While Judge Bill Gibron was reviewing this box set by the late, great stand-up comic, his wife kept thinking she heard someone stepping on a duck.
I'm all right now, but last week I was in rough shape.
In retrospect, it's amazing how popular Rodney Dangerfield eventually became. For a span of about 15 years, he was the reigning king of comedy. He starred in hit motion pictures (Caddyshack, Easy Money, Back to School), he had hit records and albums (his "Rappin' Rodney" single was the novelty smash of 1983), and was a fixture on both broadcast TV and the cable channel HBO. Throughout this highly productive time, Dangerfield focused attention on his outside business efforts, including nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas, as well as helping out then unknown comedians. Responsible from bringing such talents as Sam Kinison, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Jerry Seinfeld, and Roseanne Barr to the forefront of international celebrity, he was both a fixture on the scene and a mentor to others.
But by 1994, when he appeared as Juliette Lewis's perverted father in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, Dangerfield was deep in decline. More or less viewed as an out of touch, old school nightclub comic who, while very funny, had probably passed his potential and prime, his films were no longer hits (several went straight to home video, bypassing the theaters) and TV had stopped stomping to his doorstep. He was still an amazing concert and club draw, but his light from a decade before was substantially diminished. By the time of his passing last year (2004), he was an incidental icon—a man blessed with a legacy as magnificent as any you could claim, but without much meaningful relevance in the current postmillennial popular culture.
But make no mistake about it—in the pantheon of funnymen, Rodney was, and still is, without equal. In an era of observational and ironic humor, he used a single set persona (black suit; red tie; "no respect") and a plethora of well-honed jokes to rule the rib-tickling roost. He was the last of the traditional gag tellers, standing bug-eyed before an audience, mixing pathos with pain to create a truly captivating and hilarious caricature. When he was on, he was magnificent. When he was off, he was still sensational.
If you'd like to understand just how important and influential Rodney really was, check out the new box set from R2 Entertainment. Entitled Rodney Dangerfield: No Respect—The Ultimate Collection, it features almost all of Dangerfield's television work from the '80s and '90s. And while it is rather uneven in the entertainment department, it is telling in its historical—and humor—value.
Facts of the Case
Offering three discs overflowing with crazy content (each one clocks in at nearly three hours), R2 Entertainment unseals a vast selection of Dangerfield's work. Going back to his first post-Caddyshack special, and ending with a less than interesting early '90s comedy showcase, we see startlingly young future comic superstars just getting into the business, uncomfortable celebrity guest stars dealing with confusing, goofy material, and a reliance on big, incredibly bad production numbers to certify once and for all why the variety show is dead. Individually, we are treated to the following strange, surreal jokefests:
Disc One: Network TV Specials
• It's Not Easy Being Me (1981 ABC Variety Special)
• I Can't Take It No More (1983 ABC Variety Special)
• Exposed! (1984 ABC Variety Special)
Disc Two: Cable TV Specials
• It's Not Easy Being Me (1986 HBO Comedy Showcase)
• Nothin' Goes Right (1987 HBO Comedy Showcase)
• The Really Big Show (1991 HBO Comedy Showcase)
Disc Three: Bonus Extras
• Opening Night at Rodney's Place (1989)
• This is Your Life (1986)
• The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
• Rodney's Act (1988)
The fact that Rodney Dangerfield had any career outside a nightclub setting is kind of a miracle. After all, he was not a classically trained actor, or some manner of misguided performer relying on stand-up to start him off in the business of show. Indeed, Dangerfield had already made one failed attempt at celebrity in the '50s and '60s before giving up and heading into the paint / aluminum siding trade. So the mid-'70s renaissance—built on the backs of appearances on Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show, and multiple Lite Beer commercials—dragged Dangerfield into the limelight he had worked toward so desperately. Needless to say, when Al Czervik brought his lowbrow leanings to the snotty links of Bushwood, the American public was prepared, but not really all that ready, for how effective Dangerfield the actor could be. Everything changed the moment Czervik let a fart and exclaimed, "Ooo, did someone step on a duck?"
