Rodney Dangerfield was overweight, did not possess what most would consider movie star looks, and was crude enough to clear a room. But there were lots of men who wanted to be just like him.
Lenny Bruce was audacious, but his court battles with the government over censorship eventually overshadowed his talent. Bill Cosby is everyman’s comic, but he lacked an edge. Steve Martin and Robin Williams used standup as a steppingstone to film careers, and today you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who remembers “Let’s Get Small” or “Kindergarten for the Stars,” respectively.
George Carlin, Robert Klein, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, they all had their impact on the craft, along with many others.
But Rodney was special. He was like us. All of us. He had flaws, and he turned them into gold.
Rodney was blunt and sarcastic, and we ate it up. He would say anything to anyone. The people in his orbit had better have a sense of humor, or they’d be toast.
He is best known for the sad sack lament, “I don’t get no respect.” He was wrong.
In the days when he was a regular with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” he would regale audiences with tales of his wacky associates. Here’s a taste, about his girlfriend at the time: “Her nickname is Federal Express. That’s because when she goes to a guy’s apartment, she absolutely, positively HAS to be there overnight.”
Only Rodney would have a girlfriend like that.
“My wife made me join a bridge club. I jump off next Tuesday.”
Only Rodney could have a wife like that.
“Doctor, every morning when I get up and look in the mirror, I feel like throwing up. What’s wrong with me?” Doctor: “I don’t know, but your eyesight is fine.”
Only Rodney could have a doctor like that.
And so on.
When he had built up enough public goodwill through self-deprecation, he turned the knife toward others during a movie career. While it won’t be confused with the ones enjoyed by funnymen like Bob Hope or Woody Allen, he had his share of classic moments.
“Caddyshack” was the ideal vehicle. He played Al Czervik, a developer who was not shy with opinions. When Al hit the links at Bushwood Country Club, he did so with an irresistible boorishness. Instead of trashing himself, he needled anyone in his path whom he felt couldn’t take the needle. He knew Judge Smails (Ted Knight) was a little too tightly wound, so he made sure he was in earshot when he asked Smails’ wife, “How’d you like to make $14 the hard way?”
The self-flagellating standup persona that Rodney became known for gave way to this brutal insult comic — without a loss of popularity. It was a natural segue for him. The sarcasm had always been there. It was the target that changed.
“Caddyshack” was Rodney’s Tinseltown breakthrough. It brought new opportunities. It also created a new legion of fans, especially budding smartasses who were too young or disinterested to catch him with Carson. There may never have been a more perfect bit of casting in a Hollywood comedy than Rodney as Al.
From there, he did “Easy Money” in 1983 and “Back to School” in ’86. In the latter, he was again cast as the slob in genteel surroundings, a scenario that brought the best out of Rodney. Look no further than his immortal words to Dr. Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman) in an attempt to get a date: “Oh, you’re a poetry major. Maybe you could help me straighten out my Longfellow.”
The lack of respect wasn’t just schtick. It was genuine. He grew up hustling in Queens in order to survive, and that put him in some humiliating situations. All the while, he kept telling jokes, which was his way of fitting in. He worked the clubs, which eventually led to appearances on television. He became more and more skilled at making himself out to be a schlub.
He certainly was influential, but many of the comics who followed him copied the crude but forgot the sweetness. It wasn’t about profanity with Rodney, or about mean-spiritedness. When he went after someone or something, he was highlighting that weakness in all of us, which is why it was so relatable.
In recent months, he was in failing health, and had not ventured out in public for quite some time. He had surgery at UCLA Medical Center on August 25 to have a heart valve replaced. He fell into a coma after heart surgery, then emerged from it, only to suffer a stroke and other complications.
The people he lampooned live on. I mean, everybody has a father: “My father was stupid. He worked in a bank and they caught him stealing pens.”
Everybody has a mother: “My mother never breast-fed me. She told people she only liked me as a friend.”
Everybody had a childhood: “I could tell my parents hated me. My bath toys were a toaster and a radio.”
Rodney Dangerfield died on Tuesday. I don’t know what his last words were, but I know what they should have been:
“Good crowd, good crowd. I’m telling you, I could use a good crowd. I’m doing all right now, but last week I was in rough shape, you know.”
We know, Rodney. We know.
Mike Ventre is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com. He lives in Los Angeles.