Happy Birthday, Rodney Dangerfield: He Was Comedy's Hardest Worker, and Here's the Sweat to Prove It
Let's start with the gross part: Yes, Joan Dangerfield, widow of comedy legend Rodney Dangerfield, keeps a bottle of her husband's sweat in her refrigerator. She showed it off to The Hollywood Reporter during a recent visit to her home above the Sunset Strip, where she's lived since Rodney died in 2004 at age 82. The context for our visit: On Nov. 22, what would have been his 92nd birthday, Joan will unveil Rodney.com, a website dedicated to the famously disrespected stand-up, where you can relive classic talk show appearances, peruse handwritten routines and peek at photos of him palling around with the likes of Adam Sandler and Bill Gates.
The project is a years-in-the-making labor of love for the woman who owns all of Rodney's intellectual property and has fiercely guarded the late comic's legacy. A whip-smart, headstrong Jessica Rabbit to Rodney's manic, lovable Roger, the voluptuous Joan, now 60, was a huge fan of the comedian as she grew up in a strict Mormon household in Utah. The two met randomly when Rodney wandered one day into her Santa Monica flower shop back in the early 1980s. She says he wasn't great for business -- telling one newlywed couple, "You both could do better" -- but the couple were inseparable from that moment on, eventually marrying in 1993.
But back to the sweat. Here's how Joan explains it: "I discovered that Elvis had a handkerchief that was apparently stained with his sweat and it went for a lot of money. So Rodney had a 'eureka' moment. He said, 'I sweat more than anybody! My sweat has to be as good as Elvis' sweat, right?' " Joan went right to work, ordering hundreds of perfume-sample bottles and setting about farming her husband's perspiration. "My job became the 'sweat collector,' " she explains. "I'd take a sponge and spoon and collect his sweat -- about an inch at a time. I thought we could water it down but he said, 'No, that wouldn't be right.' " Ultimately, the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, where Rodney performed a lot in his later years, put the brakes on the operation: "They said, no, we couldn't offer that sweat. They said there was an insurance issue. Rodney was crestfallen." Joan still keeps the cloudy fluid in a Tupperware container, which she'll transfer to a crystal decanter for special occasions. "It means a lot to me," she says. "I do know how hard he worked to make people laugh."
There's a decent case to be made for Dangerfield as the James Brown of comedy. Born Jacob Rodney Cohen in 1921 to Hungarian Jews from Long Island, he grew up largely without his father, a vaudeville performer who abandoned the family when Rodney was very young. In his teens, Rodney wrote jokes for other comedians, then spent the better part of his 20s trying to strike out on his own. At 29, he could barely support his family working the Borscht Belt, so he quit show business and took a job selling aluminum siding. But comedy was all he ever cared about -- Joan still has copies of those aluminum contracts, which are covered in his handwritten jokes -- and Rodney was soon back in the game, this time with a memorable new stage name. His breakthrough was still years away, though, with a standout performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967. Rodney was 46.
Rodney's image at that point was well in place as the put-upon everyman -- but he hadn't yet found the catchphrase that would make him a superstar. "Originally the phrase he used was, 'Nothing goes right,' " says Joan. "But he didn't think it was the best." Inspiration struck while eavesdropping on the mobster-types who hung around comedy clubs. "He overheard them saying, 'Hey, respect her, she's with me.' That kind of language. And he thought, 'That's it!' " Years later, Jack Benny, Dangerfield's hero, called to offer his admiration: "He said, 'You have the best image of all time. Because everybody feels that at one point on another they're not getting respect.' "
Spend an hour or two with Joan and the stories fly: Rodney was a math genius, able to solve complicated equations in his head. He was a huge pothead -- it calmed him down -- and was one of the first people to carry a legal marijuana prescription. He once explored cloning himself, a possibility Joan still hasn't entirely ruled out. (Did we fail to mention that she also holds on to a vial of his blood for that express purpose? "I'd be the clone's 'motherf---er,' " she laughs, quoting one of her husband's one-liners.) Rodney was also very proud of having written what he claimed was the world's first Viagra joke, which went like this: "I just started a new diet: Viagra and prune juice. I don't know if I'm coming or going." And he was quick to recognize the potential of the Internet, launching his first website way back in March 1995.
Two decades later, Dangerfield is ready to hit the web once more. Joan says her goal with the site, designed by Madison-based Shine United, was to create the "one place where you could find everything about Rodney you ever wanted to know or see." Then she pauses for a moment, overcome by the memories. Blood, sweat and tears: The least you could give the guy in return is a little respect in the form of pageviews.