Awesome Men Throughout History: Rodney Dangerfield
I’ve been listening to comedian Marc Maron’s podcast a lot lately, and he brings up Rodney Dangerfield a lot, both in his interviews (especially the Norm MacDonald one) and episode introductions. Maron’s opinion of Dangerfield is equal parts reverent and sympathetic, as Rodney was never fully embraced by his own generation of comics, who couldn’t always handle his darker, more tragic moments. But Rodney was and is beloved by younger comedians, many of whom he discovered, and his career is more than worthy of Awesome Man status.
Rodney, for those of you who aren’t familiar, was a stand-up comedian whose sweaty, nervous on-stage mannerisms and luckless everyman persona were a big hit in the 1960s and 70s, and whose movies capitalizing on said persona were hits in the 1980s. Seriously, if you haven’t seen Caddyshack or Back to School yet, get off your ass.
Rodney also owned a nightclub – called Dangerfield’s, of course – in Manhattan, where he gave a lot of time and attention to young comics. According to prop comic Carrot Top, “Rodney didn’t care what kind of comedy you did. As long as you were a comic, you were a part of his fraternity.” So yes, Carrot Top’s success is largely Rodney’s fault, but he also discovered Sam Kinison, Jim Carrey, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and a bunch of other comedians who are big stars now (or at least fascinating train wrecks like Roseanne Barr), so you can’t say he didn’t have a good eye for talent.
And really, being a young comedian sucks. So does being an old comedian, but stand-up is pretty rough on one’s psyche in the beginning, what with working crappy clubs for no money and getting heckled by drunks and living in hotels for years trying to make what, to be brutally honest, a Wendy’s night shift manager does. That Rodney went so far out of his way to give new guys a shot and not abuse or take advantage of them showed a lot of class on his part, and points to something fundamentally good about him.
He also tipped 100% of the check at restaurants, so his generosity extended to the help as well.
But for all that, Rodney was a pretty screwed-up guy. He had chronic depression (which is something of a pun, given that he smoked a hay bale of marijuana every day), and the good-natured pessimism he delivered in his act came from a real pervading misery that alienated him from many of his peers. He compared the compulsive joke-writing he did as a teenager (and later as an aluminum siding salesman in the 1950s) to drug addiction, telling the Washington Post that “it was like a need. I had to work. I had to tell jokes. I had to write them and tell them. It was like a fix. I had the habit.” One wonders if he pursued comedy because he truly loved it or because he didn’t see another way to channel what many psychiatrists would see as a broken personality into something productive.
Either way, there’s one story about Rodney that sums up his legacy and reputation in show business – Bob Saget (of Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos fame) tells a story about seeing Rodney, who was 70 years old at the time and had just undergone major surgery, in the lobby of a comedy club with two women in tow, waiting for Ron Jeremy to show up. When Bob asked how Rodney was doing, Rodney’s response was “I’m with two whores and I’m waiting for a guy who can suck his own dick. How are you doing?” There’s only one word for that. Awesome.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.