Many labels were hung on Rodney Dangerfield during
his long, frenetic heyday as the funniest joke teller in
America. His was “the comedy of angst,” or “the comedy
of anxiety,” or “the comedy of the loser.” What it really was
was the comedy of funny. It was the comedy of laughter.
His act wasn’t conceptual or observational or stream-of-consciousness;
it was a bunch of jokes.
The jokes tended to be self-deprecating and selfpitying
and what they said at heart was “We’re all in this
together.” But we’re not all in it together anymore. Rodney
Dangerfield died at 82 Tuesday in New York after a long
series of illnesses and operations.
“I don’t get no respect” was, of course,
his signature line, but to the end
he had the respect, and the gratitude,
of everybody who ever laughed
so hard they cried.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Dangerfield’s appearances on “The
Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” were major television
events, whether in college dorms or, who knows,
retirement villages. Carson loved comedians and found
Rodney so relentless in his pursuit of the ever-elusive
next laugh that just the idea of Dangerfield amused him.
Dangerfield would come out from behind the curtain and
do five or six minutes of prepared material, then sit on
the couch and do several more minutes of jokes thinly
disguised as conversation, Carson barely getting a word
in except to set up more jokes. He’d ask Dangerfield,
“How’s your health?” and Dangerfield would do a few
minutes of health jokes, always involving his physician,
the mythical “Dr. Vinnie Boom Botz,” being referred to of
late by David Letterman on his own show.
He didn’t like it when he visited his doctor one time and
was told he was crazy, Dangerfield recalled. “I said, ‘Oh
yeah? Well I want another opinion.’ The doctor says,
‘Okay — you’re ugly, too.’ ”
Even at the dentist’s he was plagued. “I told my dentist,
what can I do about having such yellow teeth? He said,
‘Wear a brown tie.’ ”
One night Dangerfield tore through his sit-down routine
so fast that he ended early and so, mopping his brow
with a handkerchief, no more jokes available, he turned
to Carson and simply asked, “So what’s new with you?”
Carson laughed so hard at this that he literally fell off his
chair. They were gorgeous together.
Though he had two careers as a
comedian — the first, as Jack Roy,
began at the age of 15 — it was the
second one, started late in life,
that made Dangerfield a star and,
in his rumpled black suit,
solid red tie and unmade bed of
a face, an American icon.
The success in other people’s clubs and on TV enabled
him to open Dangerfield’s, a homey comedy club on
Manhattan’s East Side. Dangerfield would roam through
the crowd in his trademark silk bathrobe, greeting
guests and watching the new comics. He was infallibly
generous about giving young talent exposure at his club,
and on his memorable HBO specials, where Roseanne
Barr made her first big splash. He supported one of the
most audacious and irreverent comics ever, the great
Dangerfield was thoroughly hip; he “got” all the jokes,
including the ones he didn’t tell. He got all the jokes,
he was all the jokes. Never did he break up at his own
material, though. He was too worried about it. He slaved
over it — sometimes with co-writers — into the wee hours,
scribbling jokes on the lined pages of big notebooks.
His huge popularity may have been a reaction to all the
pseudo-intellectual comics who stood before brick walls
and talked about their neuroses. Dangerfield didn’t talk
about his neuroses; he talked about how little success he
was having in bed. “I asked one girl if she was going to
hate herself in the morning. She said, ‘I hate myself now.’ ”
Or: “I remember one date I had, we ran into some guy
she knew and she introduced us. She said, ‘Steve, this is
Rodney. Rodney, this is goodbye.’ ”
Eventually he was able to star in such movies as “Easy
Money” and “Back to School,” respectably funny if not
artful comedies, and in “Caddyshack,” now a cult hit so
beloved that some of its fans know the whole script by
heart. Dangerfield plays a boor, a vulgarian, the ugly
American. It was a stretch, but he brought it off.
Even in his movie roles, the jokes
were on him — ridiculing the way
he looked or talked or barged
through life. He was a study in manic
misery, hilarious homeliness,
Emmett Kelly with a voice.
Perhaps if Steinbeck’s Tom Joad or Kafka’s Joseph K had
been stand-up comics, they might have been something
like Rodney Dangerfield.
No, wait — not at all. Forget that stuff. There was only
one Rodney — one put-upon, perpetually pained, always
discouraged Rodney. If he looked for that famous silver
living, it would fall out of a cloud and hit him on the head.
His was a humor that, like so many of the great comics
of his generation (though his popularity spanned several
generations), grew out of pain. Born Jacob Cohen, he
remembered all his life how teachers — not just students,
but teachers — made anti-Semitic remarks about him in
front of classmates at New York’s P.S. 99.
And so he told jokes about being a miserable kid. But not
about that aspect of being a miserable kid. The anger
never came out in the comedy — not directly. He was a
professional joke teller, not a guy looking for psychoanalysis
from an audience in a nightclub, so you got jokes and gags,
not anecdotes about the way it really was.
“My mother had morning
sickness after I was born,”
he’d say of his earliest days.
“My old man didn’t help, either. One time I was kidnapped.
They sent back a piece of my finger. He said he wanted
“I was lost at the beach once and a cop helped me look
for my parents. I said to him, ‘You think we’ll find them?’
He said, ‘I don’t know, kid. There’s so many places they
could hide.’ ”
Thus, according to his act — the way Chaplin’s or Keaton’s
or Harold Lloyd’s characters were established — the
patterns of this Rodney’s ramshackle life were immutably
“The other day they asked me to leave a bar I was drinking
in. They said they wanted to start the happy hour.”
“Once the cops arrested me for jaywalking. The crowd
shouted, ‘Don’t take him alive!’ ”
The litany of abuse would be
punctuated with the occasional “I tell
ya, I don’t get no respect. No respect
at all.” The crowd would cheer.
And then back to the jokes.
The no-respect theme was encouraged by one of the
most artful and adored of all stand-ups, Jack Benny. “He
was an ace. He was a doll,” Dangerfield recalled in a 1979
interview. “And he says to me, ‘Rodney, I’m cheap and
I’m 39, that’s my image, but your ‘no respect’ thing, that’s
into the soul of everybody. Everybody can identify with
that. Everyone gets cut off in traffic, everyone gets stood
up by a girl, kids are rude to them, whatever.’ He says to
me, ‘Every day something happens where people feel
they didn’t get respect.’ ”
No matter how Dangerfield complained onstage about
how life treated him, the comic never exploited it for
pathos or poignancy. Still, there was just a trace of it in a
soliloquy in which he talked about the fact that nobody
ever gave him “one of these,” and made the “okay”
sign, the little circle, with his thumb and finger. So if you
saw him in the street after the show or in a club later or
anywhere, he would tell an audience, it would be doing
him a great service just to flash him “one of these.”
He figured it wasn’t much to ask. “You know what the
trouble with me is? I appeal to everyone who can do me
absolutely no good,” he’d mockingly lament. “At my age,
if I don’t drink, don’t smoke, and eat only certain foods,
what can I look forward to? From this point on, if I take
excellent care of myself — I’ll get very sick and die.”
And so he did.
But he left behind infinite echoes
of laughter, laughter that survives
somehow even if it appears to have
evaporated. And who knows but
that right now, at this very moment,
someone, somewhere is giving
Rodney “one of these.”