Of course it's a put-on. The whole testosterized "Diceman" trip -- the profane tirades about "chicks," gays, immigrants, the Japanese ("They're taking over. Didn't we drop two bombs on them a few years ago? What was in those bombs, {expletive} fertilizer?"), even hunchbacks now, but mostly "chicks" -- it's all a goof. He doesn't really mean it.

But that doesn't close the mysterious case of Andrew Dice Clay, born Andrew Clay Silverstein, a jokester whose success with recordings and arena shows has been overshadowed by protests from offended parties and ostracism by David Letterman, Jay Leno and other respected representatives of American comedy. "Brownshirt humor," sniffs veteran comic Richard Belzer. Nora Dunn of "Saturday Night Live" refused to work with him. MTV has banned him for life.

Many commentators believe the Diceman's popularity reveals something about our current culture. In GQ magazine last August, under the headline "The Comedy of Hate," a female writer concluded that Clay's fame isn't surprising "given the intensely polarized America left in the wake of the Reagan years -- deteriorating race relations, the rise of Aryan youth movements ... and ex-Klansmen who can win state office." Last December, a male writer in the Village Voice echoed: "Only the '80s ... can be held accountable for a phenomenon like this."

In a spirited defense of Clay, a young, conservative critic at the Washington Times recently opined that audiences crack up because the Diceman "says things that have been declared off-limits by feminists and other sensitivity police."

Regardless of what Dice-mania may reveal about us, it reveals plenty about him. Realizing the distinction between the Dice character and its host, in fact, is the first step toward understanding that Clay is worthy more of pity than either adoration or scorn. He seems terrifically insecure, and resolutely unwilling to confront it.

Few of Clay's fans or critics seem to know about the pre-Dice years. During the early 1980s, he was known simply as Andrew Clay, a struggling comic who had moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn. "He was an impressionist," and he worked clean, recalls Michael Becker, assistant to the owner of the Comedy Store, an important L.A. showcase club where Clay, and many other young comedians, spent years hoping to get noticed.

Clay's act included impersonations of Jerry Lewis's "Nutty Professor," John Travolta in his "Welcome Back, Kotter" role, Al Pacino in "... And Justice for All" and, as a closer, Elvis Presley. Not exactly the kind of material that would inspire a stampede of ticket buyers at Madison Square Garden.

"He was a guy we all teased at the Comedy Store, and didn't think he would go that far," says Michael Binder, a comedian and screenwriter who recently began working with Clay on his concert movie. But even then, Binder says, Clay was confident he would make it.

About seven years ago, Clay began developing a character called "Dice," or "the Diceman," a street-tough, cigarette-sucking Italian guy from Brooklyn.

Binder remembers reading for a role in the low-budget 1984 teen comedy "Making the Grade." Clay also auditioned -- in character as Dice -- and he so impressed the filmmakers that they tailored the role of the villain, a tough-guy bookie, to him, Binder says. They even named the character "Dice." (The actor is listed in the credits as Andrew Clay.)

Clay's career was undergoing a crucial transformation. On Nov. 28, 1984, the show-business trade paper Variety reviewed a 45-minute nightclub set by a comic who now called himself "Andrew (Dice) Clay":

"{He} stumbles onstage as the utterly inept 'Eugene Moskowitz' before metamorphosing into a black-leather-jacketed, obscenity-spouting hoodlum. ... Easy on the eyes, but hard on the ears with a nonstop flow of X-rated subjects and vocabulary, he registers as a kind of four-letter Fonzie... .

"After the initial shock of greetings like 'What's your name -- any idea?' and 'Are you wearing panties?,' a college-age audience cheerfully accepts the barrage of insults and crude talk. ... Sample quips: 'Ever go on a blind date and wish you were actually blind?' 'Women are always on a diet -- until you get 'em in the restaurant.' 'Why did I kill my first wife? I needed the phone.' "

Clay's act still contained his Travolta, Pacino and Elvis impressions. But gradually, says Binder, Clay began dressing and acting like Dice offstage as well as on. "It really was theater at that point," Binder says. But Clay was zeroing in on the persona that eventually would make him one of America's most talked-about performers.

The irony, of course, is that Andrew Clay isn't really a star. Dice is. Where would Clay be without him? Still doing Elvis and the Nutty Professor? Is Clay even funny without Dice?

Viewers got a taste of the old Andrew Clay on "The Arsenio Hall Show" several months ago when he did a few minutes of standup material. He started out with the typical Dice-isms (including "What's your name, honey -- any idea?"). But he concluded with a brief, strange impressionist's bit -- Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Eric Roberts, Travolta and Pacino as Boy Scouts on a camping trip. The routine, relying more on mugging than dead-on mimicry, ended with a twist on Pacino's courtroom crack-up scene in "... And Justice For All." "I'm out of order? You're out of order! The marshmallows are out of order! This whole camping trip's out of order!"

