October 12, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     In the middle of a pretty humorless presidential 
campaign, we had to lose Rodney Dangerfield. Dang.

     I first saw him on the old ED SULLIVAN SHOW in the 
late 1960s. His style of comedy was already 
old-fashioned: nonstop one-liners, many about his wife 
and kids, hard-luck stories and insults. He added a great 
new twist to the old formula, though: He was the butt of 
his own insults.

     In those days, Don Rickles had just made a hit by 
taking the insult to new heights; but he softened his act 
with occasional smiles to show it was all a joke, folks. 
Dangerfield never flashed an ingratiating smile; he was 
insulting himself, and there would be no apologies -- 
just implacable self-depreciation.

     Humor is an elusive thing. The best joke will fall 
flat with some people, and the dumbest joke may bring 
down the house. It's hard to rate comedians. All you can 
say is that every time Dangerfield appeared on 
television, you could feel an earthquake of laughter. 
Soon his signature line -- "I tell you, I don't get no 
respect" -- was a catchphrase, coast-to-coast. It now 
looks to be an immortal joke.

     But he wasn't just telling jokes; he was playing a 
character, a sore loser who felt, as we all do at times, 
that he wasn't getting his due -- while showing us =why= 
he was a loser. He wasn't a beautiful loser, either: "My 
psychiatrist told me I'm going crazy. I said, 'If you 
don't mind, I'd like a second opinion.' He says, 'All 
right -- you're ugly too!'"

     That was Dangerfield's world, a world where your 
shrink steps out of his therapeutic role to destroy 
whatever is left of your fragile ego, where every social 
encounter ended in crushing discouragement. It had 
started early: "When I was born, I was so ugly the doctor 
slapped my mother." He made being ugly -- bulky and 
frog-eyed -- part of the act, turning the mud of 
humiliation into pay dirt. He made the imaginary Rodney 
Dangerfield (real name: Jacob Cohen) into a character 
almost as beloved as Charlie Chaplin's nameless Little 

     The real Dangerfield must have had resources, 
though. Despite early failures, he persisted in the very 
tough business of standup comedy, where a stony audience 
can quickly teach you the meaning of "flop sweat." I once 
quoted a hilarious line to a large crowd, and the ensuing 
silence has been matched, in my experience, only at 
well-attended funerals, with the difference that the 
corpse being stared at doesn't usually turn beet-red.

     It takes a special kind of courage, as well as 
talent, to make a living telling jokes. Dangerfield's 
secret was that he appealed to our sympathy. He exposed 
his dread of failure right in front of us. He'd already 
failed in life, and he made the most of it. But he didn't 
ask for our pity: he was indignant! And that was the best 
part of the joke: When a lesser loser might have resorted 
to self-improvement courses or cosmetic surgery, he 
wasn't about to change. He was determined to keep on 
losing, so he could keep on griping.

     Psychoanalysts tell us that humor is a form of 
aggression. My own view is that psychoanalysis is a form 
of aggression for humorless people. The funniest writer 
of the twentieth century, or any other century I can 
think of, was probably P.G. Wodehouse, whose humor was 
remarkably gentle and chaste. He could even make a 
hilarious compliment: "My dear, you look like Helen of 
Troy after a good facial!"

     Of course it's easy to praise humor, since nobody is 
overtly anti-humorous. The problem is that some people 
are humorless, and there's no arguing with them. Refusing 
to laugh is like refusing to extend sympathy: It can't be 
forced. You can't =prove= something is funny. 
Humorlessness is irrefutable. But so is humor. And if you 
can't laugh at yourself, you're missing half the fun of 

     I love a good laugh, but sometimes I find myself the 
humorless one. DON QUIXOTE has, for four centuries, made 
countless readers laugh helplessly, and is widely hailed 
as the funniest novel ever written. But every time I try 
to read it, I find myself wondering, "When do I get to 
the funny part?"

     That doesn't mean Cervantes isn't funny. It probably 
means I'm like a tone-deaf man listening to Handel. I'm 
up against the laughter of millions.

     But never let it be said that I failed to laugh at 
Rodney Dangerfield. I've been doing it for nearly 40 
years, with a brief sad pause last week.


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