Sheepshead Bay native Andrew Dice Clay is likely the most misunderstood comedian of the past 40 years. An actor at heart, his over-the-top stage character — part social satire, part rock ‘n’ roll bombast — has been boycotted, banned, panned by critics (including those at the Village Voice) and, in the mid ’90s, outright dismissed as has-been.
Yet his landmark accomplishments remain. Clay was the first stand-up to sell out the Madison Square Garden arena…which he did not just once, but two nights in a row. He’s headlined more than 300 arena shows. His total lifetime ticket sales hover somewhere around 13 million.
After 15 years in showbiz jail, Clay returned with memorable appearances on Entourage, in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and in his fittingly titled Showtime special, Indestructible. Memoir The Filthy Truth is out this Tuesday, he plays a ’70s radio-station magnate in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming HBO series, and a biographical documentary is in the works.
Two days before his first-ever Australian tour — on which he recorded his second Rick Rubin-produced album — Clay appeared at a Studio City, California, Starbucks in basketball shorts, studded denim jacket, sleeveless black T promoting his podcast, and tinted aviators. Chain-smoking Marlboro Golds and downing two venti iced coffees over an hour and a half, he spoke candidly about the highly personal motivation behind his indefatigable professional drive.
Let’s start with your first-ever live performance, at Pips.
That night would change my life. September 13, 1978. When I went on for the first time at Pips, that became my home until I came out to L.A. But I was very prepared to go on at Pips because I came up as a musician, as a drummer, and singer and entertainer. I was more into theater, so when I was thinking about getting on a comedy stage, it was more about having an act already. I didn’t want to “go up there and see what happens,” and I prepared a certain kind of act. I would come onstage as Jerry Lewis’s character from The Nutty Professor and take my magic formula, and turn into the John Travolta character from Grease.
At the time, Travolta was just the biggest star in the world. I mean, he was coming off the heels of [Saturday Night] Fever. We’d resembled each other since he was in Welcome Back, Kotter. We really looked similar; I could do a dead-on Travolta. But when I saw Grease at the Brighton theater in Brighton Beach and I saw him sing and dance, I said, “I have the act. I know what I can do.”
The Jerry Lewis thing I’m doing since I’m seven years old. I said, “If I can actually sing and dance as Travolta, do the singing, do the dancing, I’m going to have the greatest act.” And I went to work in a music studio putting the act together, on Kings Highway in Brooklyn. It was called Fly Studios.
What was it about that place, that location?
Fly Studios was a studio where bands would rehearse or record, ’cause that’s what I was into. That’s what I knew about. So I took the soundtrack from Fever and Grease, but more importantly Grease because I had to get the lead vocal out of “Greased Lightning.” Keep everything else; keep the backup vocals, but get rid of the lead vocals, because I wasn’t going to pantomime Travolta singing. ‘Cause if I couldn’t actually do the song, I wasn’t going to do the act. I don’t like mouthing.
So I got it down; rehearsed for three weeks. I went back to the theater, sat through three showings of Grease with a pad and a pen to write down when Travolta would dance — the moves — so I could rehearse it. There were no videotapes, so I had to sit through full showings of the movie to get down “OK, this is the arm point. Stick your finger out…” All that. And then with Fever, the same thing. I would go study the big dance he did and write, “The windmill,” and all this stuff he did. I would mix it all together, so in the middle of “Greased “Lightning” I would do the Fever dance.
And that night when I went on at Pips, I came onstage as Jerry Lewis. My whole family was there: my parents, my sister, my grandmother, my friend Johnny. It was amateur night, and when I went on as the Nutty Professor, they’re booing me because I’m this nerd: “Get the fuck off the stage!”
But the club owner knew when to shut the light when I was doing my transition, took my magic formula. When I turned around as Travolta, they went ballistic, like it was Travolta. They were throwing tables over. You talk about a 90-seat club, with the air conditioning right in the ceiling: the toughest club in the country to play. When that would click on it was like a tractor going on. And I got hired to headline that weekend. The owners come over and they go, “Who’s your manager?” I look over at my father and go, “He is.” And that was it. I never came offstage for 10 years, until I made it.
