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Scoffing at Dangerfield: It's what he would have wanted

Gene Weingarten on

This column originally ran in 2004.

WASHINGTON -- I have long kept in my sock drawer a mini-cassette recording of 20 of the weirdest minutes of my life. It was a phone conversation with Rodney Dangerfield. I promised myself I'd write about it after Rodney died, as a way of, you know, not paying my respects.

The Washington Post's Style Invitational had created a contest to come up with Dangerfieldian "no respect" jokes, and I thought it would be nifty if Rodney himself picked the five winners. Graciously, he agreed.

So there we were on the phone, me and a man who was doing a spot-on impersonation of Rodney Dangerfield. It was cracking me up: I could see him on the other end of the line, googly-eyed, mugging and sweating like a mug of beer, tugging at his tie to loosen a collar too tight to contain the exquisite humiliation of being Rodney. I thought it was generous of him to stay in character so long for my benefit; we were halfway through the conversation before I realized it was no act.

I explained to Rodney that, for his convenience, I had winnowed the results to 20 finalists. He said he'd be happy to choose the winners on one condition: that I mail him all 1,200 entries after we were done. I asked why. Rodney let the question go unanswered, marinating in its own stupidity. To steal material, of course.

So I said, sure. Then I began reading the finalists to him. I wanted to start strong, to impress him with the immense talent and creativity of Washington Post readers:

"I don't get no respect. The surgeon general told me to go ahead and smoke."

"That's mine," he said.

Rats.

Then he performed the original: "I don't get no respect. The surgeon general gave me a cigarette!" Yeah, better.

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