I Get No Respect

RodneyDangerfield  _orig

I asked Rodney Dangerfield what was the craziest thing he ever saw at three in the morning. Without skipping a beat he said, “Her husband came home!”

We talked some more. He was more somber than I thought he would be. He told me how he was an aluminum siding salesman and then when he was in his mid 40s he got sick of it and he was depressed. He had a mid-life crisis. He decided to get back into comedy (he had utterly failed at it in his 20s). When he was 48 he started the comedy club “Dangerfields” which became the biggest comedy club in NYC for some time. From aluminum siding salesman to comedy impresario at the age of 48. He had all the best comedians perform there. “I’m the one who first had Jim Carrey perform!” he told me

We talked some more but I forget the conversation. I remember being obsessed with one thing, telling him how inspirational it was that he made a change so late in life (I was 28 at the time and even then wondering how it can be possible to switch careers) and totally changed the direction of his life, career, everything. He seemed proud of this and would tell more stories of the change.

Afterwards, I was standing on the sidewalk watching him walk to his car. George Carlin, who I had to interview next, leaned over, pointed at Dangerfield, and said, “that guy is totally high right now.” Of course I’m name dropping. I’ll tell you one more thing about George Carlin. One time I went to see him perform at Radio City Music Hall for an HBO special. I took a date. She casually mentioned some guy she was friends with.

Being hopelessly insecure, I asked her if she “liked him”. She got a disgusted look on her face and said, “how can you even ask me that?” The lights went down then, the show was starting. And then for the rest of the show I didn’t pay any attention and I was upset that I had blown it with her. I don’t think I laughed once at anything George Carlin was saying.

Then later, people who watched it on TV kept saying they saw me in the audience. Apparently a friend of mine was doing all the camera work and he told me, as a joke to me, he kept going right in close on my face for audience reactions. And since I was upset the entire time the reactions were not good.

Oh, one more thing. My friend doing the camera work once told me, “I have a pickup line that always works but you can never tell anyone.”

I said, “ok, no problem. I promise I will never use it or mention it to anyone.”

We were in his office. He had hours and hours of videotape of Ultimate Fighting Championships so that was on in the background. Ultimate Fighting usually involved one guy pinning another guy down very quickly so you couldn’t see what was happening as the guy on top broke one finger at a time of the guy on the bottom even after the guy had already pounded the floor, signaling “stop”.

I have another story where I had breakfast with the guy who ran the Ultimate Fighting Championships ( the girl who I went to the George Carlin event with introduced us) but that’s for another time.

(from the Ultimate Fighting Championships)

“So tell me the pickup line,” I said.

It only works on girls from Canada, he said. But if a girl says “I’m from Canada”, you ask, “Really? What street?”

At a talk I gave in Canada once I used that line and they all sort of groaned. Don’t use that  if you are actually IN Canada.

Back to Rodney Dangerfield. I can’t think of a single movie or appearance of his I didn’t like. Caddyshack, when it came out with Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray, was the funniest move I had ever seen at the time. “Back to School” was hilarious. And so on.

I liked how his humor was so instant and spontaneous. How he could immediately look and act completely crazy. His humor was not only physical but he had a catch phrase that seemed particular to him while he said it but was something we all instantly relate to, “I get no respect.” This ultimate self-deprecation catapulted his career for decades.

But he was also an inspiration. That you can go from being an aluminum siding salesman in your 40s and you can be, frankly, hideously ugly and look like nothing is going your way (“I get no respect” comes from experience) and then starting from scratch become one of the biggest comedians and box office stars ever is inspiring to me.

There’s lots of things that I wanted to do in my twenties that I never succeeded in. Writing a novel, for instance. I wrote four or five (depending on how you define “novel”) and sent them around to dozens of agents and publishers and got rejected everywhere. I wrote a comic book script for the DC character “Delirium” and never got a response. I was inspired by all of Alan Moore’s and Neil Gaiman’s comic books and read every comic I could but it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be a PhD in Computer Science but was thrown out. I wrote a spec script for “The Larry Sanders Show”. But nothing. I tried shooting two documentaries. I even had as a New Years resolution last year to try standup comedy but it’s hard when you go to sleep by 8pm every night.

