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Rodney Dangerfield: He Whines That We May Laugh

America’s favorite fall guy finally gets some respect

Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield in 1980.

Ron Galella/WireImage

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.

Here, we can see flashes of Dangerfield the ad-libber. When there is a moment’s silence between jokes, he cranes his neck and says, “It’s so quiet, you’d think E.F. Hutton just spoke.” But usually it’s all been set up. One night, he gave Carson a rundown on his latest run-ins with his wife (“My marriage is on the rocks again; my wife broke up with her boyfriend”), his son (“What a kid! He put Krazy Glue in my Preparation H”), his dog (“I wanted to mate her; she wanted fifty biscuits”), life’s little surprises (“This morning I did push-ups in the nude; I didn’t see the mousetrap”) and sex (“At my age, I want two girls at once; if I fall asleep, they have each other to talk to”). Finished, he looked blank for a second, sighed, turned abruptly to the guest sitting next to him, actor James Mason, and blurted: “What’s new with you?” While a polite Mason tried to look amused, Carson shot out of his chair, spewing laughter. After a few commercials, the audience was still applauding, and Rodney had to take a bow.

“One guy gave me a hard time, kept lookin’ at me, said, ‘Where do I know you from?’ I said, ‘Ever watch Johnny Carson?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you too?'”

Ifirst laughed at Rodney six or seven years ago. It must’ve been on The Tonight Show. He was talking about how rough his neighborhood was and about this great idea he came up with to prevent burglaries. “I left all the lights on in the apartment, the radio on, and a note on the front door. It said, I’m inside. I get home, I still got robbed. The guy left his own note. It said, I looked all over for you.”

A perfect joke. Fast and visual. A subject everyone can relate to. A punch line that leaves no hope. Prime Dangerfield. And for all I know, it actually happened.

Probably not, though. Whatever the parallels between Rodney’s stage and real life, there’s still plenty of fiction. For one thing, the ever-present wife of his gags does not exist; his real wife died in 1975. For another, he doesn’t live in a rough neighborhood. He has a spacious apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, just a mile or so north of his club.

The apartment is simply appointed. Taking me through, Rodney plays down its contemporary furnishings. “Naw, it’s not lovely,” he says. “I’m a very unpretentious man.” He pops into the small kitchen, where I meet Thelma, his maid and cook of sixteen years. He shows me his bedroom and points to his desk: “All my jazz here, that’s where I do my action.”

Rodney indicates a nearby door, it’s Joe Ancis’ room. Joe is Rodney’s friend of some thirty years. In New York comedy circles, Joe’s a classic, a master shpritzer. He was a buddy of and major influence on Lenny Bruce, and is a surrealistically fast and funny man who could never perform in front of strangers. He worked in Rodney’s aluminum-siding business and still sells paint. Joe’s family lives across the street, but, as Rodney explains, “For some reason, life didn’t work out. We have harmony, so he’s been over here.” Joe is into his second year at the Dangerfield home.

Rodney points out his nineteen-year-old son’s room (Brian is off at college) and introduces daughter Melanie, 16. She’s sitting on her bed, reading and listening to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. She wears a white T-shirt with I DON’T GET NO RESPECT emblazoned on it.

“I have all the respect in the world for him,” she says of her father, then splits to see a girlfriend. This leaves Rodney to answer the phone, which rings seven times over the next hour, with calls for Melanie, for Joe and sometimes even for him. Thelma isn’t answering the phone; she’s in the kitchen watching TV and yelling advice at game-show contestants.

Since becoming a father at thirty-nine, Rodney has had to raise his children by himself (with help from Thelma). He sacrificed the middle years of his career, forsook potential momentum, to stay close. It’s his nature. He’s a worrier, especially about people he loves. But it’s also a response to his own upbringing.

“No respect at all. When I was a baby, I was breast-fed by my father!”

Rodney was born Jacob Cohen in Babylon, Long Island, in 1921, the son of a vaudeville pantomime comic. His mother, he says, was “just a housewife. I never got that much love, never. My father and mother were always separated; my mother brought me and my older sister up. She was always pushing my sister into show business. Maybe I thought that was the way to go, so I used to try to be funny around friends, relatives, doing imitations of the family.”

