“My life is nothing but pressure. All pressure. This pressure is like a heaviness. It’s always on top of me, this heaviness. It’s always there since I’m a kid. Other people wake up in the morning, ‘A new day! Ah, up and at ’em!’ I wake up, the heaviness is waiting for me nice. Sometimes I even talk to it. I say [adopts cheerful voice] ‘Hi, heaviness!’ and the heaviness looks back at me, [in an ominous growl] ‘Today you’re gonna get it good. You’ll be drinking early today.’”—Rodney Dangerfield, No Respect
Rodney Dangerfield has the face of an overgrown toddler and the haunted, sad eyes of a man who has suffered. As a child I gravitated to Dangerfield’s cuddly despair without comprehending the genuine anguish underneath the rapid-fire self-deprecating one-liners. It was shtick, but it was shtick rooted in genuine pain. Consider the excerpt quoted above (and if you don’t own his 1980 stand-up album No Respect, download it now). It’s a funny bit rooted in Dangerfield’s lovable-loser persona but it’s also an eloquent personification of depression so evisceratingly dark and dead-on it leaves a bitter aftertaste. Dangerfield had a genius for alchemizing pain into comedy, but in that bit he lets the anguish bleed through.
Rodney Dangerfield’s 2004 memoir It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime Of No Respect But Plenty Of Sex And Drugs is in many ways a typical stand-up comic’s book except for one thing: It’s agonizingly sad. In between jokes recycled from his stand-up routine (one-liners fans already know by heart), anecdotes involving famous people, and career highlights come bracing moments where the literary equivalent of a fake smile subsides and the author’s self-hatred bubbles unabashedly to the surface. Here’s Dangerfield on why he turned down a dinner invitation from Jack Benny, one of his idols: “The truth was that I didn’t go because I knew I couldn’t be myself with Jack Benny. I mean, I’d have to play the part and be a gentleman. Can you picture me saying to Jack Benny, ‘Man, I’m so depressed. It’s all too fucking much?’”
Dangerfield grew up alone and unloved, the son of a vaudevillian, stockbroker, and womanizer who abandoned his family when Dangerfield was a small child. His mother, let me tell you, she was no bargain either in the sense that she was cold and unsupportive and burdened her son with bottomless insecurities.
It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me’s liveliest and most engaging passages cover Dangerfield’s early years in stand-up, when the field was wide-open and populated by the kind of wild men who would repay an invitation to a fan’s home by fucking the fan’s wife, then stealing his coat. Dangerfield reportedly wanted to name his book My Love Affair With Marijuana, and while he didn’t get his wish there are still plenty of ribald anecdotes about drinking and drugging and carrying on that my 10-year-old, Rappin’ Rodney-owning self probably would have found scandalous.
Dangerfield rubbed elbows with Lenny Bruce and paid his dues before giving up on comedy in his thirties to sell aluminum siding. He returned to the stage in his early forties, older, wiser, and eager to make his mark on a comedy world that had chewed him up and spit him out. But the heaviness persisted. In the late 1960s, Dangerfield scored a sweet gig doing skits opposite Dean Martin on Martin’s super-popular variety show only to discover that Dean liked to duck out early so Dangerfield ended up acting all of his scenes opposite an empty chair. Martin and Dangerfield’s scenes “together” were the work of constructive editing. When fame and fortune did arrive, they proved an awkward fit—Dangerfield was more comfortable sharing joints and a laugh with limousine drivers than the wealthy, successful people inside the limos.
At one point, Dangerfield reconnected with his father and asked him to share the wisdom he’s accrued through decades of hard living:
My old man was really old by now, but he was still pretty sharp. One time I said to him, “You’ve traveled all over the country, must have slept with hundreds of women. You’ve done everything, been through it all. What’s life all about? What’s the answer?”
He twirled his cigar and said, “It’s all bullshit.”
You can’t full appreciate that line until you’re old.
Those are words Dangerfield clearly took to heart, for the heaviness would never go away. It only intensified as he got older. The further Dangerfield’s memoir gets from the early days, the less compelling it becomes; towards the end the author is reduced to recycling one-liners from other comics’ acts as well as his own.
As it lurches towards a conclusion, It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me goes from melancholy to unbearably sad as Dangerfield is confronted with the consequences of five decades of heavy smoking and bleary excess. The octogenarian underwent heart and brain surgery that left his rotund body weak and depleted, lingering for weeks on the precipice of death.
At this point, Dangerfield’s wife takes over the narrative temporarily to write that what roused Dangerfield from his coma was her referencing an X-rated cartoon Dangerfield loved. Rodney desperately wanted to include the X-rated cartoon with magical restorative powers in his book but was told by his publishers that it was just too filthy, even for a book with sex and drugs in its subtitle. Once his coma ends, Dangerfield commits himself whole-heartedly to one of the primary joys of his later life: watching The Jerry Springer Show opposite his wife every day.
A populist slob to the end, Dangerfield is ultimately saved not by prayer or the need to serve mankind or some such honorable bullshit. No, Dangerfield lives so he can savor his favorite dirty drawing and watch the inbred hurl chairs at each other. Dangerfield promises that curious readers can find the miraculous cartoon on his website, but if you visit rodney.com today—a profoundly depressing experience, I can assure you—the cartoon is nowhere to be found. Even in death, it seems, Dangerfield is not afforded the reverence he deserves.
To close the book on an appropriately grim note, Dangerfield offers his own take on what he learned over the course of 82 years of sadness and despair, life lessons that echo and amplify those of his father:
You were seventeen yesterday. You’ll be fifty tomorrow. Life is tough, are you kiddin’? What do you think life is? Moonlight and canoes? That’s not life. That’s in the movies.
Life is fear and tension and worry and disappointments.
Life. I’ll tell ya what life is. Life is having a mother-in-law who sucks and a wife who don’t. That’s what life is.