Exploiting our Archives: This Looks Terrible! Where's Rodney? (1990)
As we’ve exhaustively documented here, Rodney Dangerfield’s career has gone through a series of distinct phases, not unlike Picasso’s. The pre-fame stage of Dangerfield’s career lasted longer than just about anyone else’s. Dangerfield had fifty-eight years of hard living behind him when he finally broke through with the one-two punch of 1980’s Caddyshack and his Grammy-winning album masterpiece No Respect.
Then came Rodney’s late in life golden age, a period that begins with Caddyshack/No Respect and lasts all the way through 1986’s Back to School, his last big critical and commercial success. Heck, it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s also his final critical or commercial success, with the exception of his appearance on The Simpsons or his stunt casting in Natural Born Killers, which I haven't revisited in ages but intend to revisit for The Simpsons Decade when the time comes. Or success in any conceivable way. Things got pretty grim towards the end.
The third stage of Rodney’s career lie in that strange twilight period when the boozed-up pot-head with the shady criminal past and rocky personal and professional relationships became a hero and favorite of small children the world over. I should know. I was an eight year old boy who worshipped Rodney Dangerfield and saw a lot of myself in him.
There’s a distinct logic to the “Rodney, but for kids!” phase of the self-deprecating cut-up’s career. He was enormously popular among children. Why not make movies and television shows specifically for them? This is the thinking that led to Control Nathan Rabin “winner” Rover Dangerfield (which looms tantalizingly in my near future) and Ladybugs.
It also led to the ill-fated 1992 pilot Where’s Rodney, which my fellow warped nostalgia specialist Gena Radcliffe hipped me to. It has the curious distinction of at once being insultingly generic and screamingly wrong. Everything about it seems deeply misguided, beginning with its actual hero, 14-year old Rodney Dangerfield super-fan Rodney (Jared Rushton), who I will refer to here as "Young Rodney" both to make things less confusing and also because it amuses me that “Young Rodney” sounds like a Cash Money Records artist from the late 1990s, the kind of guy whose debut LP would be 23 tracks long and called Billionz In the Bankz/Still No Respect and go platinum even though no one seemed to like it.
The awful, awful premise of Where’s Rodney? is that horrible blonde mullet-sporting protagonist Young Rodney can make his hero Rodney Dangerfield magically appear to lend him guidance when he needs it most.
This in itself is idiotic. The Rodney Dangerfield brand was, if anything, too well established in 1990. It was rooted in sadness. It was rooted in failure. It was rooted in rejection. It was rooted in being the underdog, the little guy, the loser, the schmuck. It was most assuredly not rooted in being a font of wisdom, giving sound advice and helping other people succeed.
Why on earth would anyone call upon one of comedy’s biggest, most poignant losers for timely advice on how to be a winner?
Where’s Rodney doubles down on the self-defeating stupidity of positing Mr. Failure as a metaphysical answer to “Dear Abby” crossed with Dean Stockwell's Al from Quantum Leap by making the boy Rodney is helping obnoxiously successful.
So who is this Young Rodney? A nerd? A geek? An outsider? A Jewish, or at least clearly ethnic pint-sized doppelgänger for Dangerfield? Nope, he’s a super-popular blonde asshole whose problems all seem to involve too many people competing for his time, attention and companionship. Buddy Sonya (a post-Punky Brewster Soliel Moon Frye, wasted in a perversely thankless supporting role) clearly has an enormous crush on Young Rodney, but he’s such a belligerent asshole that when he opens her generous birthday present at his well-attended 14th birthday party and it’s a baseball glove, he loudly grouses, “I thought you were going to bake me something!” like a real entitled piece of shit. Fuck you, Young Rodney. I never had any birthday parties when I was growing up. Or presents. Or friends. Or dates. Or girlfriends. Or two loving, involved and married parents. Or Rodney Dangerfield as my spiritual mentor and wisecracking guardian angel. Young Rodney has all of those things.
I spent the duration of Where’s Rodney oozing jealousy for how appallingly successful and well-adjusted Young Rodney is. I’m guessing that wasn’t the show’s intention. When I first heard Where’s Rodney?’s premise I naturally assumed it was about a struggling boy without much in the way of parental supervision who seizes upon Dangerfield as a surrogate parental figure out of sadness and desperation.
Nope. That’s not Where’s Rodney? at all. Young Rodney has a doting mom who works multiple jobs to pay the bills and a salt of the earth plumber dad played by radio personality and TV fixture Jay Thomas and plenty of friends to go with his intact nuclear family, including one played by a Bolo tie-sporting young Breckin Meyer.
