The Secret Life Of Rodney Dangerfield
Please visit our sponsor.
I used to date a girl from Buffalo. Why can't I meet a girl with normal parents?
I never got a kiss, a hug, or a compliment.
Dangerfield, who passed away in October of 2004, was a prime example of the classic mid-to-late 20th century species of topline comic performer playing America"s living rooms (and bedrooms) during the heyday of the TV variety show. He performed a record-setting 70 times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He was a regular on The Dean Martin Show. He made countless appearances on The Joey Bishop Show, The Merv Griffin Show and The Jackie Gleason Show. He had a home-run string of his own TV specials with titles like It's Not Easy Bein" Me and I Can"t Take It No More. He won a Grammy for his comedy record album, No Respect. By the end of the 70s his boorish, twitchy, grousingly belligerent, tie-adjusting stand-up persona was recognized around the world.
Then, with the 1980 film Caddyshack starring Bill Murray, his career really took off. By the time of his death he had made nearly two dozen movies, in all but one of them cast in humorous roles. That notable exception was the film Natural Born Killers (decidedly NOT a comedy), in which he played an abusive father to critical acclaim. Rumor has it that he wrote his own lines, but that contention has never been proven. It does, however, hint at the complex and multifaceted individual hidden underneath Dangerfield"s hilariously oafish, sweaty, self-flagellating... and lovingly constructed comedy fa?ade.
Surprise Number 1: He was an adept and prolific wordsmith. His writing credits run the gamut from the enormous volume of his own stand-up material to a slew of screenplays, among them Easy Money, Back to School and Meet Wally Sparks. Then there's his best selling autobiography, It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs, which topped the charts for over a year.
Surprise Number 2: He was a dedicated and selfless mentor to literally hundreds of up-and-coming young comedians like Jim Carrey, who credits Dangerfield with indispensable help in launching his eventual meteoric rise to fame. In his affectionate and heartfelt foreword to Dangerfield"s autobiography, Carrey wrote:
- "Rodney is, without a doubt, as funny as a carbon-based life-form can be. Watching his act is like watching a boxing match on fast forward. He's a walking encyclopedia of stand-up comedy, from nightclubs to websites, from Ed Sullivan to Conan O'Brien. And as the owner of Dangerfield's, his nightclub in New York, and through his HBO specials, he has always been a young comedian"s best friend. His eye for talent is unmatched, and he never took the safe way out. He fostered plenty of mainstream comedians, but his heart really went out to the edgy performers, those guys (like Sam Kinison) and women (like Roseanne) who had a hard time getting booked when they were starting out because they weren't 'user-friendly.' He even helped discover a young impressionist from Canada who dreamed, at one time, of being the next Rich Little. That young impressionist was me. Rodney took me on tour with him for a couple of years, and we had a lot of laughs, and a lot of bad airplane meals. One day, though, I decided to change my act'I wanted to stop doing my impressions and start being myself onstage. Well, things got pretty weird for a while after that. And by 'weird' I mean that I was bombing night after night. But I stuck with it, mainly because I could always hear Rodney laughing in the wings. I was making him laugh, so I knew I was onto something. A lot of comedians would have dumped an opening act that wasn't making his audience laugh, but Rodney stood by me, told me to keep on doing what I was doing. Most people don't know this about Rodney, but he is a sweet and generous man. He's written thousands of great jokes, but for me, his funniest line is his classic setup, "I don't get no respect." That's almost an inside joke because from me, and from all the hundreds of comedians he has helped and inspired, and from anybody who digs great comedy, he gets nothing but love and respect."
Surprise number 3: His childhood was virtually Dickensian. Talk about a shortage of respect; there was also very little love, no joy, and often not even much food.
Born Jacob Cohen on November 22, 1921 in the Long Island, New York town of Babylon, he was the son of Philip Cohen, a vaudeville performer known on the circuit as Phil Roy. Dangerfield writes in his book, "My Dad wasn't around much. I found out later he was a ladies" man. Dad had no time for his kids'he was always out trying to make new ones." Ba dum-dum.
Little Jacob really didn't know his father at all. As Dangerfield puts it, "I feel awkward referring to him as "Dad." When you hear that word, you picture a man who looks forward to spending time with his family, a man who takes his son camping or to a ball game every once in a while. My father and I did none of those things. He didn't live with us. Show business kept him on the road practically all the time'or was it my mother? (Rim shot.) When he wasn't on the road, he"d stay in New York City. About every six months, I"d take the train from Kew Gardens into New York to see him. We"d walk around for an hour and talk'not that we ever had much to say to each other'and then he"d walk me back to the subway and give me some change. I"d say "thank you" and then take the subway back home. I figured out that during my entire childhood, my father saw me for two hours a year."
When Jacob was ten, the Great Depression hit. Hard. The family moved to Jacob"s grandmother"s one-bedroom apartment in the East Bronx. He slept on a cot in the front hallway. His memories of those years are sobering:
"Although I didn't realize it at the time, my childhood was odd. I was raised by my mother, who ran a very cold household. I never got a kiss, a hug, or a compliment. My mother wouldn't even tuck me in, and forget about kissing me goodnight. On my birthdays, I never got a present, a card, nothing."
