Many labels were hung on Rodney Dangerfield during his long, frenetic heyday as the funniest joke teller in America. His was "the comedy of angst," or "the comedy of anxiety," or "the comedy of the loser." What it really was was the comedy of funny. It was the comedy of laughter. His act wasn't conceptual or observational or stream-of-consciousness; it was a bunch of jokes.
The jokes tended to be self-deprecating and self-pitying and what they said at heart was "We're all in this together." But we're not all in it together anymore. Rodney Dangerfield died at 82 Tuesday in New York after a long series of illnesses and operations.
Rodney Dangerfield poses at his home in July. The film star and longtime stand-up comic was best known for bemoaning a lack of respect.
(John Raoux -- Orlando Sentinel Via AP)
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"I don't get no respect" was, of course, his signature line, but to the end he had the respect, and the gratitude, of everybody who ever laughed so hard they cried.
In the '70s and '80s, Dangerfield's appearances on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" were major television events, whether in college dorms or, who knows, retirement villages. Carson loved comedians and found Rodney so relentless in his pursuit of the ever-elusive next laugh that just the idea of Dangerfield amused him.
Dangerfield would come out from behind the curtain and do five or six minutes of prepared material, then sit on the couch and do several more minutes of jokes thinly disguised as conversation, Carson barely getting a word in except to set up more jokes. He'd ask Dangerfield, "How's your health?" and Dangerfield would do a few minutes of health jokes, always involving his physician, the mythical "Dr. Vinnie Boom Botz," being referred to of late by David Letterman on his own show.
He didn't like it when he visited his doctor one time and was told he was crazy, Dangerfield recalled. "I said, 'Oh yeah? Well I want another opinion.' The doctor says, 'Okay -- you're ugly, too.' "
Even at the dentist's he was plagued. "I told my dentist, what can I do about having such yellow teeth? He said, 'Wear a brown tie.' "
One night Dangerfield tore through his sit-down routine so fast that he ended early and so, mopping his brow with a handkerchief, no more jokes available, he turned to Carson and simply asked, "So what's new with you?" Carson laughed so hard at this that he literally fell off his chair. They were gorgeous together.
Though he had two careers as a comedian -- the first, as Jack Roy, began at the age of 15 -- it was the second one, started late in life, that made Dangerfield a star and, in his rumpled black suit, solid red tie and unmade bed of a face, an American icon. The success in other people's clubs and on TV enabled him to open Dangerfield's, a homey comedy club on Manhattan's East Side. Dangerfield would roam through the crowd in his trademark silk bathrobe, greeting guests and watching the new comics. He was infallibly generous about giving young talent exposure at his club, and on his memorable HBO specials, where Roseanne Barr made her first big splash. He supported one of the most audacious and irreverent comics ever, the great Sam Kinison.
Dangerfield was thoroughly hip; he "got" all the jokes, including the ones he didn't tell. He got all the jokes, he was all the jokes. Never did he break up at his own material, though. He was too worried about it. He slaved over it -- sometimes with co-writers -- into the wee hours, scribbling jokes on the lined pages of big notebooks.
His huge popularity may have been a reaction to all the pseudo-intellectual comics who stood before brick walls and talked about their neuroses. Dangerfield didn't talk about his neuroses; he talked about how little success he was having in bed. "I asked one girl if she was going to hate herself in the morning. She said, 'I hate myself now.' "
Or: "I remember one date I had, we ran into some guy she knew and she introduced us. She said, 'Steve, this is Rodney. Rodney, this is goodbye.' "
Eventually he was able to star in such movies as "Easy Money" and "Back to School," respectably funny if not artful comedies, and in "Caddyshack," now a cult hit so beloved that some of its fans know the whole script by heart. Dangerfield plays a boor, a vulgarian, the ugly American. It was a stretch, but he brought it off.
Even in his movie roles, the jokes were on him -- ridiculing the way he looked or talked or barged through life. He was a study in manic misery, hilarious homeliness, Emmett Kelly with a voice.