People laughed. But it was startlingly corny stuff from a performer usually so steeped in street-corner attitude. This is not the kind of comedy you'll ever hear from Clay on stage, on an album or on cable TV, where he can be as nasty as he wants to be. Where he can be the Diceman.

After seeing his recent appearances on "Arsenio" and "PrimeTime Live," and his monologue during "Saturday Night Live" in May, when he responded to a heckler with a witless scatological insult, it's safe to conclude that the real Clay is neither very funny nor very strong. Rather, he is loaded with spite. And his big eyes reveal a man who's easy to hurt.

On "Arsenio" the night of July 10, Clay said: "People go, 'What's the real Andrew Clay Silverstein? Who is that other -- as opposed to Dice? Who's Dice, who's Andrew Clay, who's the Jewish kid, who's the guy that's acting Italian?' Well, you want to know who he is? I'll tell you."

He got up off the couch, moved to the front of the set, and paused until the raucous crowd hushed. "Andrew Clay," he said, "is a guy that came out here about 10 years ago -- and broke his {tail}. You know what I mean?" His voice began to crack. There were scattered chuckles in the audience. "Broke his {tail}, he believed in hisself, became the hottest comic in the world. And anybody that doesn't like it can wipe {themselves} with whatever they say about me." Applause.

Clay uttered a few more words before choking up. Tears filled his eyes. There was silence. Suddenly, he pulled himself together with a few sharp arm movements and a neck twist, popping a cigarette into his mouth like Dice. The crowd cheered. Unhesitating now, Clay said, "You want to be a doctor, you want to be an attorney, you want to be a comic, you believe in yourself, and you don't listen to nobody. That's the way it is." Wild applause.

The next morning, newspapers ran stories about Clay's teary declaration of self-esteem. But you don't have to be a cynic to suspect that it had been a sham. Especially considering the way he snapped himself out of it. Clay is, after all, a put-on artist, and not a bad actor.

Even Rick Rubin, the founder of Def American Recordings and producer of Clay's two albums, was doubtful. "But then, considering how long he was choked up, I started buying it," he says. "Then when I talked to him about it, I was shocked that it was completely for real."

Rubin says Clay "was really planning on coming out and being really goofy, because the last few interviews he's been doing, he's been defending himself from attacks, and talking about how it's a character and not really him. What he was going out to do was just be funny and not care about what anyone says about him and not defend himself and just be a dope and be funny."

But Clay was dead serious when he told Arsenio Hall and a national TV audience, "I'll probably be the biggest box-office draw ever." The crowd whooped, apparently taking it as the typical Dice bluster. But this was Andrew Clay talking. Two nights later, he told Diane Sawyer on "PrimeTime Live" the same thing, almost word for word. Who was he trying to convince?

It is disquieting to contrast Clay with a performer who, in many ways, seems to be his opposite: Sandra Bernhard. Her sensibility is feminist while the Diceman's is anti-feminist. Her humor is brainy and his is vulgar. "Outsiders" mocked by Dice -- gays and blacks -- are embraced by Bernhard.

But the most telling distinction is that Bernhard, courageously and comically, confronts the tragic implications of the desire to be accepted by an audience. Clay seems oblivious to these implications as he keeps telling the world, without a trace of irony, that he's going to be the biggest movie star of all time (and telling himself he deserves to be).

Bernhard, at the stunning conclusion of her movie "Without You I'm Nothing," strips down to a G-string and pasties. She dances proudly before empty seats, her audience having betrayed her by leaving, and somehow converts vulnerability to strength. Andrew Clay hides himself onstage behind a leather jacket and a cigarette. The seats may be full of wildly approving fans, but Clay's putative strength is a fragile facade.

In the July issue of the Face, a British entertainment magazine, Bernhard writes about the issue with characteristically wry self-awareness. "Let us talk Fame, Celebrity, Loneliness, Alienation and Fear of Failure. ... {I}f you want to make it in this stinking business, you gotta eat, breathe, and desire it with every lousy pore in your body. That's why I am where I am today... .

"Unfortunately I can't seem to settle for anything less than global approval. I have become a media baby," she writes. "You see, there's this little problem that develops once you've had a taste of non-stop adrenaline pulsing through your veins: you must have it all the time, and any time you try to escape it, like on some deserted beach, you start flipping out and making phone calls to friends back home just to make sure no one has forgotten you. Especially the entire world."

It's always sad to imagine a comic, the neediest of entertainers, losing the love and attention of a fickle public. But when the ride is over for Clay -- when people inevitably grow tired of his shtick, and he disappears like Gabe Kaplan or Jimmie Walker or somebody -- he will also be forced to admit that it wasn't even him audiences liked in the first place. It was this make-believe Diceman.

Then Andrew Clay will know who he was really putting on.