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It's Not Easy Bein' Rodney

Comedian Dangerfield's autobiography is outrageous, entertaining--and surprisingly frank.

12:00 AM, Aug 6, 2004 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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EVERY Caddyshack fan has a favorite line from the 1980 movie and for sheer kitsch, it's hard to trump the exclamation by millionaire loudmouth Al Czervik following the climactic scene: "Hey, everybody! We're all gonna get laid!" In and of itself, it's not that funny; it's not even a joke, really. Except that the actor playing Czervik is Rodney Dangerfield. Coming off his lips, the otherwise churlish outburst somehow seems utterly hilarious--and utterly inoffensive, so endearing is Dangerfield's persona. He has, we might say, the comedic equivalent of the Midas touch: a combination of lovable charm and impeccable delivery that turns a lame wisecrack into one of Caddyshack's most memorable utterances.

It's hard to believe now, but prior to Caddyshack Dangerfield wasn't a big movie star. Nor, for that matter, did he make any real money from the film. As he explains: "It actually cost me money to do Caddyshack. I had to give up at least a month's work in Vegas. So it cost me $150,000 to do the movie, and they only paid me $35,000. People think I've made a fortune off reruns, merchandising, and stuff like that, but I got nothing: $35,000; that was it. My part in Caddyshack did get me into doing movies, though, so I guess it paid off in the end."

He relates that story--and many more--in his new autobiography, It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs. The book is an impressive achievement. It manages to be at once a touchingly frank memoir, a droll (and often outrageous) narrative, and a how-to guide for young comedians. It's alternately light-hearted and sad, hysterically entertaining and surprisingly poignant. Dangerfield has lived a rich life, a complete life--and a long life. He is now 82 years old. "According to statistics about men in their eighties," he writes in the introduction, "only one out of a hundred makes it to ninety. With odds like that, I'm writing very fast. I want to get it all done. I mean, I'm not a kid anymore, I'm getting old. The other night, I was driving, I had an accident. I was arrested for hit-and-walk."

Dangerfield is a throwback: a stand-up comic whose routine consists almost purely of old-fashioned (and timeless) one-liners. (Indeed, one of his earliest show-biz idols was Henny Youngman: "His act was laugh after laugh after laugh--boom-boom-boom.") His humor has always been largely self-deprecating--replete with gibes about his sex life, his looks, his age, and, of course, his perpetual inability to get some "respect" from his relatives, his friends, his wife, etc. (Three samples: "I'm not a sexy guy. I went to a hooker. I dropped my pants. She dropped her price." "My uncle's dying wish, he wanted me on his lap. He was in the electric chair." "I tell ya, my wife likes to talk during sex. Last night, she called me from a motel.")

In 82 years, Rodney's told a lot of jokes. One is reminded of Mark Steyn's observation about Bob Hope: that he "made more people laugh than anyone in history." Dangerfield isn't too far behind. Indeed, it's probably not unfair to say that, among comedians, he has made fun of himself more than anyone in history.

But success wasn't easy to come by for the Long Island native. Born Jacob Cohen on November 22, 1921, Dangerfield endured a fairly nightmarish childhood. His father, a vaudeville performer, was rarely home--"I figured out that during my entire childhood, my father saw me for two hours a year"--so his mother raised him; although "raised" is perhaps too charitable. She was a cold, bitter woman, totally devoid of maternal instincts. She regularly forgot her son's birthday, never tucked him into bed at night, and generally treated him as an abject burden. "I never got a kiss, a hug, or a compliment," he writes. "I guess that's why I went into show business--to get some love. I wanted people to tell me I was good, tell me I'm okay. Let me hear the laughs, the applause. I'll take love any way I can get it."

Dangerfield has of course gotten plenty of love from audiences over the years--partly because he is so lovable. One senses that he realizes this--that cultivating a lovable image has been a deliberate goal of his all along. Indeed, he offers the following advice to young comedians: "From the moment you walk onstage, try to make the people like you. That's the most important thing. If they like you, you can get a big laugh with a mediocre joke. If they don't like you, you've got some serious thinking to do about your career choice."

He's also gotten a lot of comedic mileage out of his childhood pain. It produced a litany of "no respect" jokes, such as: "When I was a kid I got no respect. When my parents got divorced there was a custody fight over me . . . and no one showed up." Or: "When I was a kid, I got no respect. I was kidnapped. They sent my parents a piece of my finger. My old man said he wanted more proof."