Great Moments in Comedy: Rodney Dangerfield's No Respect (1980)
I don’t remember when exactly I first heard Rodney Dangerfield’s 1980 masterpiece No Respect but it must have been as an adult. Though I don’t remember when I first heard Dangerfield’s magnum opus, I remember vividly being blown away by it and surprised as well. That might seem a little strange, since No Respect features Rodney doing his patented Rodney shtick, telling his patented Rodney jokes for an audience understandably overjoyed to be witness to the comic legend in his ferocious late fifties-prime.
Yes, late-fifties prime. Dangerfield was fifty-eight years old when he recorded “No Respect” and “The Son of No Respect”, the two sides of No Respect, which hit record shelves the same year as his star-making cinematic turn in Caddyshack yet he performed with the energy, speed and hunger of a much younger performer. The ultimate late-bloomer, Dangerfield didn’t truly break through professionally until an age when most folks are contemplating retirement.
But if No Respect finds Rodney doing Rodney, it features a Rodney I’d never quite heard before, a Rodney that was lightning-fast, a Rodney who is as adept at ad-libbing and crowd work as he is delivering The Set. It’s a Rodney far removed from the sanitized, family-friendly Rodney found in movies of my childhood like Ladybugs and Rover Dangerfield.
It’s a testament to how deeply embedded PG Rodney is in my brain that I was genuinely startled to hear Dangerfield talk about the stress and pressure of doing a show without being high on pot or cocaine even though I not only know that Dangerfield was a big stoner and drinker; I read and wrote about his memoir, where he writes extensively about his love of marijuana. In fact, he wanted to call his memoir My Lifelong Romance with Marijuana.
Yet I was nevertheless startled to hear Dangerfield talking about pot and coke in jokes but also with the unmistakable familiarity of someone for whom they are beloved, lifelong, essential companions.
Similarly, despite being raised on a steady diet of Rodney Dangerfield’s self-deprecating sex jokes, it’s bracing to hear Rodney deliver a line like, “The only reason I get girls at all is who because of who I am—a rapist!” both because of the line’s transgressive naughtiness and the slam-bang rhythm with which it’s delivered.
On No Respect, Dangerfield delivers one-liners about being the ultimate loser with the cockiness and breezy self-assurance of a consummate winner. The rhythm is so musical in its ebbs and flows, in its percussive force, that it almost doesn’t matter what Rodney is saying. As with fellow comedy legends/Jews Don Rickles and Jackie Mason, the way he says it makes it inherently funny.
That’s the appeal of No Respect: one of the all-time greats in his ferocious prime, before super-stardom and too many bad movies and lazy projects made him soft and a little lazy. In No Respect, he's Nas at Illmatic.
Rodney was never really young: he rose to super-stardom deep in middle age, but on No Respect he’s undeniably hungry. He doesn’t just want to entertain the crowd, he wants to destroy it, and he has the material and the timing and the volcanic presence to do so.
Dangerfield is so much faster than the tourists and yokels in the audience that he makes a running joke of his impatience at joke after joke flying above the audience’s head. Then again, Rodney doesn’t give the audience much time to even process a killer one-liner before he moves onto the next gag.
When a joke doesn’t get an immediate response, the comic inevitably attributes it to the audience’s denseness rather than the joke’s weakness or strength. That's a form of self-deprecation, of course, but part of No Respect’s prickly genius lies in Dangerfield’s willingness, even eagerness, to go after the crowd.
At one point, Dangerfield adopts a shrill, high-pitched faux-giggle before stating with mock/real aggression, "I’m not waiting for you, okay!” Rodney probably used lines like, “When you go to the movies do you talk back to the screen?” in response to hecklers hundreds of times but the line, sharpened to a knife’s edge through lovingly apoplectic repetition, destroys anyway.
The Rodney character, the Rodney persona, is a sad sack forever beset by the irritations and aggravations of a world that makes success impossible and failure inevitable. Why should his time onstage be any different?
Time and fame would smooth away Dangerfield’s sharp edges, but No Respect captures him at his sharpest. On No Respect, Rodney’s hip, Rodney’s edgy. Rodney’s even jazzy. Words spill sideways out of his mouth in a torrent of gags and jokes and shtick. The album, released by disco powerhouse Casablanca, hit shelves at a time when Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin and Albert Brooks were using the medium of stand-up to deconstruct not just comedy but also show-business as a whole and particularly the enormous, oblivious egos at the heart of it.
Sure enough, No Respect begins with Rodney ironically inhabiting the persona of an old-school vaudevillian “entertainer” by crooning “Once in a Lifetime”, a “My Way”-style personal anthem written by Anthony Newley and Lesley Bricusse that was recorded by, among others, Bobby Darin. The song is pure show-business schmaltz, musical melodrama that Dangerfield undercuts by almost immediately shutting down the song and kvetching, “I can’t sing. What the hell am I singing for? I’ll be doing card tricks next, weather reports, whatever you want!”
Dangerfield is establishing himself upfront as a powerful, albeit powerfully ambivalent vehicle for the crowd’s pleasure. The Caddyshack cut-up/The Onion Movie funnyman would recycle many of the jokes in No Respect in myriad forms over the decades, in specials and talk-show appearances and live gigs and movies. Hell, I recognized at least three or four jokes from No Respect in Back by Midnight, the unbearably, unspeakably sad/bad late-period direct-to-video vehicle I just wrote about for Control Nathan Rabin. I recognized a whole bunch more in My 5 Wives, another Control Nathan Rabin winner/loser.
Context means everything: in Back by Midnight and his TV appearances, Dangerfield slowed things down so that middle America had plenty of time to get every punchline, every quip, every one-liner. In No Respect, he speeds through his material at a breakneck clip that barely gives audience time to even process his jokes before he’s onto the next one.
In his films, Rodney was blessed and cursed to forever play variations on his well-worn persona but here he slips in and out of different voices and personalities, nimbly imagining, for example, an alternate life where he wouldn’t be a Jewish shtick-slinger but rather a straight-down-the-middle Midwesterner with siblings named Marianne and Biff before realizing that people like that are the real sickos, the kind of folks who snap and kill their whole families, leaving their neighbors to reflect, “He was a quiet man, a very quiet man.”
In the deepest and darkest, as well as funniest part of No Respect Dangerfield reflects on “the heaviness” that has always followed him, a sort of free-floating, inescapable despair that fills him with thoughts like, “You’ll be drinking early today.” The bit feels so personal and so unrelentingly honest that it almost doesn’t qualify as comedy.
That’s part of what sets No Respect apart: the comedy would never be sharper or hipper or faster but the genuine, real deep pain would similarly seldom be so close to the surface. Rodney is fucking hilarious in No Respect even when the material is hackneyed but it also feels like he’s exposing himself on an emotional level that only adds to the humor.
Even as a kid, I could see that Rodney was sad as much as Rodney was funny, and that seemed somehow just as important, like there couldn’t be any humor without some measure of sadness and no great, historic, world-class hilarity like No Respect without Rodney’s life also being in many ways a flat-out tragedy.
Support Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place and get neat bonuses like patron-exclusive content over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace