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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.

Read the full article at villagevoice.com
 

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