That was 1978, and around 1981 or ’82 is when I really started into getting into forming my own kind of Brooklyn attitude onstage, which became “Dice.”
I wasn’t so much into stand-up as I was into acting. So instead of going to acting school when I got out to L.A. — once a week or whatever it was, actors’ workshop — I figured I’ll have a stage to go on every night and develop my acting chops, my own method of acting. And that’s how the whole thing started.
When I would watch guys like Leno and Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, all these great comics, what I noticed was they were great, but they didn’t understand theater. They didn’t understand — at that time, anyway — performance. Bigger-than-life stuff. I grew up studying Elvis Presley and Buddy Rich, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, bigger-than-life personalities like Muhammad Ali. I wasn’t even into sports, but when Muhammad Ali was on TV, you’re gonna watch it and go off. Just bigger than life!
Elvis did it in music: the Image of Elvis. The leather, the attitude. In films you always had, from James Dean to Brando all the way to Travolta, that image. And even on TV you had Fonzie. But that image was never done as a stand-up comic. I wanted to develop the absolute Elvis of comedy: the image of rock ‘n’ roll brought to stand-up. The aim was still acting, but if I’m going to be a comic, why not just be the biggest comic ever with the biggest image ever?
In different interviews, and even in your book, you alternately refer to the larger-than-life persona as a character, but also as a different side of you.
It’s very hard to explain, because the question is, “Well, who’s Dice? Who’s Andrew Silverstein?” I’ve gotten it through the years. It’s more in the thinking pattern onstage. My job as a comic is to comment on the world. And I’m not a political comic; I comment on relationships, on the sexual attitudes of men and women. I always studied the behavior patterns.
The attitude has changed so much, that onstage, to do it comedically is really funny…What I’m interested in is the other side: the animal that’s in us all. In most of us…the craziness.
How is bringing up your sons in L.A. different from your own childhood in Brooklyn?
The Valley certainly isn’t Brooklyn. New York is very street, especially if you grew up in the boroughs: Brooklyn, the Bronx. You gotta leave your house armed to the teeth if you live in the Bronx. I had a lot of fights as a kid. Lots of ’em. Tons of ’em. Got my face bashed in, my nose busted, my head split open, cut with knives, wound up in the hospital a bunch of times.
There are a lot of bullies in Brooklyn. When I lived in Staten Island I had a lot of fights, but it was always one on one. I moved from Brooklyn to Staten Island when I was seven. There weren’t a lot of Jews in Staten Island. Now everybody from Brooklyn moved to Staten Island, Jersey, and Long Island. But we moved there the day the bridge opened, because my father built the neighborhood. That’s when the builders were going into Staten Island. So we moved to Staten Island, and I’d have a lot of fights, and when we moved back to Brooklyn I was 13. It was these Irish gangs in the neighborhood. When I would face these gangs, I didn’t wanna fight them, but they were, like, 15 on one. That’s not gonna work out. This isn’t a karate movie. So I’d wind up in the hospital late at night, getting stitched up.
They’re cowards. Once there were so many of them they got behind me, one guy got down and they pushed me over this guy’s back, and as I’m coming up this guy just kicks me in the face. My whole face splits open. My mother gets me to the Brookdale Hospital and wouldn’t let nobody touch me except the best plastic surgeon in the hospital. She’s where I get my attitude and my mouth. Because of that, I’m not scarred up today.
That’s not what it is out here. You can live in a nice neighborhood. It all looks good. There are bad neighborhoods here, but it’s so spread out. And I teach my kids as much as I can teach them, and they’ve been in New York a bunch of times. So they’re pretty street-wise, but they don’t act it. My son Dillon, who just turned 20, he could sit here and tell you the difference between New York tough guys and L.A. tough. Like, New York tough guys try to just get in your face right away. They try to use the bravado of being from New York. An L.A. guy will just go, “I’m not looking for a problem.” And he might not even look that tough, but he’s got skill if he has a problem. And he doesn’t have the fear, and he’ll face it. He’ll walk away from it, but he’ll not look to antagonize the fight unless he has no choice to defend himself.
