This Day in Jewish History

1921: Comedian Who Didn't 'Get No Respect' Is Born

Funny man Rodney Dangerfield kicked off his one-liners about his life as a loser with those famous words.

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November 22, 1921, is the birthdate of comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who found success playing a persona who didn’t “get no respect” from anyone – not his parents (“I remember the last time I was kidnapped, and they sent a piece of my finger to my father. He said he wanted more proof”), not his wife (“My wife met me at the door the other night with a sexy negligee. Unfortunately, she was just coming home”), not his children (“For Christmas I gave my kid a BB gun. He gave me a sweater with a bullseye on the back”) and not even his psychiatrist (“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I want a second opinion. He said, okay, you're ugly too").

Jacob Rodney Cohen was born in the town of Babylon, on Long Island, New York. His parents were Philip Cohen, a vaudeville entertainer who went by the name of Phil Roy, and Dotty Teitelbaum, both of Hungarian Jewish background. Most of the time his father was somewhere else (in his 2004 memoir, his son calculated that they spent an average of two hours a year together) and his mother, he wrote in the memoir, “was coldhearted and selfish,” someone who never gave her son “a kiss, a hug or a compliment.”

Rodney Cohen started selling jokes to comics at the age of 15, and began performing himself, under the name of Jack Roy, when he was in his 20s. After nine unsuccessful years, he gave up comedy and started selling aluminum siding, later noting that he had been so poorly known at the time he quit show-biz that “I was the only who knew I quit!”

It was only when he was in his 40s, having renamed himself Rodney Dangerfield (he adopted the name from a character who appeared on Jack Benny’s radio show), that his career began to take off. His big break came when he was called in as a last-minute replacement for an act on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night TV variety show, in 1967.  He was invited back often to Sullivan, and also began appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and as a headliner in Las Vegas.

In 1969, he opened up Dangerfield’s, a comedy club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which gave him a regular venue for his work, and where such acts as Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr, Jim Carrey and Rita Rudner performed early in their careers.

He told The New York Times that he thought of his trademark line after seeing the 1972 film “The Godfather.” "All I heard was the word 'respect,' " he recalled." 'You've got to give me respect,' or 'Respect him.' I thought to myself: It sounds like a funny image -- a guy who gets no respect. Maybe I'll write a joke, and I'll try it."  

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The phenomenon image of an exasperated Dangerfield, his eyes bulging, his hand constantly adjusting a poorly fitting red necktie, beginning a recitation of one-liners about his life as a loser with the words, “I tell you, I get no respect – no respect at all,” was in itself enough to make fans howl with delight. That would be followed by observations like, “My wife and I were happy for 20 years. Then we met,” or “Steak and sex, my favorite pair. I have 'em both the same way - very rare,” in endless variations on the same theme. Often, the delivery was far funnier than what was being said.

Beginning in the 1980s, Dangerfield began performing regularly in films, including “Caddyshack,” with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, “Easy Money” and “Back to School.” He even played a non-comic role, a sexually abusive father, in Oliver Stone’s 1994 “Natural Born Killers.”   

Dangerfield was married twice, and had two children. In August 2004, he entered a Los Angeles hospital for heart-valve-replacement surgery. When asked how long he expected to be hospitalized, he told a reporter, “If all goes well, about a week. If not, about an hour and a half.”

In fact, he went into a coma after the surgery, and although he emerged for a period from that, Dangerfield died at UCLA Medical Center on October 5, 2004.

His gravestone reads, simply, “Rodney Dangerfield There Goes the Neighborhood.”

Twitter: @davidbeegreen