Rodney Dangerfield’s “It’s Not Easy”

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Reading Rodney Dangerfield’s autobiography, It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me, was like listening to him do a long monologue on the Tonight Show couch. He starts off just like anyone else. He speaks casually, makes small talk. He seems sincere. He’s not angling for a punchline and then — Pow! Pow! Pow! He fires off a joke, then a zinger, then a pun, a play on words, his catch phrase, and then more jokes and one-liners.

The poet, Irving Feldman, taught me that a good poem is one that feels like the poet came up with it spontaneously, while in truth that poem was the result of days, weeks, even months of crafting and editing. Mr. Feldman also said the beauty of poetry was that the poet could recreate reality to make a dramatic point. That’s what Rodney does. He’s a “poet and he didn’t even know it”.

In preparation for a Tonight Show appearance, he says:

Counting my stand-up routine and my “conversation” on the couch with Jay, I need about 30 new jokes… I have to put them in some kind of order — create some flow, some continuity… they have to be in the right order to work. I have to string together 10 jokes for my stand-up bit and another 20 for my “chat” with Jay afterward. It takes hours and hours of work at home and many nights onstage to get a Tonight Show routine the way I want it.

He’s well rehearsed but when he performs his routine live for the first time, he’s not stilted or disingenuous or pandering. He’s got his timing down pat, so every thought, every word seems newborn, casual, off-the-cuff.

But while I enjoyed all of the clever quips and humor, I couldn’t help feeling like he was hiding something. A part of me wanted him to stop joking around for just a moment to speak directly about the trauma of being molested as a child, the coldness of his mother, the distance of his father, and the frightening circumstances of his own physical and mental health. Did he at one point during any of these trials just break down and cry?

At one point in his book, he complains

My image has its problems. People watch a guy degrade himself for an hour onstage, they get carried away and start to believe that it’s really me up there. And with my image of “no respect”, many people have teated me that way. One night I was doing a show at my club, and as I was about to walk onstage, a man sitting close by said, “Hey Rodney, before you go on, do me a favor, will ya? Let me have your autograph — and more butter?”

Rodney made that man’s request the title of the ninth chapter in his book. In that chapter, Rodney recounts how he came up with his tagline, “I don’t get no respect”. It was originally, “Nothing goes right”, but the influence of Mario Puzo’s Godfather changed that.

His complaints about how people see his onstage character instead of the “real” him are brief and shared with the same self-deprecating closing statements that serve as punchlines in his comic routines. You sort of have to wonder if Rodney also had problems separating his “real” self from the persona that brought his so much fame.

One day I was with some people in the coffee shop at the Riviera Hotel in Vegas. The waiter told me that a couple at another table said they’d buy me a drink if I’d sit with them.

I told the waiter, “Find out how long I have to sit with them to get a steak.”

For all the frivolity, Rodney’s autobiography ends on a somber note. It’s as if he knew somewhere deep inside that an extended lease on life was a sale he couldn’t make. It was his salesmanship, his sincere ambition, and his tenacity that helped raise him to the level of celebrity and respect he now has. And with that celebrity it is easy to forget that Rodney left performing in his late 20s only to return (and really hit it big) in his 40s.

I was a little shocked by his bitterness when I first read the ending of his book. It was an uncharacteristic loss of humor for someone who spent close to 20 chapters entertaining me with clever quips and personal life lessons and losses. But then I thought about the decision to close the book with his grandson’s baby picture and had to wonder if he was really ending on a bitter note.

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