But anything can change at any time. A few years ago I was having coffee with a friend of mine whose book was being published the very next day. He was depressed. “Sales are going to suck,” he said. “This is it for me.” It was his third or fourth book and the last one had not sold well.

No way, I said, this will be a bestseller.

(the Delirium character from DC)

The book was Freakonomics. He thinks now I was being prophetic. But I was just being encouraging.  His life changed overnight and his career is still catapulting upwards in ways that I’m sure are still surprising to him when he wakes up in the morning.

Every day we wake up a new person. We can forget that and too easily reattach to our past:  “I’m too old. I’m too ugly. I didn’t get the right education. I don’t live in the right city. I don’t have the right contacts. I don’t have any skills. I don’t know how to even get started.” And so on. We give ourselves excuses so we can continue our life of depressive misery.

Rodney Dangerfield was clinically depressed all his life. He took medication (often self-medicated) for depression every day for the last 60 years of his life. He had every excuse to never make any changes, including the all-encompassing one, “I get no respect.”

Today I’m going to download Caddyshack, his first big hit. He was not supposed to be such a major character in it. But he steals every scene. I haven’t watched the movie in maybe 20 years. But it made me laugh. Every day I want to leave my life open for changes. I want to stay one step ahead of the excuses that try to drag me back down into hell. But today I want to laugh.

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  • http://www.tropicalmba.com Dan

    I loved this. 

  • Jon Peltier

    Rodney was brilliant, and Caddyshack was much better than many of its reviews.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tombartel Tom Bartel

    Nice piece. I’m gonna remember it as I’m working on my third and fourth books. Someday, someone will read one of them.

  • Pete

    Its easy took grin when the shop comes in and youve got the stock market beat.. Bit the man worthwhile is the man who can smile when your shorts too tight in the seat.

    Immortal words too follow your inspiring article

  • apivetta

    I remember reading a book on curmudgeonly quotes some years back. That line about not knowing on what street Canada is located was attributed to Al Capone.

  • http://www.TheAcsMan.com/ TheAcsMan

    When I was in high school I used to spend quite a bit of time at the old First Avenue Screening Room, a small movie theater that I’m guessing is long gone. They always had Marx Bros. festivals, Charlie Chaplin etc. Dangerfield’s was right nearby and I used to go there and would catch some shows. He used to use his past life as easy fodder for jokes.

    Back then the legal drinking age was 18 and even if you were younger they really didn’t care. As funny as Rodney Dangerfield was on TV, he was absolutely hilarious when there was no 7 second delay. In 1972,

    I also had the chance to see George Carlin at the Capital Theater in New Jersey on a triple bill with Billy Preston and Sha Na Na, as well as seeing him perform in Central Park as part of the great Schaeffer Beer summer concert series. He was another on the edge comedian who completely transformed himself. He used to be a clean cut comedian, always in a suit, fairly predictable in his jokes. He was also the spokesperson for Ozark Airlines. Seriously, Ozark Airlines. That joke writes itself.

    And then he made the change that also changed American comedy and plugged into a nation’s discontent with government’s disregard for its citizens.

    Both give great examples of how re-invention can lead to really great things and probably greater happiness and even more creativity.

  • Gonzalo Gandia

    This blog post hit right in the center of my thought process these days, James. Some of the younger readers might not appreciate it as much, but this may be one of your top 5 posts for me…

    Being 46 and at a career crossroads is a tough place to be. That’s where I am now. Either you turn things around and become an inspiration to everyone around you, or you end up living under a bridge somewhere in Canada by a street no one cares about! Thanks to you, I’m writing a book that will probably not go anywhere, but it’s something I must do…this is going to be an interesting time, to say the least!

    • http://twitter.com/BarrieAbalard BarrieAbalard

      Try reinventing yourself at 60. Then tell me how tough 46 is. You have plenty of time.

      • Gonzalo Gandia

        Yes, I see your point. It’s always tough when you’re past 40…or maybe we’re just making excuses…let’s go for it!!!

