are family photos. And while there are similarities between the Diceman and Silverstein—the accent, the love for women, the penchant for giving friends nicknames like Wheels, Happy Face (for his grim-faced bodyguard) and Club Soda—they are nothing alike. Dice is a heathen. Silverstein is typically described by friends as “sweet,” “kind,” “generous” and “loyal.” He is without affectation. When his mother was alive, he would talk to her on the phone every night for hours. (Clay says she loved his act—except for his use of the word pussy.) He celebrates Passover and reads from the Haggadah. He pads around the house in sweatshirts, not motorcycle jackets. He creates mixtapes to provide a soundtrack for the day. He is an infrequent drinker. He seldom even curses.
And he is a romantic. He married his first wife when he was still somewhat new to L.A. because she said she was pregnant and he wanted to do right by her. (They divorced shortly afterward.) He met his second wife when he was shooting Crime Story in Chicago and she was waitressing there. He later built her a nightclub in their guesthouse so they would have a place to retreat to, and for his third wife the bedroom in his Las Vegas home is outfitted with a red entry light, a faux-zebra spread, lava lamps, an oil painting of Marilyn Monroe over the bed and a sound system for nighttime mixtapes because, he says, you have to keep the romance in a marriage. “The guy who treats his girl as if she is just some fucking sperm deposit,” he says, “that’s the guy I don’t want to know from.”
Perhaps most incongruously of all for those who disparage the Diceman, Clay is a devoted father—actually more than a devoted father. When he and his second wife, Trini, divorced in 2002 after 16 years together, their sons, Max and Dillon, then 12 and eight, opted to live with Clay. He became a stay-at-home dad, taking them to school and picking them up and turning these rides into a show (Clay says, “There would be families looking at me like, ‘There’s the animal’”), attending their school functions, cooking for them (every variant of chicken, his sons joke), hanging out with them, giving them advice (“Always be a gentleman” and “No means no”), tucking them in at night.
Though Clay bought a home in the San Fernando Valley just a few blocks from his ex-wife, for a maternal touch he counted on Eleanor Kerrigan, one of 10 children from an Irish Catholic working-class family in Philadelphia. She and Clay had met at the Comedy Store, where she was a waitress and assistant to Mitzi Shore and a would-be comedian herself. She once babysat the boys for Clay when he was appearing in Las Vegas, but he and Eleanor, who resembles a young Bette Davis, became friends when he began hanging out at the club during one of his serial separations, with the boys either in bed or in tow, and he was trying to kill the night, asking Eleanor for advice on how he might woo his wife back. Eventually, as the years passed and the separation from Trini became irrevocable, the friendship turned to romance, even though Eleanor fought it, and they became a couple. Clay now says, “Eleanor brought those boys up. Hands down. Brought them up with me. She loves them like they came from her.”
And all this time that he and Eleanor were raising the children—10 years—Clay let his career, which was already in steep descent, slide. “I didn’t make career moves,” he says. “I was doing gigs, but there really was no management. There was nothing.” The boys were everything.
And now he is roaring down Tropicana Avenue at midday—after show nights he doesn’t get up until one or two in the afternoon—in a black 1996 Ford Bronco as big as a tank, a Dice car if ever there was one, blasting “Outlaw,” which is a song from his sons’ band, L.A Rocks, that suggests the anger and hurt of his long exile, an exile that began in the mid-1990s. “We would meet all these people in the industry,” says Max Silverstein, now 22, “who were such big fans, and to me it was like, ‘I don’t get it. Everybody is such a fan. Why can’t anybody do anything to further his career?’” Clay continued to work—he had a 13-year run at Bally’s—but it was different than it had been before the media assault. He starred in a CBS sitcom in 1995 as a disgruntled postal worker, then rejoiced when the series was canceled after one season because he thought the show was dumb. He got another series, playing a record executive, which he liked better, but that was canceled too. And he had some close calls. There was a proposed concert tour with his friend Chris Rock, but Clay says that Rock’s manager, who had once managed him, held a grudge, and that was that. Another time, Eminem flew in from Detroit to discuss an album deal, but that fell apart too because the label felt Dice wasn’t hot enough anymore. And that is how it went year after lean year.
Clay was bereft, but he kept picking himself up off the mat. “Look, you see how I’m not giving up,” he would tell Max and Dillon. “I’m still fighting.” The offers he did get were insulting: The Surreal Life, Celebrity Fit Club, a show sending up judge shows. He had signed up for his reality-TV series, Dice Undisputed, thinking he could use tapes he had been shooting of his own life, but the show made a mockery of him when the producers invented story lines and altered Dice’s image by dressing him like a rapper. He did The Celebrity Apprentice, for which he got the call the night before the taping because, he assumed, someone had dropped out. Although he had never seen the show, he took it and was the first celebrity fired. Left: At his peak he was a comic superstar. Even old-guard figures including Rodney Dangerfield championed him.
But it wasn’t just the media hostility and industry humiliation that kept knocking him down. There was the turmoil in his marriage to Trini—he once canceled a 13-city tour because he was too emotionally spent to tell jokes—and the agony of the separations and finally of the divorce he never really wanted. “I was crazy about her,” he says. “When I love somebody I try to give them the world.” But something happened—to this day, he seems as baffled about it as he does about what happened to his career—and the marriage ended. “He was lost,” Eleanor recalls. “He held it together mainly because of the kids.” Eleanor moved in but finally decided to leave him to work on her career. When Clay heard she was relocating to New York, he proposed to her. The engagement didn’t stick. They realized they were too good as friends to get married.
