Johnny Carson laughed so hard during Rodney Dangerfield's most recent appearance on "The Tonight Show" -- his 61st -- that Carson fell off his four-coaster chair and nearly plunged into the sleepy lagoon painted on the wall behind his desk. The studio audience's applause lasted through three commercials and a station break.
Clearly, Rodney Dangerfield has tapped a vein, and it is the vein of pure dismay. Now 57 and actually in his second life as a stand-up comic, Dangerfield is not only jester but guru and ombudsman to the abused, downtrodden, put-upon and ignored. In a world long gone mad, that takes in almost everybody.
Dangerfield likes to boast to show biz cronies that he can do 90 minutes of straight yock provocation without ever repeating himself, but what makes him the king of all comedians is his masterly consistency as a conceptual monologist. Almost all his jokes are expressions of a character he created and embodies, a poor soul who, in the catch phrase that now draws cheers of recognition, "don't get no respect."
Onstage he will say, "You know the trouble with me? I appeal to everyone who can do me absolutely no good." Looking at the audience with not only baggy, bloodshot eyes but also virtually a baggy, bloodshot face, he will say, "At my age if I don't drink, don't smoke, and eat certain foods, what can I look forward to? From this point on, if I take excellent care of myself, I'll get very sick and die."
Offstage, in his sub-minimally furnished, shades-of-gray, East River-view Manhattan apartment, Dangerfield recalls words of advice from Jack Benny. "He was an ace, he was a doll, and he says to me, "Rodney, I'm cheap and I'm 39, that's my image, but your "no respect," that's into the soul of everybody, everybody can identify with that.' Everyone gets cut off in traffic, everyone gets stood up by a girl, kids are rude to them, whatever. He says to me, 'Every day something happens where people feel they didn't get respect.'"
And perhaps because seldom in history have so many felt that they get so little respect from so many so often, Dangerfield's career has never been zoomier. He is a top, top draw in Vegas, his appearances on the Carson show are avidly taped by fans all over the country, he is about to cut his first comedy album in 12 years ("Rodney Don't Act His Age," for January release by Casablanca) and co-star with Chevy Chase and Bill Murray in "Caddie Shack," a film comedy expected to be next summer's "Animal House."
And "Dangerfield's," the New York nightclub he founded and which experts predicted would close within two weeks, will celebrate its 10th anniversary next month.
Most amazing of all -- at least to Rodney -- is his huge following among the young and the hip. They consider him the contemporary not of the Buddy Hacketts and Henry Youngmans but of Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor and Andy Kaufman. Dangerfield spoke at Harvard last year and came out first in a survey of college students' favorite comics. Why? Because to them he personifies the ultimate victim of the system that conspires against us all. He fights back, and becomes the audience's champion, by making his victimization hilarious.
This is a man who will go to any length to get no respect.
This is a man who goes into a store to buy rat poison only to have the girl behind the counter ask, "Should I wrap it, or do you want to eat it here?"
This is a man who will suddenly be asked to leave a bar because "they want to start the happy hour."
This is a man who was arrested for jaywalking only to hear a crowd of onlookers yelling, "Don't take him alive!"
No respect. No respect at all. "Same thing when I was a kid -- no respect. I was lost at the beach once and a cop helped me look for my parents. I said to him, 'You think we'll find them?" He said, 'I don't know, kid, there's so many places they could hide.'
"I tell you, since I was a kid, women always gave me a hard time. My mother never breast-fed me.She told me she liked me as a friend."
"My mother had morning sickness after I was born."
"My old man didn't help, either. One time I was kidnaped. They sent back a piece of my finger. He said he wanted more proof."
"Hey, I tell you, when I was a kid I went through plenty. My uncle's dying wish -- he wanted me on his lap. He was in the electric chair!"
It is hard to recall a stand-up comic with such dark, absurdist material (all written by him) becoming so enormously and cross-generationally popular. The audiences at Dangerfield's club include double-knitters from the Jersey suburbs and such hip young rock stars as Billy Joel and Led Zeppelin. Do they all identify with dumpy old Rodney and his bill of particulars against an uncaring world? Apparently. If Rodney Dangerfield is Everyman, Everyman has never had such a headache.
Is there a sad Hamlet beneath this sad Hamlet exterior -- beneath this hangdog body that looks as though it would be most comfortable lying face down on a floor? No exactly, but Rodney did go through plenty when he was a kid. Born Jacob Cohen, he grew up poor in Kew Gardens, Long Island and still remembers how teachers made anti-semitic remarks about him in front of the class at P.S. 99.
Before school he made a buck a week minding a newsstand and after school he delivered groceries -- to the homes of the kids he'd been in class with during the day. "That puts you a little outside, makes you feel below them, socially. So I grew up thinking I was not as good as other people. I was also put down because my parents were separated and I didn't have a father. And I experienced a great deal of anti-Semitism. I was an unhappy kid and what happens is, you try to escape from reality by writing jokes."
At 15 he was writing jokes and at 17 performing them at amateur nights in Queens for "eight quarters a show." Later he'd earn $5 a night as a singing waiter at a club called the Polish Falcon in Brooklyn -- "that's where I met Lenny Bruce's mother" -- and did his material anywhere else he could. By this time his name had been changed professionally to Jack Roy and, legally, it still is.
