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.
“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 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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