He drowned his sorrows in sex. After he and Eleanor broke up in 2007, Clay, at loose ends, “went through women like crazy,” though he would “audition” them before Eleanor, seeking her approval. It was Super Bowl Sunday 2009 and Clay was eating a tuna sandwich with Max when he idly mentioned that they could be watching the game at the Playboy Mansion because Playmate and fellow Celebrity Apprentice contestant Brande Roderick was hosting a Super Bowl party there and had invited him. Max practically dragged him to the car. It was at the party that Clay met a beautiful young Mexican-Sicilian Jew from Los Angeles named Valerie Vasquez who had designed costumes for hostesses and waitresses at events held at the Mansion. Valerie, who is petite with lustrous black hair and looks like Mila Kunis, was only 24 at the time, less than half Clay’s age, and she had no idea who he was, but the two hit it off, exchanged numbers, began dating and were married a year later on Valentine’s Day in Las Vegas. She called him her “movie-star husband.” Eleanor became her best friend, the two of them bonding over making chicken soup for Passover. The three of them are now practically inseparable.
Meeting Valerie salved Clay’s broken heart, but he was also beset by a financial crisis. With the divorce, he had to sell his 8,500-square-foot Beverly Hills house, had to pay alimony and child support even though the children lived with him, had to buy a new house and then had to sell that to afford the house he bought in the Valley so his boys could be near Trini. The court decided to put the proceeds of his house sale in escrow to guarantee future alimony payments, and then the recession hit. He was crushed, especially with the slimmer paydays. Clay had given up smoking and forsworn gambling when he was caring for his kids. But after his father’s death in 2011, he had begun smoking again, and with the pressing debt, he decided he needed to start gambling again.
So he headed to Vegas with Valerie in the summer of 2010 with a small grubstake, hit the blackjack tables and wound up making close to $1 million over the course of four months. He calls it his Hangover summer because it was a summer of extreme self-indulgence—one last blast. He bought himself three cars, ordered new furniture, moved from hotel to hotel and then from suite to suite. What he hadn’t spent by summer’s end, he lost to the tables.
He returned to Los Angeles on a Monday, broke and basically hopeless, and was meeting Max at a Starbucks when an old friend, Bruce Rubenstein, whom Clay had known when Rubenstein worked for Mickey Rourke, walked in, his boots caked with mud from his new job as a contractor. They reminisced, exchanged numbers and met up again the next day. “The last time I saw you, you were on top of the world, and then you just disappeared,” Rubenstein said. Clay told him about his travails, and all the while Rubenstein was half listening, texting on his phone. Rubenstein asked why he had never done Entourage. Clay said they had never asked him, and that’s when Rubenstein told him he had just been e-mailing the show’s creator, Doug Ellin, and Ellin, a fan, wanted to see Clay in his office the next day. Thus began Andrew Dice Clay’s road back.
Clay is working out at the Las Vegas Athletic Club—a cavernous gym decked out in muted pastels with neon accents for a bit of a retro look, which is certainly appropriate for the man exercising. He moves quickly from machine to machine, doing 21 reps at each—more than 500 crunches in all under the method he learned from George Pipasik years ago. This is where he retreated when he got the Entourage job, determined to be in shape, what he called “Rocky One” shape, and where he dropped 45 pounds and four inches off his waist. “It’s not about getting ripped,” he says. “Let’s face it, Jews don’t get ripped.” But for him it’s not just conditioning either. It’s a metaphor for show business. You can give up or keep going.
When Entourage was about to air in July 2011, Clay warned his sons that he was likely to be skewered again. But he wasn’t. After Entourage, on which Clay plays a version of himself, there was actually new enthusiasm for Dice. Clay began strategizing—playing a sushi bar at the Palazzo in Vegas, working up to the Luxor, then the Riviera, then the Hilton, then the Riv again and finally the Hard Rock Hotel—a rock-and-roll comedian in a rock-and-roll venue. He landed Indestructible, his first TV special in 17 years. (Eleanor opened for him and L.A. Rocks played him on.) The autobiography he wrote in longhand to pass time during his exile was attracting interest, and he sat down with James Franco to discuss a movie about his life. Then came the call from Woody Allen asking if he wanted to read for a role in Allen’s new film, Blue Jasmine. He landed it.
All this time Clay was retooling the act. He had learned from his two-year bout of dating before meeting Valerie that women had changed since the Diceman’s heyday. While once he had demeaned them in his act as sexual playthings, he found that they were now the aggressors—the ones who used men as playthings. And he noticed that these blithe young women, and their boyfriends, appreciated his humor for what it was—not an angry gripe against male evisceration but a giant goof on changing sexual mores from an unregenerate caveman. For the first time in 20 years, Dice was no longer politically incorrect.
But he was working out now, straining and grunting and perspiring in a sleeveless sweatshirt and baggy black shorts, because he was in training. Andrew Dice Clay would be returning to the site of his greatest triumph. Andrew Dice Clay wants to return to Madison Square Garden, and he wants to be in shape—1990s shape. It is a passion. He lies in bed at night thinking about it, about how he hopes to make comedic history again. And lifting weights in that gym, he seemed to understand that in the end his story isn’t really about sexual politics or the blurring of his stage identity and his real identity or liberal and conservative misapprehensions. In the end, even with threats of foreclosure and bills piling up and the tax man at his door, his story is about gutting it out, not letting anyone or anything get him down. “The real fans know about the career, know the history, know the survival in me,” he says. They know that both the boorish Dice and the sensitive Clay have always been impervious. They know they were down but not out. And they know that the Diceman and Clay are finally back.