The appreciation of Rodney Dangerfield in the Oct. 7 Style section incorrectly said the comedian died in New York. He died in Los Angeles. (Published 10/8/04)

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.

"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.

Perhaps if Steinbeck's Tom Joad or Kafka's Joseph K had been stand-up comics, they might have been something like Rodney Dangerfield.

No, wait -- not at all. Forget that stuff. There was only one Rodney -- one put-upon, perpetually pained, always discouraged Rodney. If he looked for that famous silver living, it would fall out of a cloud and hit him on the head. His was a humor that, like so many of the great comics of his generation (though his popularity spanned several generations), grew out of pain. Born Jacob Cohen, he remembered all his life how teachers -- not just students, but teachers -- made anti-Semitic remarks about him in front of classmates at New York's P.S. 99.

And so he told jokes about being a miserable kid. But not about that aspect of being a miserable kid. The anger never came out in the comedy -- not directly. He was a professional joke teller, not a guy looking for psychoanalysis from an audience in a nightclub, so you got jokes and gags, not anecdotes about the way it really was.

"My mother had morning sickness after I was born," he'd say of his earliest days.

"My old man didn't help, either. One time I was kidnapped. They sent back a piece of my finger. He said he wanted more proof!"

"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.' "

Thus, according to his act -- the way Chaplin's or Keaton's or Harold Lloyd's characters were established -- the patterns of this Rodney's ramshackle life were immutably established.

"The other day they asked me to leave a bar I was drinking in. They said they wanted to start the happy hour."

"Once the cops arrested me for jaywalking. The crowd shouted, 'Don't take him alive!' "

The litany of abuse would be punctuated with the occasional "I tell ya, I don't get no respect. No respect at all." The crowd would cheer.

And then back to the jokes.

The no-respect theme was encouraged by one of the most artful and adored of all stand-ups, Jack Benny. "He was an ace. He was a doll," Dangerfield recalled in a 1979 interview. "And he says to me, 'Rodney, I'm cheap and I'm 39, that's my image, but your 'no respect' thing, 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.' "

No matter how Dangerfield complained onstage about how life treated him, the comic never exploited it for pathos or poignancy. Still, there was just a trace of it in a soliloquy in which he talked about the fact that nobody ever gave him "one of these," and made the "okay" sign, the little circle, with his thumb and finger. So if you saw him in the street after the show or in a club later or anywhere, he would tell an audience, it would be doing him a great service just to flash him "one of these."

He figured it wasn't much to ask. "You know what the trouble with me is? I appeal to everyone who can do me absolutely no good," he'd mockingly lament. "At my age, if I don't drink, don't smoke, and eat only 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."

And so he did.

But he left behind infinite echoes of laughter, laughter that survives somehow even if it appears to have evaporated. And who knows but that right now, at this very moment, someone, somewhere is giving Rodney "one of these."

"I don't get no respect": Rodney Dangerfield in 1997. He didn't analyze himself, he just told jokes. Rodney Dangerfield in "Caddyshack," a film some comedy cultists know by heart.