Not everyone can mount a comeback. Some criminals are beyond redemption – your benchmark Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, et al. Those with lesser misdeeds plan their limelight returns after the first angry tweets get lobbed against them, like Aziz Ansari, whose gritty new Netflix special is a deflective reflection on “woke” outrage culture. After all, he’d argue, he just had a bad date. His worst offence was being a jerk. Surely there’s a spectrum for these things, right?
Indeed there is, and somewhere between those extremes lie two proudly offensive Jewish comedians from the 1980s: Roseanne Barr and Andrew Dice Clay (born Andrew Clay Silverstein), who recently announced they’re touring North America together this September. It’s called – ready for this? – the “Mr. and Mrs. America Tour.”
Honestly, it makes sense. Roseanne and “the Diceman” are childhood friends whose fearless style of standup spat in the face of political correctness, venting frustrations to working-class American audiences who, in turn, howled and clapped at their blue-collar truth-telling.
Barr’s loudmouthed housewife shtick transformed her into the star of a venerated sitcom. Clay, once censored by MTV for profanity, made history as the first comedian to sell out two consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden in New York City – a testament to the ridiculous popularity of a man who opened every show with groaner spoofs of nursery rhymes.
By the mid-1990s, both comics effectively disappeared. Clay fizzled almost immediately – partly to raise his two sons in a quieter world after a nasty divorce, but also because the public got pretty obviously bored of his dirty rhymes. (The pinnacle of the Diceman’s post-’90 career may be getting booted first from The Celebrity Apprentice 2; he mocked judge Donald Trump, who fired him immediately.) Barr lasted a little longer, returning to standup after her show ended and doing guest spots on various TV shows.
Both careers have likewise resurged in recent years. Clay is enjoying a surprising comeback as a sad-eyed dramatic actor, earning deserved praise for roles in Blue Jasmine and as Lady Gaga’s dad in A Star is Born, while Barr infamously starred in ABC’s revival of her sitcom for precisely one season – until the writers killed her off following a real-world political controversy about a blatantly racist tweet she made.
That brings us to this moment in history, when neither comic is exactly #cancelled, but neither works in good public standing among a progressive left that demands moral perfection from every celebrity. For Barr and Clay to make a successful comeback using their old tricks, they’ve got one opportunity: pivoting to the right, leaning into the free-speech absolutism crowd, complaining about the state of comedy to an appreciative audience who will still, after so many years, howl and clap at the same kind of insults that made these comics famous in the ’80s.
“America really needs to lighten up and not worry about the words comedians use,” Clay told Fox News recently. “We gotta stop policing comedians. This is America.”
It’s a tired trope, one that conflates “policing” with “ignoring.” The inherent misunderstanding among those conditioned to “defend” free speech, as if there is a literal battle being waged against it by angry leftists, is that said aggressors are censoring comics they disagree with. Clay can rest assured his tour will go on uninterrupted. He’s free to say whatever he wants. Progressives aren’t obliged to listen, while companies – like the ABC network – aren’t obliged to put up with it. Speech is free insofar as you can say anything you want, but words have consequences.
Of course, others will gladly pay to hear them. It’s fascinating to see the world rotate so fully that Barr and Clay, monuments to a particular style of antiquated standup, are somehow relevant again. Their re-emergence is likely tied to the same notions that got Trump elected president: an older crowd pining for bygone days, a push against social progress, a return to nations’ so-called greatness. It’s not new material, but it’s back in vogue. Hopefully, like last time, it’ll all be over in a couple years.