        • Sean

          I’m 42 and just learned to surf!  Took me over a year of on and off persistence to be able to ride a half decent wave.  I’ve wanted to surf ever since I was a teenager.  And I see lots of people older than me – both men and women!

    • http://marn-foundlife.blogspot.com/ standswithagist

      You can do it, Gonzalo! I’m 41 soon and I’m there too. I’m writing female-centered screenplay(s) that will probably not go anywhere either, but damn if it doesn’t feel good to truly express myself after too long trying to be somebody else – someone I thought the world wanted me to be. I don’t have enough time to waste my time doing that anymore…

      Oh, and I published my first poem just last year, so it is never too late :)

      • Gonzalo Gandia

        That’s pretty cool! I’ve always wanted to write a screenplay, or a movie script…I´m a movie fanatic, and I always thought it would be the direction I would follow.

        Thanks for your encouragement, I really appreciate it!!

        Is your poem posted online somewhere?

      • http://deathless.com/ Michael Deathless

        Godd luck to you too

    • http://deathless.com/ Michael Deathless

      Good Luck!

    • Anonymous


      It’s a good time to laugh indeed. 

      Likewise … in mid 40’s here.  Left a very promising corporate career over a dozen years ago to pursue a dream. Started a company, then started another one only to blew up, or, rather die slowly of a thousand cuts.  Friends back in the corporate worlds are now VP’s, Presidents, or senior director’s and I am just trying not to be out on the street.  It’s time to pivot yet again. That seem to be the buzz word these days.  Pivot.   Full of regret but probably would do it again anyway. It’s like a calling, or a siren song. Anyway, like they say, things that does not kill you will only make you stronger.    I guess I am in good company here.  It’s good to know I am not the only one.  Cheers to Rodney Dangerfield.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you James.

  • Sooz

    what an awesome gig, J.A., to not only met but sit down and have a chat with these brilliant men.
    pretty darn lucky..

    • Sooz


  • http://444express.blogspot.com/ the444

    Your writing makes me feel like I am friends with (or could be friends with – Would be, if the conditions were right) 1. You, 2. Dubner (I’ve read his books), 3. Dangerfield, and others.

    You make the world seem smaller, and I thank you for it!

  • Londrino

    James, do you golf?

  • Cecchin

    have you read Carlin’s autobiography?  I considered it the best book I read last year, because it just gave me so much insight into the different phases of the human condition we all go through before we are able to be our true selves.   And even with that being said, all of the anger and the conviction during the best HBO specials of Carlin’s career were only possible through the willpower and collaboration of his older brother Patrick.  If you’re a Carlin fan, big recommend.

    • Heather

      Going on my list, I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of reading it before. As a 21-year-old Carlin was mostly before my time, but I love him nevertheless. That’s the great thing about great, true-to-life comedians like him: they’re timeless.

      • Heather

         Er, I meant that *I* am 21 years old, haha. And I used “great” twice in the same sentence. Oh well :)

        • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

           Well, I’m 44 and it’s going on my list as well. I read “Brain Droppings” by him but nothing since.

          • http://jlcollinsnh.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/why-you-need-f-you-money/ Jlcollinsnh

            well, I’m sixty…

            ….never mind, but….

            …it’s going on my list too.

    • http://marn-foundlife.blogspot.com/ standswithagist

      Read it twice! It was great to get into his head that way.

      I got to see Carlin live about 10+ years ago. Sat in the the 3rd row. Avoided James’ predicament by going alone. Carlin, of course, killed it. Also got to sit in the 2nd row for Steven Wright, who is even more insane and brilliant in life than in his recordings.

      Just recently bought “Caddyshack”, a movie a grew up watching – and the first movie I saw boobies – maybe I’ll give it a rewatch tonite.

    • Remus
  • TripleB

    I like to go to bullfights on acid.

  • Alex Dimitrius

    Simply Awesome !!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=732244537 Priscilla Paredes Wood

    I said this before but I like repeating myself, you have the most engaging stories plus your writing, I can’t describe that combo, really. Please don’t stop writing and don’t miss more Twitter sessions. It makes me brain dead for endless days.

