Saturday, May 12, 1990. I was at a party in Brooklyn, loud reggae and techno, conversations about politics and culture. Around 11:25, I slipped into a bedroom, turned on the small TV, sipped a beer and waited for Andrew Dice Clay to host SNL.
The Diceman had been all over the news the previous week, including Nightline where Lorne Michaels explained his rationale for inviting Clay to host (and didn’t look very happy about it). Clay’s act was well known in the comedy world, but it was SNL that made him a cultural pariah. Suddenly, everybody had an opinion about his act, regardless of whether or not they’d actually seen it.
Some of my more political friends painted Clay as a misogynist fascist who peddled hate speech. What kind of twisted mind thought he was funny? While I didn’t defend Clay, whose material was rather toxic, I pointed out that he was essentially playing a character, a Brooklyn loudmouth who thought he was slick, but was instead a leather-clad fool.
I convinced no one, which didn’t matter since I wasn’t a fan of Clay’s to begin with; but there was no way I was going to miss the live show. Some of these friends wandered into that bedroom, gave me grief about indulging this sexist pig, but oddly enough sat through much of the episode with me. They didn’t laugh, but they didn’t leave.
The main backstory, as you may know, dealt with Nora Dunn’s refusal to appear with Clay and subsequent personal boycott. She was soon followed by musical guest Sinéad O’Connor (who would later leave her own distinctive mark), and this put SNL in an awkward position. Plus, the women who remained were seen by some feminists as sellouts and collaborators. Not ideal conditions for creating comedy, but the media shitstorm, hate mail, and phoned threats did give the show added edge.
It helped that at the time, SNL boasted a first-rate cast and strong writing staff. One of the best in the show’s history. As Christine Zander told me, “As writers, we went into work knowing that Dice wasn’t going to do whatever he wanted, he was going to do what we wrote for him. Simple as that. To think that having him host would allow him to do his offensive stage character on the show was absurd.”
This turned out to be true. In a sense, the writers deconstructed the Diceman. Yes, he was in character, but put on a short leash. You got the essence of who he portrayed, yet the idiocy was exposed. Even his fans, who must have been confused by this tamer version, were chided for their lack of education. The SNL writers exerted full control. The boastful Dice was no match for that room.
Given all that, NBC still insisted on a five-to-seven-second delay. Live is live, and who knew what Clay in the moment might say. In the end, there really wasn’t much to censor. A sketch where Clay played a father explaining sex to his son (Mike Myers) had the word “poontang” repeatedly bleeped (though one slipped through), but clearly that was planned and part of the script. At no point did it appear that Clay would go off the rails.
The closest it came to chaos was during the opening monologue. As Dice greeted the audience and joked about the controversy, several gay activists began heckling him. “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Clay go away!” they chanted before being led out by security. Clay responded in character, tossing in an anti-gay line as if to reinforce the protesters’ perception. Watching this (almost) live, I thought, man, this is gonna be a rocky night, which delighted me. It had been awhile since SNL courted danger, and I expected more outbursts as the show progressed. Clearly, NBC security had different ideas.
Clay’s outing remains one of the more self-referential SNL episodes, inescapable given the noise around it. Jan Hooks and Kevin Nealon delivered mock protest speeches; a running gag had TV Guide jeering the show for its tastelessness. Clay performed pretty well, though he later confessed that his blood pressure was through the roof. Naturally, the Dice show earned SNL its highest ratings of the season, so whoever was ultimately responsible for booking Clay knew that it would attract attention, however negative.
It also signaled the end of character-based standups. From Andy Kaufman to Bobcat Goldthwait to Joel Hodgson, Emo Phillips, and Judy Tenuta, the late 70s and most of the 80s saw a proliferation of performance artists play comedy clubs. Audiences accepted this, conditioned initially by Steve Martin, but also by whatever counterculture remained.
By 1990, different, in some cases cruder sensibilities emerged. It’s almost fitting that Andrew Dice Clay was one of the last characters from that era. Indeed, his show featured the first appearances of David Spade and Rob Schneider who, along with Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, would dominate SNL through the early 90s, ushering in “frat boy” humor that proved to be incredibly popular. Perhaps Nora Dunn anticipated more than she let on.