Jacob lived on Long Island until age ten. At the height of the Depression, in 1931, he and his sister moved into their paternal grandmother’s apartment in the Bronx. It was a five-flight walk-up, and Jacob slept on a cot. A year later, his mother took the kids to Queens.

“My mother made the mistake of moving into a neighborhood that was rather well-to-do — Kew Gardens — ’cause her sisters lived there. But we never belonged there. We were living above a store, and I delivered orders after school. I’d be going to school with these kids, and after school I’d be delivering orders to their houses, you know what I mean? Also, in those days I experienced quite a bit of anti-Semitism in school, even among the teachers. And the fact that I came from a split home. All in all, I felt on the outside. Like, Christmas to me meant delivering trees to make some money.” Telling his story, Rodney sounds weary, but no more than usual. There’s no self-pity as he looks back. Just the facts.

At age fifteen, Jacob began writing jokes, “maybe because of depression. You wanna escape into unreality.” At nineteen, he adopted the stage name Jack Roy — Roy having been his father’s vaudeville handle — and landed his initial job, in the Catskill Mountains, first home-away-from-home for many great comics. Jack got the job by scraping up twelve dollars to pay the agent’s commission in advance, and he worked ten weeks at twelve dollars a week plus room and board. With his act — jokes, bits of burlesque, even a few songs — somewhat polished, he returned home to look for club work. All he found was a job as a waiter at the Polish Falcon in Brooklyn for five dollars a night. He realized that some waiters doubled or tripled their income by doing a singing stint onstage with a piano and drums.

“So I go to the entertaining-waiters association to join the union. ‘No work, get out, can’t join the union.’ I have my last three bucks. I say, ‘Look, here’s for Christmas,’ and I beg him to put me in the union.” Rodney shakes his head. “You’re always begging your whole goddamn life. You wonder why certain people can become comedians. They’re used to humiliation.” He continues: “So I got in the union. I was a singing waiter.”

Jack Roy scratched out jobs here and there, getting paid with eight quarters for one gig in Newark, New Jersey. He still lived at home, and would until he was twenty-eight, when he got married. Till then, “I worked, did okay. I was adequate.” Joe Ancis remembers: “He always wrote beautiful stuff–good, solid comedic lines, good concepts, but it lacked a character.”

Rodney says he quit because he was tired of traveling and the pressures of showbiz, and because he wanted “a normal life.” He was, he says, “looking for love.” His wife, Joyce, was a singer, and she also gave up showbiz for normalcy. But, says Dangerfield, “I later learned it wasn’t show business that was crazy, it was me.”

“Last week, I broke up with my psychiatrist. He told me I was going crazy. I said to him, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like a second opinion.’ He said, ‘All right, you’re ugly too.'”

Even while he was away from showbiz, Rodney was “always writing jokes. Writing, writing, writing.” He sold his gags to such comics as Joan Rivers and Jackie Mason, but he knew he should have been doing them himself.

In his earlier stab at it, the woe-is-me jokes never quite fit him. Now, at forty, he was beginning to look the part. While in the siding business, he came up with the line: “The trouble with me is, I appeal to everyone who can do me absolutely no good.” As he reeled through a tumultuous marriage, he could say that line — and many others like it — with authority.

His marriage, he says, “was a real mixed-up affair. I divorced the same girl twice: got married, divorced, married, divorced — one of those numbers. I was very much down at the time.”

Jack Roy was booked into a Brooklyn club he’d worked in the early days. To avoid embarrassment, he asked the owner, George McFadden, to advertise him under another name. “He came up with Rodney Dangerfield,” says Rodney. “I don’t know where it came from.” (Most likely from the J.P. Donleavy novel The Ginger Man, which features a character named Sebastian Dangerfield.) Still, some of his old friends heard who “Rodney” was and caught his act.

“They said, ‘Rodney Dangerfield?’ I said, ‘If you’re gonna change your name, change it.’ A friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you keep it?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, what the heck. I’m depressed enough to go crazy, so I’ll call myself Rodney Dangerfield.'”

