EDITOR’S NOTE: Rodney Dangerfield died Tuesday at age 82. This piece appeared in the June 11, 2001, issue of National Review.
In early May, Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, played host to another American cultural institution: Rodney Dangerfield. Said Rodney, midway through his act, as he sized up his surroundings, “I can take a classy place like this and turn it into a [not very pleasant place].”
Yes, he can. But he can also turn it into an exceptionally pleasant place, because Dangerfield is a gifted and endearing man. He is also the last of a line, pretty much; the last of a generation of comedians on whom several generations of Americans grew up. Traditional stand-up comedy is getting rarer. Our comedy today tends to be high-concept, slightly artsy, heavily ironical. Rodney Dangerfield still gets up on a stage and tells jokes–lots of ‘em–and so leaves his audience warmly happy. When he goes, something priceless will go, too, and that is depressing.
Dangerfield is 80 this year. He was born in Long Island, with a typical comedian’s name: Jacob Cohen. And then, also typically, he changed it to something snappy. As a young man, he did everything he could to break into show business, but came up short. He accepted the indignity of an office job, but never stopped trying. Eventually, in his 40s, he caught on. Rodney was a late-bloomer, and that added to his legend. He suffered, and overcame, serious depression, and people admired him for that, too. Rodney traveled the club circuit from coast to coast, and he appeared on every TV show imaginable, from Ed Sullivan (on which he was a smash) to Conan O’Brien (likewise). He has performed on the Tonight Show a cool 70 times, the record.
Along the way, he became a minor movie star, making–to name three of his biggest–Caddyshack (1980), Easy Money (1983), and Back to School (1986). It may surprise certain readers to know, but there is a cult of Caddyshack, populated in particular by those who have spent a good chunk of life around a golf course. Rodney’s lines are stuck in our memories. It was no surprise that Gov. Jesse Ventura, when he met the Dalai Lama, wanted mainly to ask whether he had seen Caddyshack. (The Tibetan holy man is featured in the movie’s signal monologue, though one uttered by Bill Murray, not Rodney.)
So, Dangerfield–outlasting everyone, outperforming everyone–became an institution. His trademark white shirt and red tie are on permanent display at another institution, the Smithsonian.
At Avery Fisher Hall, there was a typical Rodney crowd, which is to say, one that included every type: young and old, male and female, fancy and plain. The crowd was rowdy, hepped-up, not the usual symphonic audience, for sure. Dangerfield had as his warm-up act a youngish comedian named Harry Basil, who was loud, frenetic, and fine. He is the kind of entertainer who does Jerry Lewis singing Kenny Rogers’s “Lady.” As a warm-up comedian, he is in a ticklish position: He ought to be good, but not too good, because the star has to shine. When some boors in the audience called, prematurely, for Rodney, Basil responded: “You know how when you order a hamburger you get a pickle, even though you didn’t ask for a pickle? I’m the pickle. Enjoy the pickle!”
In due course, it was Rodney time. Much about the evening seemed elegiac, including the fact that the prop man was elderly and gimpy. The boys in Rodney’s backup band were touchingly dated, too. As for the octogenarian Rodney, he looks essentially as he always has. It is hard to imagine a more distinctive-looking guy: those bulging, leering, chortling eyes; the generous, dancing nose; the aliveness. We saw him sweating, nervous, put-upon, tugging at his tie–being everything he was supposed to be. Dangerfield’s presence is at once magnetic and reassuring.
His speech is a little slurred now, which is a problem, because he goes 100 miles an hour. But one slowly gets used to his speech, as one would a difficult foreign accent. Rodney tells a dizzying range of jokes, the bulk of them aimed at himself: “I went up with a prostitute. I dropped my pants. She dropped her fee.” He does a lot of age jokes now, with relish: “I stopped biting my nails. My wife hid my teeth.” Some of the jokes are extremely familiar–”My doctor said, ‘You’re crazy.’ I said, ‘I want a second opinion.’ He said, ‘You’re ugly, too’”–but, in Rodney’s delivery, they seem new. He will utter something offhandedly, and cause the audience to double over: “My kids are good-looking. Good thing my wife cheats on me.”
The Dangerfield style is beyond presto. I estimated that he told between seven and ten jokes a minute. In 50 minutes’ work, he must have told over 400 jokes. His patter and timing are practiced and surefire. After he tells a joke, he gauges the reaction perfectly, then begins the next one slightly before the laughter from the previous one has subsided. At one point–probably needing a rest–he observed, simply, “I know a lot of jokes.” (This is a cleaned-up version.) These hundreds of jokes follow no apparent organization. Rodney might tell 15 about his wife’s girth, 5 about his daughter’s sexual promiscuity, and 10 about drugs. But then he will tell 20 or 30 or 40 jokes in a row that have nothing to do with one another. There are no segues; it is just a stream of consciousness, a disgorging of memory. Astoundingly, he never forgot what he had told; he never repeated himself once.
Every now and then, he sat down on a stool. He suspended his stream a few times to mop his face and suck down some water (or whatever), which allowed him to gather himself, and allowed the audience to catch its breath. Then he was off again. Just once, the audience responded with (from the comedian’s perspective) insufficient laughter. He barked at them, “That was a funny line, don’t give me any of that [garbage]!” That was funny.
Rodney may be a throwback, but he is thoroughly modern, too. He rarely offended the going sensibility. He said “Chinaman” once. He started a series of gay jokes, but there were a few–just a few–titters, and he seemed to notice those, and stopped at three. Throughout his act, he never said anything political, nothing to irk a Democrat or a Republican, nothing from the headlines, nothing from the popular culture, absolutely nothing topical. These were timeless and (at least from Rodney’s mouth) hilarious jokes about daily living, the usual human concerns.
Even when the jokes might have offended–for their sheer raunchiness, for one thing–they never did, for Dangerfield seems a genuinely agreeable man. A lovable man. A good Joe, and an ordinary Joe, although one with an extraordinary talent. When the evening wound down, Dangerfield seemed not to know how to end it. He left the stage a few times, then came back for what seemed like encores. But it was hard to tell. Finally, he held out his hand and said something that sounded heartfelt: “My old man was in vaudeville, and he said, ‘You can always count on a New York audience.’” With that, he waved and tottered off, leaving in his wake only happiness, and a disturbing sense that: This was it.