The Corner


A Dangerous Field

Rodney Dangerfield in March 2004 (Fred Prouser / Reuters)

Yesterday, I jotted a post about the impossibility, or difficulty, of comedy in a touchy age. A hyper-touchy age. I had an afterthought and a memory, so I am jotting again.

I admire brave, bold comedians. But there are instances, too, in which you bow to taste and accommodate your audience.

WFB was once talking to Jackie Mason. (This is not the memory I had — the memory I referred to above — but it came to me just now.) Jackie said something like this: “If you blindfolded me and parachuted me down to any spot in America, I would start telling jokes. It would take me a minute or two to gauge the audience. Then I could tell jokes for an hour and have them rolling.”

Okay, the memory I had in mind. In 2001, I went to see Rodney Dangerfield at Avery Fisher Hall, which is a component of Lincoln Center in New York — today, that hall is called “David Geffen Hall.” Rodney was soon to turn 80. I wrote up the evening for National Review (here).

Let me quote a bit:

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.”

A little more:

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. . . . 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.

Okay, I’m at last getting to the point I wanted to make, or the thing I wanted to highlight:

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.

I remember this, clearly. Thought of it yesterday. Rodney sensed that these jokes weren’t working, and he pivoted, immediately, like a school of fish. What a pro.

What are the rules? When is it right to give offense, when is it right to take offense? I’m not sure I can write out any rules. These things are governed by taste, judgment, stomach, conscious. What is political correctness — thumbs down — and what is proper sensitivity? Again, taste governs these things, and taste — good taste — is a relatively rare, and valuable, commodity.


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