Trying to relaunch his career, Rodney found himself begging again. In 1967, he asked his agents to get him an audition for The Ed Sullivan Show. As soon as he heard Rodney, Sullivan booked him for six shows. Other TV appearances followed, and later that year, he recorded his first album, The Loser.

“I found myself starting to pack places,” he says. No respect caught on fast. “Jack Benny mentioned to me that it was the greatest image he had ever heard of. Everyone gets no respect.” In 1968, Rodney put out another album, I Don’t Get No Respect. By this time, he was a father of two and, on and off, a husband. To stay close to his family, and defying all advice and odds, he opened his own nightclub in 1969.

“See, I had a lot of personal problems,” he says. “I thought to myself, I have two kids. I had to bring them up. I had a boy in the hospital for a year and a half. He had a disease of the hips. So what’s important to me? To go around the country making money or to stay home and visit him twice a week? So I said, ‘I’ll open a place.’ Everyone said, ‘You can’t do it, you’re crazy.’ Well, I just felt I had enough heat going that I could do it. And it worked out. I got lucky.”

But not until he borrowed $250,000 from “friends, relatives, the bank, everybody.” The club was paid off a year and a half later. “Everyone got their money back.”

“You know, I’m doing okay today. In show business I was broke for years, I couldn’t buy nothing. I used to go to orgies to eat grapes.”

Dangerfield’s is on First Avenue just up from the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge. It’s on a busy block and sits between a French restaurant and a movie house that shows such fare as Sheer Panties.

The club itself is a mix of cheese and sleaze. Fifties-style Vegas trappings — dark, masculine colors. Near the bar, a cork board displays vintage photos of Rodney and celebrity buddies. In the showroom, capacity 400, people are crammed around tiny black tables. Onstage, the performers warming up for Rodney — a standard jazz band, a singing impressionist and a lounge thrush — don’t have much more room. It’s a very unpretentious place.

Before the show, Rodney sits at a rear table, signing papers and taking care of other business. That done, he mixes with the crowd at the bar, kvetching to a friend about having to fit a shoot for a new Lite beer commercial into a vacation with the kids. Then it’s show time. He lights up a cigarette, and while the band vamps, he sips from a glass of water, blows his nose, leans into an offstage mike and pronounces: “No respect.” The crowd whoops, and he strides onto the stage, singing “Once in a Lifetime.”

Afterward, in his dressing room, he glad-hands fans and presses VIP flesh in a warm but distinctly move-’em-through manner. Nice seeing you. All right? Nice seeing you…. His dressing room is decked out like a mobile home — paneled walls, flowered couch, red plastic chair. If there is one distinguishing feature, it’s the breeze that pours through the room.

“It’s always too hot for him,” says Joe Ancis, slipping into shpritz. “The fucking air conditioner is always wailing heavy, man, and every time I go in, I say, ‘Man, you could fucking hang meat in here.'”

Ancis obviously enjoys talking about his friend, whom he describes as “a very righteous, honorable person. He’s basically, in the vernacular, a real stand-up guy.” In fact, in Joe’s view, it’s Rodney’s positive qualities that have kept him from becoming a bigger star.

In a wild mix of speaking styles, from be-bop to scholastic, Ancis explains: “He’s not sycophantic, man [he pronounces it psychophantic]. He can’t suck, and he refuses to be glibly obsequious, which is part of the politics of show business. He can’t make that route, man, and if he did, I think he would be, like, gigantic in a million fucking areas — pictures, television or what have you. The range is there. He has the acting ability; the character’s a strong thing. I could see him in a Walt Disney scene with the dad and mom going on a picnic in Yellowstone, that kind of shit, man.”

Robert Klein agrees. “If pure ambition were mixed in there, added to the intelligence and talent, he’d be a giant. It could be a fear of failing. He doesn’t have enough patience. He makes people laugh, and he’s happy doing that, but he basically doesn’t have confidence in people.”

