Originally created 10/07/04

Final respects

At last, a little respect.

Few people achieve the almost iconic recognizability of bug-eyed, necktie-tugging comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who died Tuesday at age 82 from heart surgery complications.

What will live on is Mr. Dangerfield's comic legacy. It seems so trite to describe him with the overused phrase "comic everyman," but his shtick as an anxious, self-deprecating average guy resonated strongly with so many people who love to laugh.

His catch phrase, "I don't get no respect," was the launching point of a seemingly endless stream of jabs at himself:

"On Halloween, the parents send their kids out looking like me. ... Now it's different. When I answer the door, the kids hand me candy."

"My wife made me join a bridge club. I jump off next Tuesday."

"A girl phoned me and said, 'Come on over, there's nobody home.' I went over. There was nobody home."

Corny? Sure. But it evokes a theory on humor that dates to the time of Plato, who theorized that exposure to someone else's shortcomings elevates our self-esteem, producing laughter.

That's pretty heavy stuff about a kid from Babylon, N.Y., born Jacob Cohen in 1921. After years of toil in and out of show business, his career finally took off after a 1967 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. On The Tonight Show, he appeared a record 98 times.

But his larger impact on comedy was best seen in the HBO Young Comedians Specials that Mr. Dangerfield would sponsor. His cable TV shows were national launching pads for stand-ups who became titans of American comedy: Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Tim Allen, Jeff Foxworthy.

Like every great comedian, Mr. Dangerfield had a parting shot, delivered in August when he entered the hospital for heart valve replacement: "If things go right, I'll be there about a week, and if things don't go right, I'll be there about an hour and a half."

In all, he was here 82 years, and he will be missed.


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