My teenage daughter had never heard of Rodney Dangerfield when he died a couple of years ago at age 82, but reading his obituary in the paper that morning, she immediately was entranced by his “I don’t get no respect” schtick, and insisted on trying out her own versions all day. (Dangerfield’s first “no respect” line: “I don’t get no respect. I played hide-and-seek, and they wouldn’t even look for me.”) I guess that’s a pretty easy concept for kids to understand.
But as Chris Rock points out in Comedy Central’s new Legends: Rodney Dangerfield documentary (premiering September 10 at 9 p.m.), “There’s something about the great comedians — there’s no age.” Dangerfield often worked blue, of course. But much of the time he was just good-naturedly bawdy. The Comedy Central special, for instance, has a clip of Dangerfield telling Jay Leno: “Last week was rough, Jay, I tell ya. My gums are shrinking. I found out I was brushing my teeth with Preparation-H.”
This first entry in the new Legends series is filled with vintage clips of Dangerfield on the old Tonight and Ed Sullivan shows, and is worth a look if only for that. But the show also features tributes to Dangerfield from comedians as varied as Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jeff Foxworthy, and Roseanne (among others). It’s hard to think of anyone else with such widespread appeal. But as Seinfeld points out, there was just something about Dangerfield’s act that appealed to everyone’s basic sense that life is not fair.
Even though he’s gone, Dangerfield’s “no respect” jokes are so well known that newspaper headline writers use the comedian’s name without feeling the need for any explanation. Pluto is now the Rodney Dangerfield of plants, zucchini this time of year is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables, etc. But one thing perhaps not everyone knows about Dangerfield is that not only did he restart his comedy career at 40, but in his 70s he became something of an Internet pioneer.
His website, in the mid-1990s, got over 50,000 hits a day; Dangerfield lured visitors with jokes and then sold them comedy cassettes. I interviewed Dangerfield around that time, visiting him at his Wilshire Blvd. high-rise in West Los Angeles.
“Nothing’s easy, baby, nothing,” he informed me then, apropos of nothing in particular. Nothing in particular, that is, except that he was sitting at a dining room table covered with packs of cigarettes, a blood-pressure monitor, three cigarette lighters, assorted vials of pills, and a jumbo box of Advil. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, and he was wearing a bathrobe and ripped bedroom slippers.
But all that, of course, was what made him so great. Sure, the look at first glance was decrepit…but also rather magisterial — especially seen from the viewpoint of the fit-for-life, thank-you-for-not-smoking, when-am-I-going-to-start-feeling-like-a-grown-up generation. The truth was, despite his famous catchphrase, Rodney Dangerfield was way beyond needing anyone’s respect.
And why shouldn’t he have been? With three hit movies in the ’80s (Caddyshack, Easy Money, and Back To School) reviving his career for the second time, Dangerfield was in the vanguard of old-guy chic. That business about being rejected for membership in the motion-picture Academy (in 1995)? Well, you could see it still rankled a bit. “Nicky Blair is in,” Dangerfield exclaimed in disgust when I asked about it, referring to the late restaurateur and sometime actor. “Nicky Blair!”
Still, in the end, who cared? He had tons of fans, yet another movie coming out at the time I talked to him (Meet Wally Sparks), and a new, much-younger wife.
“I think my part in Natural Born Killers frightened [Academy president] Roddy McDowell,” Dangerfield said. (He played a child molester in Oliver Stone’s film, a part Dangerfield wrote himself.) He didn’t add, but the thought hung in the smoke-filled air of his apartment: Roddy McDowell…What a little pisher.
– Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.