Brooklyn was a different world back then, and today it’s even worse. ‘Cause today it’s more bullies. That’s all you read about. And I always hated bullies. I wasn’t a bully in any way. I was tough, I could fight, but I wasn’t with the 15 guys coming over to one guy to terrorize him and kick him in the face. I hate that attitude.
Is bullying now more mental rather than physical?
There was always mental bullying; today they’ve just made it a thing. And with the internet…today if you’ve got one good parent, you’re doin’ good. ‘Cause a lot of these kids are bringin’ themselves up, and they don’t know anything. And that’s why you see all the problems we’re seeing. The parents are just not teaching their kids. They have ’em, and then they’re on their own. It’s really a shame. You can’t even blame these kids, because they grow up wild. It’s like growin’ up in the jungle. You’re on your own.
That’s just not how I grew up. If you have a kid, you have a responsibility to that child, to teach them, to bring them up, to be there. Whether it’s them showing you a picture they painted in school, or if they fall down, you’re there to pick ’em up. That’s the job. That’s why when I went through a bad divorce, I didn’t give a shit about my career, movies, TV shows. I couldn’t care less. I cared about bringing my sons up. That was it. I’d go out and make a living, but I really had no career anymore. I would tell my kids, “Wait till I turn it on again.” They were young; I had to be there for them. That was it.
And now they understand the importance of your recent success with Entourage, Blue Jasmine, and your upcoming Scorsese project.
Yeah, the Scorsese thing is gonna be amazing. Just amazing. Well, they’re part of it now, and I love that. I love making them part of it. I think I’m a lot closer to my boys than a lot of fathers and sons, because if you do grow up middle-class…like, my dad used to go to work early in the morning to his business. Seven in the morning he’d be up, and he’d come home eight o’clock at night. And then by the time I hit, like, 21, I started in showbiz. I started working for my father so I could have a job and do the clubs at night. So we really were very close.
A lot of families, the father goes to work; he’s breaking his ass to make a livin’. So he gets the weekends, and by the time the kids are teens, they wanna hang with their friends. It’s like that Cat Stevens song. But I always knew I wasn’t gonna live that life with my own kids. They gotta know me. I gotta know them. It’s just pure love, that’s it. That’s the difference between Dice onstage and Dice the person. Because onstage, you’re seeing one side of this comedic animal talking about sex and fuckin’ and suckin.’
But that’s not the story at home. Dice doesn’t have a heart onstage. He’s there to make people laugh at their own bullshit, at the internet, at making opinions about people they’re never gonna meet or see. It’s like, “Why are you wasting your life looking at the world? Look at your life! Live your life!” That’s how I think about it. Yeah, I smoke cigarettes, I wear leather jackets, I have a Brooklyn attitude, but it’s the thought pattern, you know? If I was the guy onstage, I wouldn’t even know who my kids are. I’d never be around.
Your material is nearly perennial, in a way. No matter how the times change, it’s still about that basic human capacity for bullshit.
I used to get picked on, because when I did my gay material, all that trouble, the controversy, it was a time when people were coming out of the closet, and all I’m thinking is, “This is great jokes!” ‘Cause this is the time we’re livin’ in. When they were all coming out — “I don’t wanna be in the closet anymore” — it was a big deal. When Ellen [DeGeneres] did what she did and lost a TV show over it, I’m at home goin’, “Do you believe this shit?” She has a hit TV show; she’s got the balls to say, “You know what? This is who I am.” And they take it from her. But she stuck with it, and now she’s the biggest thing in the world. I love her.
Sam Kinison’s gay-necrophiliac material also got him protested. It’s one of his most-cited bits as an example of comedy not holding up over time. You still have the luxury of being able to evolve.
