Imagine having no talent. Imagine being no good at all at something and doing it anyway.

Imagine having no talent. Imagine being no good at all at something and doing it anyway. Then, after nine years, failing at it and giving it up in disgust and moving to Englewood, N.J., and selling aluminum siding. And then, years later, trying the thing again, though it wrecks your marriage, and failing again. And eventually making a meticulous study of the thing and figuring out that, by eliminating every extraneous element, you could isolate what makes it work and just do that. And then, after becoming better at it than anyone who had ever done it, realizing that maybe you didn’t need the talent. That maybe its absence was a gift.

These were the stations on the via dolorosa of Jacob Cohen, a.k.a. Rodney Dangerfield, whose comedy I hold above all others’. At his peak — look on YouTube for any set he did between 1976 and 1990 — he was the funniest entertainer ever. That peak was long in coming; by the time he perfected his act, he was nearly 60. But everything about Dangerfield was weird. While other comedians of that era made their names in television and film, Dangerfield made his with stand-up. It was a stand-up as dated as he was: He stood on stage stock-still in a rumpled black suit and shiny red tie and told a succession of diamond-hard one-liners.

The one-liners were impeccable, unimprovable. Dangerfield spent years on them; he once told an interviewer that it took him three months to work up six minutes of material for a talk-show appearance. If there’s art about life and art about art, Dangerfield’s comedy was the latter — he was the supreme formalist. Lacking inborn ability, he studied the moving parts of a joke with an engineer’s rigor. And so Dangerfield, who told audiences that as a child he was so ugly that his mother fed him with a slingshot, became the leading semiotician of postwar American comedy. How someone can watch him with anything short of wonder is beyond me.

~ Alex Halberstadt, from “Letter of Recommendation: Rodney Dangerfield” (The New York Times, January 26 2018)

Comments

  1. A very funny man!

    Like

  2. Arguably it takes enormous talent to plow through perceptions of having no talent and truly honing that challenging carbon nugget into something that is brilliant. Brilliant.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I admire someone that wants it so badly that he perseveres in the face of all odds. You have got to respect that grit. Makes ya wonder what drove him….

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Yes, makes me want to read his biography.

    Like

  5. He gets no respect….

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Shall go and ‘detect’ him right away – laughed at his ‘not giving up’ but was not happy about his marriage breaking up over his obsessing…. I did it the other way round with Hero Husband. I told him on several occasions: GO FOR IT; if you fail you have lost your money and maybe a few illusions but at least you have nothing to regret. Which is probably, what this man did too – only with the difference that I’m still married to the guy 🙂 (and yes, being broke happened too, the failing too, and yet – we live and lived!)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The link in the NYT doesn’t work – it says on my screen: Sorry, page seems lost….
    Possibly not accessible to me in Europe – could you send it privately to my email address pls? I’m ALWAYS interested in everything you post (except maybe the Coke publicity 🙂 —-)

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thank you Dave – works a treat now!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Perseverance seems to be key for all kinds of success.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I had to give up – this man, albeit doubtless very funny, speaks wahayyyy too fast for me… But great article in the NYTimes. Ta!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. when i came across rd, i could never help laughing out loud – he was fast and powerful with his words !

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Not always my genre of funny but kudos to him for never giving up.
    Ironically, I read a most interesting post by Otto von Münchow regarding talent that you may also find interesting!
    https://munchow.wordpress.com/2018/01/22/talent-doesnt-matter/

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Lol, but which came first, the sling shot or the ugly?

    Liked by 1 person

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