BOSTON — When I was younger I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house crashed out on the living room floor in front of a colossal mahogany cabinet that moonlighted as a television set. My game was simple: Fake a sleep so deep my grandparents wouldn’t dream of pushing me off to bed in the guest room. It was a delicate balance, and sometimes when bedtime snuck up on me I had to collapse pretty quickly. There were a few years there when my poor Nana and Papa were probably convinced I was narcoleptic.
So why the ruse? I’ll admit that it was at least partially because I was convinced the guest room was haunted. (It makes little sense. A 1970s ranch, the house would have had to have been haunted by the spirit of a contractor or wood floor buffer.) But mostly I wanted to sneak in a few hours of the late night cable television we didn’t have at my house. And on those nights when I pulled it off there was nothing I loved more than the Rodney Dangerfield comedy specials that replayed endlessly in the wee hours. So I’d play possum on that hard floor until my grandmother threw a blanket over me and turned the light out. Then I’d wait out the hours staring at the ceiling while they watched television in their own room, waiting for the snores before carefully turning on that mammoth old television. The sound of its tubes warming up seemed as loud as a jet plane.
Often I’d get caught anyway. Rodney would start with the one liners: “I was an ugly kid. I worked in a pet store. People kept asking how big I get.” I’d bite my cheeks to try and stifle the giggles. “A homeless guy came up to me on the street, said he hadn’t eaten in four days. I told him, ‘Man, I wish I had your willpower.'” Belly laugh: Busted. Off to the haunted bed chamber. On weekends I didn’t get caught, I was introduced, with the rest of America, to the talent of young comedians Dangerfield was constantly discovering on the road and giving a leg-up with their careers. Jerry Seinfeld, Sam Kinison, Tim Allen, Robert Townsend, Rita Rudner, Roseanne Barr, Bob Saget, Andrew Dice Clay. Before any of them were major players, they were working the 2 a.m. shift on HBO.
Now, as a regular patron at several comedy clubs, I recognize the show for what it was: All brilliance, all the time, with Rodney as king. His sort of timing and comedic genius is not commonplace. When his autobiography, It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me (Harper Entertainment, 288 pages, $25.95) came out this summer, I was too busy reading up on the junior senator from Massachusetts to pick it up. (The question of which of these two men is the bigger joker is open to debate, but at least Dangerfield is consistently funny.) In the wake of Dangerfield’s death last week at age 82, I read the book in a single sitting as my own personal homage to the man.
DANGERFIELD WAS NO overnight success. Born Jacob Cohen, to a deadbeat dad he saw two hours a year and a mother who never showed him an ounce of affection, Dangerfield was drawn to show business for obvious psychological reasons. His whole childhood, Dangerfield never got a single Christmas or birthday present, never got “a kiss, a hug or a compliment.” He writes: “Let me hear the laughs, the applause. I’ll take love any way I can get it.” He spent the 1940s toiling as a comic/singing waiter in the dives across the country, under the name Jack Roy. At age 28 he felt he had taken his comedy career as far as he could and he began a new life as an aluminum siding salesman. His comedy dreams gnawed at his heart, but he wanted to be the sort of stable parent to his two children he never had. “I later learned that it wasn’t show business that was crazy — it was me,” he writes. And so, at age 42, against the advice of nearly everyone he knew, Dangerfield attempted a comeback, under a new, now-famous stage name. When no one wanted to book an “over the hill” comic, Dangerfield worked for free to prove his worth. Slowly he began to build a fan base, but he refused to relinquish the sales job until he made a good living at comedy. So by day he’d work as Jacob Cohen, and at night he’d be on The Ed Sullivan Show.
In time, success did come. He did the “Really Big Show” dozens of times, The Tonight Show more than 70 times, starred in a bunch of movies, opened his own successful New York City comedy club, and toured the world many times over. In his book, Dangerfield dishes on the craziness of it all with a series of no-holds-barred, often ridiculously hilarious vignettes about the stars he’s rubbed shoulders with: Elvis, Lenny Bruce, Tony Bennett, Bill Gates, Oliver Stone, Johnny Carson, John Belushi, basically the entire cast of Caddyshack among them. But he never lost sight of those years living everyman life as a salesman. “Even today, if I check into a hotel and the bellman picks up my suitcase, I feel awkward,” Dangerfield writes. “I feel like I should be taking the bags. I’ve been broke most of my life. For years I was picking up the phone and acting surprised. The check came back? Oh!'” No sugar coating here. When he writes of his bouts with depression, Dangerfield is candid as all get-out. “Like most people in that situation, I tried to self-medicate, which is New Age talk for, ‘I got loaded.’ I used to drink. A lot. Too much.”
For those saddened by Dangerfield’s death, the introduction to It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me, written scant months before his death, offers some humorous consolation. Pointing out that statistics say that only one out of a hundred men in their 80s make it to their 90s, Dangerfield cracks: “With odd like that, I’m writing fast.” But by the end, he connects with the bigger fears we all have to face eventually. “It’s hard for me to accept that soon my life will be over,” he writes. “No more Super Bowls. No more Chinese food. No more sex.” Later he continues: “I can even accept getting old, but dying? Man, that’s a tough one to accept. Life’s a short trip. You’ll find out. You were seventeen yesterday. You’ll be fifty tomorrow.”
Well, with men like Rodney Dangerfield, the trip is always going to be too short. All we can say is, Godspeed, Mr. Funnyman. Here’s hoping you can finally get some respect out there in the otherworldly beyond.