Rodney Dangerfield: He Whines That We May Laugh
Rodney Dangerfield looks as if he needs about ten years’ sleep. Sitting at a table in Room 304 of the Sunset Marquis in Hollywood, he’s dressed in a blue robe, dark-blue sheer stockings and black slippers. His eyes and chest are red, and he’s looking forward to a nap before his evening show at the Comedy Store.
It’s his first L.A. concert, every set is sold out, his manager is trying to accommodate every studio and network in town — each VIP’s gotta have four tickets — and Rodney’s trying to relax. He’s telling a story about getting no respect when he suddenly hears the sound of steady hammering, steel pounding against concrete. Outside his room, right under his DO NOT DISTURB sign, they’ve begun to tear up the carpet.
Rodney listens for a second, as if picking up the rhythm. “It’s something about me,” he finally says in a thick, tired voice. “Guy says, ‘Who checked in? Dangerfield? It’s time to rivet!'”
“Last week was a rough week for me, last week. I saw my kid and the milkman going to a father-and-son dinner.”
Rodney Dangerfield whines so that we may laugh. Sure, he’s fifty-eight and looks like a dirty old uncle, and sure, his is a world of hookers, horses and hangovers. But if you’ve ever felt like a dance floor, and the world is one big foot, you can relate to Rodney and his bottom line: “I don’t get no respect.”
He looks like a midlife crisis. There’s a surface orderliness; he’s groomed and dressed like a businessman at a convention. Gray hair slicked back over a haggard, shades-of-Mayor-Daley face. Dark suit, white shirt and bright red tie. Silk stockings, shiny shoes. But the neatness gives way to what he calls “the heaviness” that looms over him. Life gives Rodney Dangerfield the jitters. He is in a constant sweat. He wipes his brow incessantly. He tugs at his tie, herky-jerky. As he recounts the horrors of his daily life, he shifts his shoulders uncomfortably, and his eyes bug out of their bags. He moves the floor mike around as he roams the Comedy Store stage, looking for sympathy, but all he gets are laughs. The crowd, trained by his appearances on The Tonight Show, responds to his lines as if they were familiar rock & roll riffs, whooping and clapping as Rodney pours it out: •
“I can’t relax, you know. I go to the bartender, I say, ‘Surprise me.’ He shows me a naked picture of my wife.” •
“I was in a bar, and they told me to get out. They wanted to start Happy Hour.” •
“I’ll tell ya, last week I really got stuck. I went to a discount massage parlor. It was self-service!” •
“I know I’m ugly. On Halloween, I open the front door and they offer me candy.” •
“With my wife I got no sex life. Outside my bedroom window they caught a peeping Tom, sleeping.” •
“Last time I made love with my wife, it was ridiculous. Nothing was happening. I said, ‘What’s the matter, you can’t think of anyone either?'”
And that’s one minute of Dangerfield. In one set, he unreels maybe 175 lines. The gags range from gross to ethereal, and he paces them, tossing in a long, forty-second anecdote so the crowd doesn’t get laughed out. After all, this is showbiz, and Rodney’s not doing this just for laughs. To counter the hyperkinetic, hangdog image, he frames himself in a hooray-for-Hollywood polish — not the shuck and jive of a Vegas headliner, but the street-smart, hep-cat rap of an old timer —so that with all the pathos, he’s clearly an entertainer.
“Showbiz — what a racket. Sometimes I think back on all the women I had to sleep with to get where I got!”
Dangerfield, of course, is an old timer, and this is his second time around. He was a stand-up comic in his twenties, and did so-so. He gave that up for marriage and got into business for himself, selling house paint and siding. In 1963, at age forty-two, he started his comeback, and now, after only sixteen years, he’s a star.
He gets kicked around in TV commercials, most prominently for Lite beer. He was a guest host on Saturday Night Live. He’s got his first album out in a dozen years (No Respect, on Casablanca), and he’s costarring with Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Ted Knight in Caddyshack, a film about life in a country club. Rodney plays an obnoxious condominium developer who throws around money and insults. He handles the physical stuff with ease — a dance here, a boat wreck there — and gives color and life to an otherwise ho-hum affair.
Unlike many younger comedians, Rodney is not limited to a straight or hip crowd, to a young or old audience. Unlike older comics, such as Henny Youngman and George Burns, he’s not a nostalgia item, respected for endurance. He’s not topical, social or political. He’s simply one of the funniest fall guys around.
When he appears at Dangerfield’s — the club he owns in New York City — he draws the likes of John Belushi and, once, several members of Led Zeppelin. Rodney’s friends are mostly young comics, such as Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman and Robert Klein. “He is one of the finest joke writers of all time,” says Klein, “in a league with Neil Simon. He’s a natural. He’s a character for America.” Jim McCawley, a talent coordinator for The Tonight Show, calls Rodney “one of the best stand-up comics in the world. He has an incredible economy of language, and it’s wonderful to watch him. It’s a real art.”
Rodney is on the couch, sweating and talking with Johnny Carson about show business. “Tough business,” he complains, turning to the sympathetic, nodding Carson. “Well, look at all the years you’ve been in show business — ended up with a desk job!”
If you haven’t been to his club or caught him in Vegas, chances are you’ve seen Dangerfield on The Tonight Show. It’s here, with Carson, that Rodney’s at his best. He spends two to three months working up new material for each appearance, polishing it into a two-sided hit: three minutes, maybe eighteen jokes, in front of the rainbow curtain, then three more minutes on the couch, with another fifteen or so in the guise of an interview, with Johnny playing the straight man.
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