  • Heather

    God, you know everybody! I’m jealous.

  • DrVicheyZoombatz

    Rodney like many Jews I know next to being successful harbor covet a burning desire to be Italian.

  • http://www.kiwimotorart.co.nz/ Brett

    or as the Romans used to say “nihil illegitimus carborundum” ( don’t let the bastards grind you down!)

  • http://www.healthycriticism.com/ Nick

    Awesome post. I think about the question of re-invention and age a lot. In retrospect, I would redo a lot of decisions from my post-high-school life (i.e., not going right into a 4-year private college at 18 when I had no idea what I wanted from it, then spending all of my 20s either preparing for or working on a PhD). I gave up on grad school at 31, and have been gaining great experience and stable finances in the private sector ever since. But all those years in academia have definitely conditioned my brain to fear entrepreneurship. Still trying to get over that.

  • http://Www.brookefarmer.com/ Brooke Farmer

    There are a lot of stories like his. A lot of stories of people who waited until later in life to really give it a shot or people who tried their whole lives but took decades to find success. These are the kind of stories I lull myself to sleep with when I feel like I waited too long. When I feel like it’s already too late.

    Thanks for giving me another story to lull myself to sleep with.

  • CanadianUFCFan

    ” I have another story where I had breakfast with the guy who ran the
    Ultimate Fighting Championships ( the girl who I went to the George
    Carlin event with introduced us) but that’s for another time.”

    If this is about Dana White, then I’m stoked to read about this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zafkastudios Jim Kasper

    At age 36 I received my Computer Engineering degree from Florida Atlantic University in Boca. My last year I needed a humanities course. Rather than take History of Rock and Roll, as most engineers did on the down side, I enrolled in “History of Eastern Religion. It was a serendipitous choice. The teacher was 80 years old, and had been in China during the revolution. He was an amateur scientist, and would relate the Tao Te Ching to the latest discoveries in DNA sequencing. And finally for the kicker, I was not even aware of it, but one day one of the younger kids brought in a copy of “Caddy Shack” our professor let him play a 5 minute segment. Our professor played the part of  Rodney Dangerfield’s chauffeur.

    • http://profiles.google.com/jayzalowitz Jay Zalowitz

      Yeah, the club they filmed at was nearby https://plus.google.com/104834129907874592944/posts/Hnij9oCkLZa

  • Anonymous

    another example of late-achiever is Goethe who has written his biggest literary works when he was almost 60 years old and Copernicus who has written his biggest scientific work when he was 70 years old

    yes, youth is wasted on the young but older people simply lack stamina to do some stuff …

    James: why don’t you make your Ph.D. now? It’s not to late. Just do it!

  • http://www.unmappedcountry.blogspot.com/ Hope

    Never appreciated R. Dangerfield, but I’m willing to retry after this post. 
    This one inspired me. 

  • rollingdancefloor

     (The Good Scissors, George Carlin.) (Food Binge, Fatso, Dom Deluise.) (Looking Back, Henry David Thoreau)

  • http://profiles.google.com/jayzalowitz Jay Zalowitz

    So, when I go down to Florida, I golf at the place caddyshack was filmed, I can confirm that nobody there has jobs…. https://plus.google.com/104834129907874592944/posts/Hnij9oCkLZa

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tekla-Saturniana/100001864233853 Tekla Saturniana

    You wanna see my klimt?

  • Canuck

    We have many, many streets in Canada.

  • bill

    Rodney Dangerfield was great.  Celebrity stories remind me of my dad, who met many, and once had Alan King bum cigarettes off him all night. I think it was at the 21 Club. Dumb but true.

  • http://marn-foundlife.blogspot.com/ standswithagist

    Respect – except when it’s coming from within yourself – is overrated!

  • Anonymous

    How are you friends with Steven Dubner? That is way cool. Don’t you think some of these great connections of yours with interesting, smart people are thanks to your time at elite institutions, either directly or indirectly? Promoting avoidance of college denies the very real benefit of networks formed there.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

       Unfortunately, I never made any friends or connections at college. I don’t keep in touch with any of them, not even the ex-girlfriend I lived with for 2 years at college. I haven’t seen her since.

