Friday, May 20, 2016

And This Blog Loves Rodney Dangerfield

In the plaque-filled hearts of all at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, standup comedy king and actor Rodney Dangerfield occupies a soft spot - and is no doubt eating Cantonese food at 4:15 a.m.

While there have been self-deprecating while exceedingly funny standups - from deadpan Jackie Vernon to X-rated "dirty comic" Robert Schimmel - Rodney's use of "I'm all right now, but last week I was in bad shape" as a springboard for comedy delivered with unrelenting pace and unerring precision remains, even decades later, something to behold.

Rodney was born Jacob Cohen on November 22, 1921. One imagines he MUST have made a joke somewhere about his birthday and the JFK assassination taking place on the same day, immediately following "I don't go no respect - no respect at all."

Many of a certain age regard Rodney Dangerfield's standup comedy as an instantaneous passage to the laughing place and first recall seeing Rodney on Ed Sullivan's "rilly big shoe", The Dean Martin Show (which often spotlighted comedians, particularly Jonathan Winters) and in frequent appearances with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

The jokes are invariably fired in a rat-a-tat-tat fashion that makes Henny Youngman look downright phlegmatic.

If Rodney repeated any jokes, it didn't matter because he had dozens more new ones in the mix every time.

To tell just a bit of Rodney's background story, he started his showbiz career as a struggling comedian under the name Jack Roy.

Toiling for many years with a not very successful standup act, he spent many years cranking out jokes in mass quantities and selling them to the other comics. He also was a troubled family man in a very bad marriage, zigzagging between that suburban life and the subterranean world of standup comedy. One of the key guys in Rodney's development as a comic was the famous and infamous Joe Ancis, raconteur, inspiration, mentor and pot dealer to numerous comedy greats in the 1950's.

Ancis, who wrote the line "the only normal people are the ones you don't know very well", had stage fright and never got his own standup career off the ground, but was known as an ace comedy writer possessing a keen sense for what jokes, acts and characterizations could go over with an audience - and why. Known as "the original sick comic" and "the funniest guy in New York", he is credited as a key gag writer and behind-the-scenes figure in shaping the standup acts of many comedians, including Lenny Bruce.

For awhile, Ancis and Rodney and numerous other comedians were involved in the same aluminum siding racket which was at the center of Barry Levinson's 1987 movie Tin Men.

To get a sense of where Rodney came from, watch the Barry Levinson films Diner and Tin Men. Danny DeVito exemplifies the ultimate b.s. sales operator, with extra relish, in Tin Men. The comics gauging customers selling aluminum siding at highway robbery prices made a lot of money but got into a lot of trouble! The scam getting busted was a key reason behind Jack Roy dropping out of sight and then adopting a stage name found in a Jack Benny radio show. . . Rodney Dangerfield.

It would appear that as much as Rodney had family problems (and let's be honest - who doesn't), he was also incredibly nice and generous to young comedians coming up and to his contemporaries/collaborators in show business. The latter, as well as the legendarily grandiose nature of Rodney, has frequently been confirmed by one of the standup comedy guru's closest friends, Robert Klein, who offers great stories and insight into just who the "no respect" guy was.

Rodney became something of a sensation among young comedy fans and even hosted Saturday Night Live on March 8, 1980.

After growing showbiz success, it was no surprise to anyone that Rodney soon found himself as a bankable star in feature films. As an actor, he took the amazing timing, larger-than-life stage presence and flair with dialogue from his standup act and parlayed in into character roles - both comic and occasionally dramatic - with great success.

There was even a cartoon featuring Rodney as the main character. While generally not thrilled about animated features including lots of dialogue, this one's actually pretty good - rather amazingly, given the extent to which the Dangerfield standup act is not directed at children.

For further reading:
Rodney Dangerfield tribute by Suzanne Ford on the AND Society: Entertainment, lifestyle, culture, and humanity website.

Roger Ebert's interview on the set of Easy Money. While it is pure p.r. schmooze, legerdemain and a few outright falsehoods on Rodney's part, one still appreciates even a brief encounter between the great standup comedian and Mr. Ebert, a wonderful and ridiculously prolific film and pop culture reviewer. An even better profile of Rodney penned by Roger can be found in Ebert's 1984 book A Kiss Is Still A Kiss.

For detailed background info on the underground NYC nightclub comedy universe that created Jack Roy/Rodney Dangerfield:

Many episodes of the wonderful and old school show business-obsessed Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast featuring Gilbert and Frank Santopadre - like the following one on Groucho Marx.

Numerous articles by the guest of Episode 95 of Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, the one guy who conducted dozens of interviews with comics, both famed and obscure, Kliph Nesteroff, starting with The Schleppers: Stale Gags & Stale Food in Mid-Century Manhattan. Anyone writing about post-1930 nightclub/standup comedy and comedians must acknowledge that information and quotes came from the Classic Television Showbiz website.

On Rodney specifically, read the following interviews:

Stan Irwin

Stanley Dean

Bobby Ramsen, Part 3

Art Metrano

Parts of all the aforementioned interviews can also be found in: The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels & The History Of American Comedy

To close this tribute to the guy who sends everyone at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog so quickly and easily into hysterical laughter, here's our favorite 12-inch single recorded in the 40 years since James Brown's epic Get Up Offa That Thing: the great Rappin' Rodney, penned by Kurtis Blow songwriters J.B. Moore and Robert Ford Jr.


Steve Bailey said...

A thing of beauty, this is. I've always loved Rodney (and yes, I've ever seen and loved "Rover Dangerfield"). My favorite Rodney appearance is when he brought the house down appearing out of nowhere in "SNL's" "China Syndrome" parody "The Pepsi Syndrome."

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thank you, Steve! That surprise walk-on in The Pepsi Syndrome sketch was one of the greatest cameos in showbiz history.

Recall seeing several Tonight Show appearances by Rodney - if I am not mistaken from the 1970's - that were funnier than anything I posted in my tribute. Remember these Rodney Dangerfield turns on The Tonight Show as nothing less than devastatingly funny. Johnny Carson was laughing so hard I thought he'd end up on the floor.