Death of a Comedian
I first saw him on the old Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1960s. His style of comedy was already old-fashioned: nonstop one-liners, many about his wife and kids, hard-luck stories and insults. He added a great new twist to the old formula, though: He was the butt of his own insults.
In those days, Don Rickles had just made a hit by taking the insult to new heights; but he softened his act with occasional smiles to show it was all a joke, folks. Dangerfield never flashed an ingratiating smile; he was insulting himself, and there would be no apologies just implacable self-depreciation.
Humor is an elusive thing. The best joke will fall flat with some people, and the dumbest joke may bring down the house. Its hard to rate comedians. All you can say is that every time Dangerfield appeared on television, you could feel an earthquake of laughter. Soon his signature line I tell you, I dont get no respect was a catchphrase, coast-to-coast. It now looks to be an immortal joke.
But he wasnt just telling jokes; he was playing a character, a sore loser who felt, as we all do at times, that he wasnt getting his due while showing us why he was a loser. He wasnt a beautiful loser, either: My psychiatrist told me Im going crazy. I said, If you dont mind, Id like a second opinion. He says, All right youre ugly too!
That was Dangerfields world, a world where your shrink steps out of his therapeutic role to destroy whatever is left of your fragile ego, where every social encounter ended in crushing discouragement. It had started early: When I was born, I was so ugly the doctor slapped my mother. He made being ugly bulky and frog-eyed part of the act, turning the mud of humiliation into pay dirt. He made the imaginary Rodney Dangerfield (real name: Jacob Cohen) into a character almost as beloved as Charlie Chaplins nameless Little Tramp.
The real Dangerfield must have had resources, though. Despite early failures, he persisted in the very tough business of standup comedy, where a stony audience can quickly teach you the meaning of flop sweat. I once quoted a hilarious line to a large crowd, and the ensuing silence has been matched, in my experience, only at well-attended funerals, with the difference that the corpse being stared at doesnt usually turn beet-red.
It takes a special kind of courage, as well as talent, to make a living telling jokes. Dangerfields secret was that he appealed to our sympathy. He exposed his dread of failure right in front of us. Hed already failed in life, and he made the most of it. But he didnt ask for our pity: he was indignant! And that was the best part of the joke: When a lesser loser might have resorted to self-improvement courses or cosmetic surgery, he wasnt about to change. He was determined to keep on losing, so he could keep on griping.
Psychoanalysts tell us that humor is a form of aggression. My own view is that psychoanalysis is a form of aggression for humorless people. The funniest writer of the twentieth century, or any other century I can think of, was probably P.G. Wodehouse, whose humor was remarkably gentle and chaste. He could even make a hilarious compliment: My dear, you look like Helen of Troy after a good facial!
Of course its easy to praise humor, since nobody is overtly anti-humorous. The problem is that some people are humorless, and theres no arguing with them. Refusing to laugh is like refusing to extend sympathy: It cant be forced. You cant prove something is funny. Humorlessness is irrefutable. But so is humor. And if you cant laugh at yourself, youre missing half the fun of life.
I love a good laugh, but sometimes I find myself the humorless one. Don Quixote has, for four centuries, made countless readers laugh helplessly, and is widely hailed as the funniest novel ever written. But every time I try to read it, I find myself wondering, When do I get to the funny part?
That doesnt mean Cervantes isnt funny. It probably means Im like a tone-deaf man listening to Handel. Im up against the laughter of millions.
But never let it be said that I failed to laugh at Rodney Dangerfield. Ive been doing it for nearly 40 years, with a brief sad pause last week.
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