  • Me Mine

    “But anything can change at any time.”
    ” Every day I want to leave my life open for changes. I want to stay one step ahead of the excuses that try to drag me back down into hell.”
     Sage gems – great day to you

  • http://www.stealthmode.com hardaway

    I was just interviewed for a story on Trailblazing Women for the Arizona Republic because although I have lived in Phoenix since 1968, I’ve reinvented myself so many times that it finally drew attention to me. First, I was a college professor. I got bored after ten years, and started a marketing company. I got bored after 16 years and sold it to Intel. Inside Intel, I was bored after a year, and started an incubator for startup companies. Now I am a writer, investor, and a mentor. Along the way, I’ve also had five marriages, 2 children, 3 foster children, and a ton of great relationships. I would like to sing the praises of periodic re-invention for a long and happy life.

    And, by the way, I’ve been on antidepressants for 18 years, too. My problem is anxiety. Get me a good agent and I will write my memoir:-)

    • Anonymous

      I’d read that story!

      • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

         I would too! Very impressive. 5 marriages! How did you juggle all of the emotional turmoil with the constant changing of careers? I’m really impressed.

  • Abby

    Hello James. We sometimes hear the stories of the people who were not afraid to leave a secured job to start a new life. We seldom hear about those who did the same thing but did not manage to find a new and fulfilling job. Their story is never heard but somehow I think they are the majority…

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

       Abby, thats a great point. But then the question is: are they happier having tried, or would it have been better off staying an aluminum siding salesman. I have tried many things and failed at many things. In fact, any success is really a sequence of failures punctuated by the occasional success.

      I wonder if I had never tried anywhere where would I be? Maybe a computer programmer in Pittsburgh. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Pittsburgh is a great city. But I would be a different person than i am now and I like where I am now.

    • http://jlcollinsnh.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/why-you-need-f-you-money/ Jlcollinsnh

      Hi Abby….

      just hit the “like” button on your comment.  This is something I’ve pondered at some length.  

      perhaps my favorite quote and as close to a motto as I personally have is this:

      “If you reach for a star you might not get one.  But you won’t come up with a handful of dirt either.”  — Leo Burnett

      Looking back over my 60+ years I’m content to have reached.  I never got one, but overall the end results have been pretty damn good and the journey’s been more fun.

  • http://hivlongevity.com/ Vaughn Ripley

    What a great blog post. I miss Rodney Dangerfield. He was absolutely one of my all time favorite comedians. I agree with you about his movies all being so funny and good. He was a master of making people laugh. It is so unfortunate that folks who can make many millions happy are actually unhappy or depressed. I think it’s pretty frequently found among comedians (obviously John Belushi comes to mind). Regardless he was awesome, and this was an entertaining tribute. Thanks!

  • Joe Singer

    You should also watch ” take the money and run”

    I love Rodney….great post james

    • Joe Singer

      I meant “EASY MONEY”   not “take the money and run”.  Althought that is a great moview as well but with woody allen and not rodney.

  • LB

    “Hey Wang, what’s with the pictures? It’s a parking lot!”
    “Oh look at this hat…great hat. I bet you buy a hat like this and you get a free bowl of soup. Oh, looks great on YOU though”

    So many great lines from Dangerfield, Murray and Chase in the movie. Thanks for triggering my memory and enjoy the movie James!

    “Young cinderella, tears in his eyes I guess as he lines up this final shot…..” :)

  • http://lascenester.com/ jojo

    Each do is new day ahead. Clean Slate. Just like something can be a hit… billionaires can also lose everything.  “There is no future. There is no past.  I live this moment as my last… ” (Rent) 

    But what’s interesting is from the dark comes the light too… without the dark shit comedians wouldn’t exist.  Most all of the funniest ones come from a dark dark place and view. 
    “I don’t tell jokes to make people laugh. I tell them to not let me cry”. 

  • Jo M.

    Great post. Also: Phyllis Diller got into comedy when she was middle aged.