October 7, 2004

Rodney Dangerfield: At Last, Some Respect

Print More

Death can be so disrespectful sometimes. This Tuesday marked the loss of one of America’s comedic legends, Rodney Dangerfield, puntuating a stand-up and film career that spanned four decades and movies as diverse as Caddyshack and Natural Born Killers. And, strangely, as I heard the news, a pang of sadness hit me.

It’s an odd feeling — a momentary dull throb like the rumble of a bass drum in your stomach. And it perplexes me because I really have no reason to mourn the loss of Rodney Dangerfield. It’s not like I ever met the guy, let alone knew him. The closest I ever came to him was to watch him sweat and strut behind in the two-dimensional plane of my television. So perhaps it’s just because he was so damn funny. The loss of laughter is always something worth lamenting. Dangerfield wasn’t the kind of comedian who required overabundant means to be comedic — he just was. Everything about the man’s existence was humorous.

Just looking at him was enough to draw laughter, with his bugged out, globe eyes, the overactive sweat glands on his brow, the crumpled, hasn’t-been-dry-cleaned-in-the-last-half-century suit jacket slung over his arm, and his perpetually shuffling, paranoid hangover stage presence. Not to mention, Dangerfield made the single greatest use of a necktie in all of history. His constant loosening of the red cloth dangling from his neck made generations of Americans uneasy in cheap business attire.

And then there were his jokes. Dangerfield was something of a rarity in modern comedy — a throwback to a bygone era of simple, witty punchlines with roots in Vaudeville more than anything else. But the comparison to family-friendly Vaudeville only stood on the semantic level. Dangerfield’s syntax was drawn straight from a cold vein of the crudest, most brutal self-deprivation this side Liz Minelli’s last public appearance. Dangerfield was so adroit at laying waste to his ego that the line became blurred between self-parody and self-hate. Such gems include, “Last week my house was on fire. My wife told the kids, ‘Be quiet, you’ll wake up Daddy,’ ” “My uncle’s dying wish was to have me sitting on his lap. He was in the electric chair,” and, “When I was born, the doctor came out to the waiting room and said to my father, ‘I’m sorry, we did all we could, but he pulled through.”

Of course, it was his mantra, “I don’t get no respect,” that became his trademark. The line, which he came up with while watching The Godfather (respect is a rather big thing for Vito Corleone), became an oddly endearing coda for Dangerfield. Even more, it was an estimation of his life until then. This was a man who didn’t catch a break until he was 44, outlasting a streak of failure and a 12-year hiatus that became legendary. Of his 12-year retirement, Dangerfield said, “To give you an idea of how well I was doing at the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit.” That’s a serious lack of respect. Dangerfield took Chaplin’s tramp to new heights — becoming the cultural standard of the down-and-out schmuck. Somehow, that one line seemed to sum up the human condition — a perfect epigram of existential truth.

But really, I think it’s because he reminded me of my grandfather.

I always found something affectionate and personal about Dangerfield’s persona, and it always seemed uncannily reminiscent of my grandfather’s. This was the man who blew out his television set in a drunken state of ecstacy with an M80. This was the man who took the parental maxim “Stop or I’ll pull the car over!” to new heights when he literally kicked my brother and I out the car (we were only 4 and 8-years-old, respectively) and, to the horror of my grandmother, told us to walk home. We did.

Maybe it was the wrinkled, Goodwill golf shirts they both wore like sacred vestments. Or their constant laughter in the face of life. Or their cantankerous, fuck-the-world non-chalance in their daily goings. Or their seeming loneliness in the absence of company. Or the slow-burning illnesses that took them both. I imagine if I ever got close enough to Dangerfield, he would probably wreak of the same stale aroma of ashed Pall Mal’s, forever bound to my grandfather’s clothing, a smell that made me feel so disgusted and concerned and safe. Dangerfield had been in a coma for several weeks, the aftermath of complications from heart-valve replacement surgery. I can only imagine the dreams he had in that subconscious space. In a truly prophetic moment, Dangerfield told reporters before he went under the knife, “If things go right; I’ll be there about a week; and if things don’t go right, I’ll be there about a hour and a half.” He lasted more than 90 minutes, but unfortunately he couldn’t last long enough. Maybe, finally, he can stop looking for respect. Rest in peace, you crazy old bastard.

Archived article by Zach Jones
Red Letter Daze Editor