My son Max says to me, “In a day and age where everything’s been said and done, you still have the ability to shock crowds. You can still take it further.” ‘Cause I use colorful language; I know how to paint a comedic picture. It’s all in the name of comedy when I do that, to make them just laugh at themselves. Lenny Bruce would say it’s like putting a mirror in front of people’s faces. But if you’re not making fun of people, what are you making fun of? I’m not gonna make fun of war and people getting killed; that’s where I draw the line. That’s just awful. But I’ll make fun of what goes on in the bedroom. It’s funny. Sex is funny.
The only ones to legitimately sell out Madison Square Garden, the big room, the 18,000-seater: Steve Martin, Andrew Dice Clay — I’m the only one to do two nights in a row, but I’m the only one to sell out the Garden three times. I came back in ’90 [sic — 2000] and sold it out again. Just to show my kids. And I didn’t even have a career in ’90  — and Kevin Hart. That’s it. Nobody else. Eddie Murphy did the Paramount, which is a 6,000-seater in the Garden. George Carlin did the 6,000-seater. I think Chris Rock did it, too, but none of them did the main Garden. But I did over 300 of these places. Nobody’s ever gonna break my record. If anybody’s gonna do it, it’s gonna be me. And I don’t really even have the dream to do that. I’m livin’ a different career right now.
One that includes an HBO series with Martin Scorsese.
Well, that’s where the career is now. I’m humbled, completely, because acting was always what I wanted. And now I’m gettin’ the opportunity to work with just the top-of-the-top A-list number one director-writer-producers, and I’m grateful for it. Marty Scorsese and his partner Emma Tillinger Koskoff are also doing a documentary movie on me. This is a brand-new thing that’s happening.
In my lowest lows, I would tell my sons, “Wait’ll I turn it on again.” ‘Cause my whole thing about my boys is teach them by example how to get there, even in the bad times, how to deal with it. And I had some meltdowns. They were going to take my home. A lot went on during the recession. I would tell them, “Wait’ll I come back.” And it’s happened. And it’s really exciting. I just thank my lucky stars that I kept it together.
I always teach my kids to believe in yourself. It’s more important than anybody else believing in you. That’s what the whole thing’s about. Because if you don’t have complete belief in what you do as a performer, you’re never gonna get there. Why would other people believe in you? So you have to have that confidence and that belief in your own talents, whatever that might be. That’s what I’ve tried to show them, and that’s what I’ve been doing. When I’m given these great opportunities in front of Scorsese and Woody [Allen], I give them my best, my absolute best.
When I first made it, it was to show my family, and to give them everything they dreamed of. That was my reason. And I did it. I gave them everything. My father worked with me until the day he left this earth. My mother was always at the arenas and the concerts. She got to revel in my success. And now it’s about my own kids, to help them so they see, “Look what Dad went through, and look how he came back. We can do it.”
I teach them one thing: If you can accept the word “no” in show business, you can make it. ‘Cause “yes” is easy to take. But you’re gonna hear “no” a thousand times before you get that “yes.” It’s not ’cause you’re not good. There’s a million reasons you hear “no.” You just gotta know you have that talent in you. Always leave your balls on the table. That’s it.
It comes full circle. But you’ve got to have a reason. And my reason’s always been family, to give to them, to show them, to open doors for them. I felt major fame by the time I was 30. So I don’t gotta prove that again. I don’t have to go do another 300 arenas, you know? Yeah, there’s a lot of money there, but I’m doing what I want now.
Me and Rick Rubin decided to team up again. It’s been, like, 20 years. We’re gonna put out another album now. You have Marty Scorsese directing me on film, and Rick Rubin — who’s the biggest producer in the world, hands down — is doing another album with me. I feel like I’ve never worked with him before. I get nervous to talk to him on the phone because we haven’t seen each other, and we worked together for years, but it’s still an honor to know Rick wants to do an album with me.
That’s why we did The Day the Laughter Died, ’cause he felt, “You’re the end of comedy. Nobody’s ever taken it further. Unless a guy actually comes onstage and bangs a girl — which would be pornography — you can’t take it further.”
We’re gonna record in Australia, and then we’re going to work on the documentary movie, and then other projects. It’s like De Niro said, “They never got me down, Joey. They never got me down.” That’s it.