Thankfully for his audiences, this misery eventually made its circuitous way up and out, to Dangerfield"s original oddball brand of humor. It"s a time-worn maxim that all comedy stems from sadness, which may or may hold true for everyone, but it certainly seemed to in this case.
As a teenager, Jacob got a chance to write jokes for a series of standup comics, and then at 19 took the plunge and became one himself. He called himself Jack Roy, and in spite of his innate talent and timing, the pickings were slim. He performed everywhere he could, including in restaurants as a singing waiter and even as an acrobatic diver. Finally, after nine years of floundering, he gave up and got a job selling aluminum siding. By now, he had a family to support. All indications pointed to the fact that quitting was a smart decision. As Dangerfield put it, "At the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit!"
More than a decade later, in the early 60s, he couldn't help himself and decided to try again. He gradually began getting gigs at comedy clubs, but he didn't quit the day job for fear of not being able to support his family. Around this time he changed his name to Rodney Dangerfield.
As he bounced around from club to club, slowly redefining his image into the persona of bumbling middle-aged loser with endless rat-a-tat jokes bewailing his lack of respect, his following began to grow.
Then the break came like a bolt of lightning, and he was ready.
The Ed Sullivan Show'at the time the most popular and influential venue on earth for comics, musical acts and other variety performers'needed a last-minute replacement for another act. Dangerfield took the gig and, in the parlance of comedy, he killed. It happened on his first "no respect" joke, which brought down the house, and it kept right on coming:
"I get no respect. I played hide-and-seek, and they wouldn't even look for me." And: "I grew up in a tough neighborhood. Tough neighborhood! Teachers would get notes from parents saying, 'Please excuse Johnny for the next 5-to-10 years!'"
He was a huge hit. With this appearance alone, his career was launched into the stratosphere, and the rest is history.
Soon after his death in 2004, Saturday Night Live aired a tribute sketch to Rodney Dangerfield that contained some of his most beloved jokes. Here's the transcript of that sketch, which featured Horatio Sanz as St. Peter and Darrell Hammond as Rodney Dangerfield:
[open on the Pearly Gates of Heaven, St. Peter standing at the podium as Rodney Dangerfield attempts to walk past]
St. Peter: Can I have your name? [Dangerfield stops in front of a microphone] Rodney Dangerfield: Rodney. Rodney Dangerfield, alright? I'll tell ya', what a cloud! What a cloud, okay? St. Peter: Can you tell me, uh.. how was your childhood? Rodney Dangerfield: Oh, I tell ya', I had a rough childhood, alright? When I was a kid, my parents moved a lot - but I always found 'em.
I'll tell ya', I got no respect as a kid. I worked in a pet store; people kept asking how big I would get! St. Peter: Did you have any pets? Rodney Dangerfield: I had a dog. Apparently, his favorite bone was in my arm! St. Peter: How was your luck with the ladies? Rodney Dangerfield: I had no luck with women, alright? I went to my doctor; I told him I think my wife has VD, he gave himself a penicillin shot!
St. Peter: Were you married?
Rodney Dangerfield: Yeah, but I haven't spoken to my wife in years - I didn't want to interrupt her!
St. Peter: Was she a good cook? Rodney Dangerfield: She can't cook! She's the worst cook in the world, alright? The other night, she fixed alphabet soup - it spelled out "Help!"
St. Peter: Was your wife an intelligent woman? Rodney Dangerfield: Are you kidding? My wife's not smart, you know? She used to reach inside her bra to count to two. St. Peter: Rodney, how was your sex life?
Rodney Dangerfield: I got no sex life! The only time my wife makes love to me, there's always a reason for it! Now, one night she used me to time an egg.
I'll tell ya, that's the story of my life - I get no respect! I get no respect at all, alright? So, whattaya say, St. Peter, do I get in or what? St. Peter: Of course, you do. Rodney Dangerfield: Then, what's with all the questions? St. Peter: [solemnly] I just wanted to hear those jokes one more time.
Rodney Dangerfield: Finally! A little respect! St. Peter: Come on in.
[Dangerfield enters through the gates, angelic harmony rises. Dissolve to stand-up image of Rodney Dangerfield with the inscription: "We'll miss you. Rodney Dangerfield 1921-2004"] [Fade out.]
Everybody has a favorite Dangerfield joke. Here are just a few of his greatest ones:
Suzanne Ford, : Suzanne Ford has worked on stage and in film and television, guest starring on multiple series such as Bones, House, How I Met Your Mother, Monk, That 70s Show, Friends, and many more. Her recent film work includes supporting roles in The Informers with Mickey Roarke, Billy Bob Thornton and Kim Basinger, You, Me and Dupree with Matt Dillon, Michael Douglas, Owen Wilson and Kate Hudson, and Uncross the Stars with Barbara Hershey and Ron Perlman, along with lead roles in the indie films Darkening... (more...)