Rodney Dangerfield And How He Pretty Much Invented Stand-Up Comedy As We Know It

By Karen Harris

Comedian and film star Rodney Dangerfield poses during a 1987 Beverly Hills, California, photo portrait session to promote his return to Las Vegas. (George Rose/Getty Images)

Rodney Dangerfield is known today as a revolutionary stand-up comedian, but that's not how he started out. His career began all the way back in the '30s, when vaudeville was the medium of choice for comics of all levels, but after vaudeville died out, he found himself washed up in only his twenties. Still, the stage called, so Dangerfield simply invented stand-up comedian.

Rodney Dangerfield: Vaudevillian

Rodney Dangerfield was born Jacob Cohen in 1921 to vaudeville performer Philip Cohen, who juggled and told jokes under the stage name Phil Roy, and his wife, Dorothy. Not long after little Jacob was born, Phil abandoned his family, but his son inherited the thirst for the stage, writing jokes for vaudeville comedians at only 15 years old. By 20, he was telling the jokes himself as Jack Roy. These early routines were a lot more dynamic than the Rodney Dangerfield performances we know and love, even including a high dive act.

Just as soon as Jacob Cohen got his first taste of success, however, audiences began shunning vaudeville in favor of movies and radio. To make ends meet, he worked as a singing waiter, but eventually, he gave up on the struggle and started selling aluminum siding full time. During his 15 years out of the spotlight, he married and started a family, but in his late thirties, he began performing again on the weekends at hotels and resorts in the Catskill Mountains, a popular destination for well-heeled Jewish families in the '50s. His act initially garnered tepid responses at best, so taking inspiration from popular television personality Jack Benny, Cohen created a down-on-his-luck everyman character who was often overlooked and dismissed.

Press photo of Rodney Dangerfield on stage performing in 1972. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

A Self-Deprecating Pioneer

By the early '60s, stand-up comedy wasn't exactly a novelty, but most popular performers were more social satirists than comedians. Rodney Dangerfield, as he had become known, wasn't interested in that. Instead, he stuck to the traditional vaudeville method of joke telling, but most importantly, he directed his jokes at himself rather than society. His famous catchphrase, "I get no respect," effectively summarized his onstage persona, and audiences loved it. Rodney Dangerfield was not just funny—he was relatable.

Dangerfield's popularity as a stand-up comedian grew throughout the '60s, resulting in an invitation to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967. To say the least, he killed it, and more invitations followed, from The Dean Martin Show to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. For the next decade, Dangerfield was regularly broadcast right into America's living rooms. In 1969, at the height of his popularity, he opened a comedy club in New York City.

Rodney Dangerfield's tombstone at Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. (Alan Light/Wikimedia Commons)

From Stage To Screen

By the 1980s, Hollywood had come a-callin', leading to roles in comedies like Back To School, Caddyshack, and Easy Money as well as several comedy albums. He even had a hit single, "Rappin' Rodney," complete with a music video in heavy rotation on MTV. As much as he enjoyed television and movies, however, he preferred to perform in front of a live audience, where he could feed off the energy of the room. His nightclub, Dangerfield's, launched the careers of the next generation of comedians, including Tim Allen, Andrew Dice Clay, Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, and Chris Rock.

Unfortunately, by 2001, Dangerfield's hard living caught up with him. He had a heart attack in the middle of a performance on The Tonight Show, but he didn't let it slow him down, smoking marijuana in his hospital room and returning to the show exactly one year later. In 2004, as he headed into surgery to prepare for a heart valve replacement, he quipped that he'd be in the hospital, "If all goes well, about a week. If not, about an hour and a half." Tragically, he passed away a few weeks after the surgery, but his legacy lives on in every comedian who gives themselves no respect.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.