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

By | May 12, 2021

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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.

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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.