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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.

It was OK. I had lots more: "I joined the Optimists Club. Within a week all the others had committed suicide."

"That's not funny to me."

Next entry: "When I went trick-or-treating, neighbors didn't bother with apples, they just handed me a razor blade."

Silence. I was dying up there.

The next one: "I asked the bartender for the strongest thing he had, and he had the bouncer kick my butt."

Yes, Rodney said. His first winner. Then he made it his, and better: "I sez to the bartender, gimme the strongest t'ing you have. His bouncer beat me up!"

Next entry: "When I go to a restaurant, the waiters make me spit in my own iced tea."

"No."

"I asked Kevorkian for help. He mailed me a noose."

"No."

Something was becoming clear. Rodney didn't like mean-spirited jokes, even good ones. Death was out. Grossness was out. What I learned next about Rodney defies easy explanation. He didn't get one joke because he'd never heard of the expression "use The Force." Then there was this exchange, on the next entry:

Me: "I told my wife, 'Let's have sex like animals.' She said, 'All right, I'll be a possum.'"

Rodney: "A possum is what again, now?"

Me: "An animal that rolls over and plays dead."

Rodney: "Everyone knows that?"

Me: "Everyone but Rodney Dangerfield."

Rodney: "OK, that's good, then."

That became his second winner.

I read him six more that didn't seem all that funny to me, but Rodney liked three of them. He turned some of them around, gave all of them his delivery, and they became terrific. They were his final three winners:

"This girl is ugly. She hands out whistles to construction workers."

And: "My wife told me she wants to make another kid. I told her, You're too old for another kid. She said, I mean the kid next door!"

And: "I don't get no respect. My wife's favorite position is back to back."

I am not making up what happened next; I have the tape to prove it. Rodney's door opened and Bob Saget walked in. Apparently, the two were friends.

Imagine that. On the other end of my line, in the very same room, were Rodney Dangerfied, one of the greatest comedians who ever lived, and Bob Saget, founding emcee of "America's Funniest Home Videos." I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that this would be like having together in the same room at the same time -- using a literary comparison -- F. Scott Fitzgerald and me.

So Rodney Dangerfield performed the five winning jokes for his audience, Bob Saget. It's a priceless two minutes.

Consider it Rodney's final performance, his encore, from beyond the grave: You can hear it now by logging on to http://wapo.st/2vts4Bq.

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Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group


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