When The Ed Sullivan Show went off the air, it was said that vaudeville had died a second death, but the medium’s aggressively lowbrow, populist spirit still lives on in TV variety specials. It’s therefore fitting that one of the cable specials on the three-disc Rodney Dangerfield box set No Respect is titled The Really Big Show, in honor of the show-business titan who gave Dangerfield one of his first breaks. Though his own father never quite made it as a vaudevillian, Dangerfield would have been a natural for that bygone era, and not just because many of his gags and one-liners are old enough to qualify for Social Security.
The three network specials included on the set’s first disc mirror the crowd-pleasing randomness of an overstuffed vaudeville bill, offering stand-up, corny skits and spoofs, pretty girls, guest stars, song-and-dance numbers, light comic opera, a performance of “Rappin’ Rodney,” and even the odd dog or trained seal. The network specials’ arc follows that of Dangerfield’s film career, which started off strongly with top-flight collaborators and big hits like Caddyshack and Back To School before devolving into low-rent bottom-feeding vehicles populated by a motley assortment of C-listers. The first of the specials, 1982's It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me, pairs Dangerfield with heavyweights Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and Aretha Franklin for a show that suggests an unwieldy but successful fusion of Saturday Night Live and Dangerfield’s stand-up routine. By 1984's Exposed, however, Murray and Ramis were long gone, and Dangerfield was reduced to yukking it up with the likes of Bubba Smith, Morgan Fairchild, and “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, sweating his way through elaborate production numbers, and goofing around with The Never Heard From Again Players.
The set’s second disc collects three cable stand-up specials, and while Dangerfield makes full use of pay-TV’s tolerance for salty language and coarse sexual material, he doesn’t exactly benefit from the unlimited license to spout dick jokes and profanity. The skits that dot the cable specials find Dangerfield sinking into crass, increasingly desperate self-parody, while the stand-up performances come from a decidedly mixed bag of critics’ darlings (Bill Hicks, Robert Schimmel), future superstars (Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Jeff Foxworthy), and forgettable acts doomed to spend their golden years playing places with names like The Chuckle Hut and Sir Laffs-A-Lot.
Dangerfield works blue on the second disc, but the third disc’s chief attraction—a 50-minute live performance in Las Vegas—more truly explores his persona’s dark underbelly. Dangerfield’s career reconfigured profound existential despair, chronic depression, and low self-esteem into enormously successful vaudeville shtick, but away from the homogenizing influence of film and TV, his act retained a bracing undercurrent of anger and resentment. It’s an old maxim that comedy equals tragedy plus time, but in Dangerfield’s Vegas act, plenty of undiluted tragedy seeps in as well. There’s a distinct element of societal catharsis in his routines: He embodied the archetype of the ultimate loser so that everyone watching him could feel a little more like a winner. Dangerfield’s comedy was the humor of the underdog, the underclass, the hapless loser who gets trampled in the mad American rush for success. And this crude, uneven, but seldom dull DVD set captures the many sides of Dangerfield’s surprisingly complex and poignant persona, from the triumphant to the tragic and everywhere in between.