Yes, Young Rodney sure seems to command the respect of his adoring friends and loving parents. He doesn’t even seem to have much of a problem hitting on a popular cheerleader but when he has difficulty closing the deal and getting a date to his 14th birthday party, he beckons Rodney to help him with his romantic travails.
I don’t know why he’d seek Dangerfield’s help when it comes to wooing the ladies. After all, the elder Rodney never had any luck with romantic relationships. Are you kidding? He dated a belly dancer. She told him he turned her STOMACH. Girls always gave him a hard time. This one girl told him, “Come over, there’s nobody home.” He came over. There was nobody home!
It’s not like Rodney’s luck with women has improved over time. As he nervously relays to Young Rodney, the woman he was having dinner with has been “picked up” so many times “she’s growing handles.”
Here’s the metaphysical reality of Where’s Rodney? as I understand it. The Rodney in it is our Rodney, a veteran comedian and actor who has starred in movies such as Easy Money, Back to School and Caddyshack, the posters of which line Young Rodney’s wall and serve as a silent but stinging reminder of how far the mighty have fallen. Yet Rodney also has a special psychic connection to Young Rodney that allows him to summon him during times of importance, but only for a limited amount of time and for a specific purpose.
In Where’s Rodney?, Young Rodney summons Old Rodney thrice. The first time he does so, Rodney is having dinner with a bleached-blonde gold-digger that Dangerfield is clearly trying to fuck. He’s certainly not in the restaurant for the fine dining. By his own admission, the last time he ate there the food was so tough he couldn’t get his knife through the GRAVY. The service is no prize either: when Rodney asks what comes with two big steaks, the waiter sourly replies, “A big check.”
This leads to one of the many terminal problems plaguing Where’s Rodney? Making Rodney Dangerfield’s shtick the centerpiece of a movie like Ladybugs or TV show about high school freshman aged boys and girls entails ensuring that Rodney is constantly doing sex jokes around 13 and 14 year old characters.
Also, Young Rodney is a repellent character. When Old Rodney tells him that compliments are a way to a shallow girl’s heart, he tells his crush, “I love your skin. I love the way it covers your bone structure.” Those are lines that are generally followed by “I want to wear it as part of a skin-suit like in Silence of the Lambs.”
In another moment of bizarre miscalculation that makes our hero seem like a sociopath, he observes, in his interior monologue of his struggling, loving, working-class mom, "It would make her so happy if she knew I met a girl and had a date, IF I shared that with her." It would bring this poor woman joy to know that her successful, well-adjusted son was killing it on the romance front, and that's why he chooses not to tell her. Because he wants to deprive her of joy.
Rodney Dangerfield’s romanic counsel pays off and he gets the date with the girl of his dreams but oh no, he’s supposed to hang out with his grandparents at the same time! It’s the old “conflicting obligations” sitcom plot as you’ve seen it countless times before, but seldom done this badly.
The grandparents thread seems like an excuse for Rodney to do some of his aging material, something that Young Rodney would undoubtedly be familiar with, being a Rodney super-fan and all. Rodney’s character is getting old, are you kidding? (No. You’re not. We’ve already established that, in multiple articles) He’s so old his insurance company sends him HALF a calendar, apparently reasoning that they’ll save money on printing the other six months, due to the likelihood that he won’t live long enough to need them. He also walked past a cemetery and had two men follow him with shovels. He’s so old and ill that he’s got a kidney shaped pool with a stone in it.
I’m not sure whether that stone is there specifically to remind Dangerfield of the kidney stones that are an unfortunate part of aging, but the symbolism is pretty overt.
Where’s Rodney?'s idea of humbling its protagonist involves having him successfully ask the most popular cheerleader out, then going on a successful double date with her and his grandparents after a well-attended birthday party, only to see his would-be girlfriend walk arm-in-arm down the hallway with someone else. Maybe that dude has George Burns counseling him. That would make for a funny movie or TV show, I reckon.
In one of the only times when obnoxious Young Rodney even attempts to be like lovable Old Rodney, he limply insists, “I tell ya. It’s not easy being me.” Wrong, motherfucker! It’s way too easy to be you. It's so easy, in fact, that not even occasional visits from a comedy God like Rodney Dangerfield circa 1990 could make anyone even remotely interested in checking in on any further adventures involving you, your many, many friends, stable, intact and non-dysfunctional nuclear family and, to a much lesser extent, the popular comedian and actor Rodney Dangerfield.
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