"My first job actually for money was when I was 19; I got $12 a week, room and board in the Catskill Mountains. I can't say they were the good old days. When people say "the good old days, they mean their youth. You have better days when you're older, but you don't have the same head for it. Youth is what makes them the good old days, you know?"
Rodney is sitting on a couch in his bathrobe with his yippy poodle Keno -- after the game of chance -- on his lap. He could have named the dog "Stop it, Keno," because that's what he repeatedly says as the pooch interrupts him with barks or kisses.
"I worked in all kinds of dumps," Rodney recalls, looking as if he is waiting for either. "I worked 'em all. I worked on a bar once, three shows a night, seven nights a week, and the manager asks me to take a cut in salary! Then when I didn't, he gets drunk and wants to do some damage to me. You get humble from things like that, you know, you learn humility.
"A strange animal, a comedian. You walk out when you're a kid, and you're going to be terrible naturally, so you're completely humiliated, right? To the point, at places I worked, where they want to pick a fight with you. You walk off the floor and somebody says, "I think you stink -- what are you gonna do about it? They think you're bad and they want to beat you up. If a guy heckles you and you top him, he'll want to beat you up, too. Tough joints. Tough.
"Dustin Hoffman, when he was making 'Lenny,' hung out in my club for a few weeks, he says to me, "Why not quit, who needs that humiliation?' But instead, you go out the next day looking for another job and get humiliated all over again. So it's a strange need, I guess, to want to be a comedian."
Somehow Dangerfield lost the need, however, and ended his career as Jack Roy at the age of 28, to go into the construction business. He did it for 12 years, still writing jokes in his spare time, and then, even though his relatives told him he was crazy, decided to go back on the proverbial boards. Rechristened Rodney Dangerfield arbitarily by a nightclub manager, he took to working Greenwich Village clubs for free, just to perfect his material.
"First I came back as a lark," he says. "I'd do weekends in dumps; whatever it was -- I used to go out and get $100 for two nights and my bar tab was more than that. They would anticipate a fight in those places. I remember one place after a fight they figured I owed them $96. So they said, 'Here's your salary -- four bucks.'
Even now, at the top -- the Picasso of stand-up comedians and one of the few keeping the actual telling of jokes, as opposed to more avant garde, free-form comedy, alive -- Dangerfield finds he really does have trouble getting respect sometimes.
"This is a true story," he says. "One night I'm waiting to go on at my own club and a guy says to me, 'Hey Rodney, do me a favor, will you? Can I have an autograph and some more butter? People will talk to me just before I go out to do a television show. I'm waiting backstage to go on the Sullivan show years ago and Sullivan is introducing me and a guy yells over, "Hey Rodney -- any girls in that joint over there, your club?" I can be leaving the club and a guy will say to me, 'Hey Rodney, give me a lift uptown, will you?' And the guy's a complete stranger!"
Rodney says, "Keno, stop it," and then, "they identify with you, I guess, like one of the guys, you know?"
As Rodney reminisces, another man in a bathrobe appears in his apartment, walking from the kitchen to the bathroom, Rodney explains that this is his neighbor who has a wife and kids across the street but has "domestic problems" which occasionally cause him to move in with Rodney. Dangerfield also calls him "the funniest guy in the whole world." He's in the construction business.
Dangerfield has had his own domestic problems; the wife he divorced years ago subsequently died. So he is now raising an 18-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter himself. He wants them to go to college and not to become comedians. On TV, Dangerfield will make jokes at the expense of his kids and his wife, but these are characters he has invented to supplement the character of himself most of the jokes deride.
It is the man who is getting so old that "my last birthday cake looked like a prairie fire."
It is the man who tells his doctor he doesn't know what's the matter, but every morning he gets up and looks in the mirrow and wants to die, and the doctor replies, "Well, one thing we know -- your vision is perfect."
"Hey," this man says, "I know I'm ugly, I went to a freak show and they let me in for nothing.
"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.'"
In his club, is Dangerfield's material more risque than on TV? "Much," Rodney says. "I'm an old-fashioned guy, but then I see what people are accepting. Like in my nightclub, I'll meet a man and wife with two daughters 16 and they say, "Rodney, we came from North Carolina, can we have your autograph, we all think you're great.' I think to myself, they should be saying to me, 'Hey, how come you're so dirty?' but they say, 'Oh no, that's great. Everyone seems to accept it today. If they're laughing at it, I guess you do it."
Dangerfield estimates he has turned down parts in 15 different network comedy series over the past few years. Now there is talk at ABC and CBS of starring him in a series, one perhaps to be "co-created" with Steve Martin. But Dangerfield says, "I wouldn't want to do 13 weeks of a lousy show. That's not very gratifying. You do things for money and you do things for art. We all love money of course, but my thing in life is not to see how much money I can die with."
Dangerfield, who drops homilies like names at Elaine's ("life plays many tricks on you" . . . "everyone has their story"), has the perpetual pallor of a worried man. "I'm a downer myself, I would say. I'm not joyful at all. I'm a downer." But as long as elevator doors shut in people's faces, as long as credit card companies mess up bills beyond all hope, as long as there are people around to tell other people to get lost, Rodney Dangerfield will never have to wonder where his next laugh is coming from.
The pseudo-bohemian SoHo News, in a cover story, dubbed Dangerfield's art "the comedy of angst."
"The comedy of who?" Dangerfield asks.
"Angst," he is told.
"What does that mean?" he asks.
"Despair," he is told.
"Oh," he says. "Keno! Stop it!"