Dangerfield denies fearing anything. He agrees with Ancis that he can’t suck. “Show business is a funny thing. It’s a question of business relations, of energy, of who’s selling you and who’s putting you where and into what. Like, I go into Vegas and I work a room, and people say to me, ‘What are you doing there? You should be headlining, you should be doing this and that.’ What do I know? Maybe the guy who’s selling me is not as good a salesman as the guy who’s selling other acts. Maybe it’s people you have to hang around. I can’t suck. That’s not my bag. I’ve seen people trying to get bigger and make more money. And the bigger they get… I’ve never found one who’s told me he’s happy. Most people are trying to see how much money they can die with.”

So he’s content with a career that seems to grow a bit each year. In the last two years, though, he’s goosed it some: “My kids grew up, so I could leave town.” Rodney also admits to laziness: “I was rather lax, ’cause I had nowhere to go, so I didn’t work on my act at all. And that goes for The Tonight Show, too. I was in show business, but I wasn’t in show business.”

Rodney decided to get to work. He found an agency he was comfortable with (the Agency for the Performing Arts) and took on a new manager, Estelle Endler, who’d been his press agent on and off for ten years. Then, “The last six to eight Carson shows, I tried to make them as funny as I could get them. Make all the jokes killers.”

Next to Rodney, on a dressing-room chair, is a large sheet of paper with tiny handwriting in six vertical rows. It’s a list of possible new material for the next Tonight spot. As he writes a gag (or, on occasion, buys one for fifty dollars), he adds it under one of these headings: Open girls old wife doctor misc.

I ask about the sex and drug jokes. Rodney has a decidedly old-world view of sex: he sees himself as a frustrated, dirty old man who gets refused by hookers (“She told me she had a headache“) and whose wife either uses him to time eggs or parties with every other man in town (“I have good-looking kids; thank God my wife cheats on me”).

Rodney agrees that his sex gags aren’t exactly liberated. “But still,” he says, “there are plenty of women around who’re frigid, and people who think sex is for the man. You’d be surprised how the world don’t change. A lot of the young people aren’t that hip.”

The drug jokes are mostly innocent — as in naive: “I tried sniffing coke, but I couldn’t get the bottle up my nose.” One of his best lines in this category isn’t even a joke, but an offhand remark: “It’s tough to be funny when you’re coming off drugs.” The way he looks and sweats, it’s a perfect line. And Dangerfield himself is far from innocent or naive.

“If I knew you better, I’d tell you how young I am,” he says, laughing heartily, “tell you all my bad ways.” Later, he admits to having smoked dope. “I used to get drunk every other night in the club, wipe out Chinese restaurants, have fun.” He’s since cut down on drinking, and makes occasional attempts at diets and health foods.

“I’m getting old. I’m at the age now, if I squeeze into a parking place, I’m sexually satisfied.”

As for love in his life, Rodney is sober and reflective. “I have people who I know…” he begins, then states, “I’m not too active socially with girls. Perhaps it’s difficult to find a mental rapport with someone who’s in show business.” He mentions an involvement with “a young lady, a very, very lovely girl,” that has waned. “People seldom project into another human being,” he says, seemingly out of the blue. “They’re only concerned with what’s in their head, you know? I called her up one time, long distance….”

He drops the story, shaking his head. “It’s something that makes me look good.” Finally, he resorts to a prefab reply to questions about his sex life: “I have fond memories.”

It comes down to laughs. To Rodney, sex and drug jokes are no different from the others. “You do whatever you feel will get the biggest response. I wanna get as many laughs as I can.”

And the bottom line on Rodney is that he is funny, from his standard opening — “I’m all right now, but last week I was really in rough shape” — to the wonderfully terse closing statement at Dangerfield’s — “That’s it, show’s over, get out.”

After all, when love is gone, and the kids are grown up and ready to split, and there’s no interest in making more money, and you’re fifty-eight and wondering how much longer you’ve got anyway, what’s there left to go for?

Rodney was wondering that one day a few years back. “I asked my old man — he was seventy-six; he died when he was seventy-eight — I said, ‘What’s the answer to life? You’re an old codger. You lived through vaudeville for twenty-five years. And after that, you were a customs man, in the stock market. You did very well. So what’s the answer to this whole thing?’

“He looked at me, and he said, ‘It’s all bullshit.'” 

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