Critics may have used the long knives on Andrew Dice Clay, but he handed them the weapons himself: He's a calculated provocation, a spit in the eye of liberal piety and conservative propriety. Many of the values that media pundits tend to promote tolerance, articulation, sensitivity are precisely what Clay's act rejects as the trappings of a culture grown too effete for its own good. Of course, ''the Diceman'' doesn't try to appeal to people who write reviews, or even to those who read them. He aims for audiences who see vulgarity as a truth in itself, a blow against the hypocrisy of others who would tell them how to behave.
It isn't a small crowd, either: Clay's HBO special, The Diceman Cometh, has been a top rental tape the top renter, in many stores for over a year now. The video's success has some people convinced that the comedian's big-screen starring debut, in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, will prove to be a hit on video. Yet unlike The Diceman Cometh, which is genuinely amusing in places, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane isn't funny for a second.
The difference boils down to little more than comic timing, which is something comedians can control on the concert stage but which is out of their hands when they make movies. And virtually the only thing good about Andrew Dice Clay's act is his timing. Onstage in The Diceman Cometh, he fleshes out his stock Brooklynese shtick with antic tics and shrugs sly little signs that suggest the character's at least partly a spoof of street-corner sleazeballs. When he sticks to goofy impressions of Al Pacino, Clay can get a laugh like any stand-up pro. It's when he gives in to the urge to pander to his fans' sex, race, and class resentments for instance, leading his audience of young white guys in chanting to ''urine-colored'' immigrants ''If you don't know the language, get out of the country!'' that Clay's routine turns smug and vicious (also absurd; what language did your ancestors speak when they landed here, Clay?).
There is justice at work here. While Ford Fairlane's naughty-naughty boorishness blew it out of the water for general audiences, its mawkish sentiments probably turned off Andrew Dice Clay's hard-core followers. With his movie a box-office fizzle and their hero reduced to crocodile tears of self-pity on Arsenio last year, Clay's fans will just have to keep renting the concert tape to drown out the sounds of reality reasserting itself. C-