Suddenly, Rodney was a superstar, a guaranteed-to-bring-'em-in entity who could virtually do no wrong. The offerings on Rodney Dangerfield: No Respect—The Ultimate Collection prove this point perfectly. No, they are not all great representations of entertainment or Dangerfield's talent (Easy Money and Back to School still represent both sides, the coarse and the civilized sum of the comic's cinematic impact), nor does any of the 10 television treats provided truly give us a glimpse of Dangerfield in his prime. Instead, these are all artifacts, time capsules to a career and a sphere of influence that was probably more immense and important than anyone recognized at the time. Looking at each one individually, we begin to get an idea of what made this man so great, and how a great bit of his tried and true talent was squandered on stupidity, or personally used to promote others. We begin with:
• It's Not Easy Being Me (1981 ABC Variety Special) Score:
• I Can't Take It No More (1983 ABC Variety Special)
• Exposed! (1984 ABC Variety Special) Score: 55
• It's Not Easy Being Me (1986 HBO Comedy Showcase) Score:
• Nothin' Goes Right (1987 HBO Comedy Showcase) Score:
• The Really Big Show (1991 HBO Comedy Showcase) Score:
• Opening Night at Rodney's Place (1989) Score: 84
• This is Your Life (1986) Score: 80
• The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson Score: 70
• Rodney's Act (1988) Score: 88
When it stays in the stand-up comedy realm, No Respect: The Ultimate Collection is very entertaining. Certainly, there are moments that resonate beyond others, and everyone associated with that Really Big Show debacle should just hide their head in shame. But the most interesting thing is how some, if not all, of the comedians shown here have managed to maintain their fame and celebrity over the years, while others shot to superstardom only to burn out far too quickly. The fact that, decades after he made it big, Sam Kinison is still the funniest thing in the entire set speaks for how timeless and talented he really was. No matter the oft-held opinion that he was a fat, vulgar party animal who lived life to excess and then some, his comedy is still fresh, inventive, and very powerful today, 12 years after his death. Kaufman also proves that he was a jaded genius in his brief work with Dangerfield. You can see the knowing nod to the audience when he is performing, adding the well-honed irony that would come to make up the vast majority of humor after his untimely passing in 1984. For giving us the chance to see these careening, crashing comets before they both burned out and disappeared, Rodney Dangerfield: No Respect—The Ultimate Collection is a fascinating artifact.
But it's the main man himself that's the focus, and several interesting elements come to the fore after watching nearly seven hours of his work. First, Dangerfield knew his audience, and knew what they expected of him. He never let them down, never tried to change his sad-sack loser persona. Even when he made attempts to alter his image for laughs (there is a sketch during his first ABC special where he plays a suave simp named Mr. Lucky who only thinks he's winning and in control), the results always boomerang and backfire. Second, Dangerfield knew how to surround himself with complimentary performers. Not so much in the variety shows, which reek of star-of-the-moment mandates. But in almost all the stand-up showcases, the comics chosen match his mindset—bitter, a little crude, and completely in tune with the world around them. Seeing Barr or Seinfeld, Allen or Foxworthy prove their future forte in front of a crowd illustrates that Dangerfield knew how to pick them and in all but one rare occasion, picked them well.
The final facet here is that, for all the added interest, Rodney Dangerfield: No Respect—The Ultimate Collection is really about the terrific talent of one man, a skill and a sense of self that transcended the material he was usually saddled with. Vulgar, humane, dyspeptic, and insanely clever, we will probably never see his type ever again. Today, comedians have a fast track, a talk show to special to sitcom to film formula that guarantees them a decade or two in the spotlight before the "F-You" money rolls in. Dangerfield was into comedy for the long haul, looking not only to forward his own career, but those of other talented people as well. Love him or hate him, think he's the greatest or the most aggravating irritation ever, Rodney Dangerfield was an original. Rodney Dangerfield: No Respect—The Ultimate Collection shows this wonderfully—flaws and all.
Considering the sources and technology involved, the fact that these 20+ year-old artifacts look as good as they do in 1.33:1 full screen transfers speaks volumes for R2's attention to preservation and detail. All aging videography aside and cheesy post-production aspects ignored, the images here look great. The ABC shows all glow with a near-flaring feel, but we don't get a great deal of the bleeding or ghosting we've come to expect from old tape treats. The HBO material is a little crisper, simply because it was created later in the technological timeline. The worst picture here comes with the final bonus disc presentation. Muddled, out of focus, and looking like a dub of a dub, the non-anamorphic presentation of Rodney's Act, from 1988, is a barely watchable mess. Its archival value is priceless. Its visual aspects suck.
Sonically, you couldn't ask for more clarity. Don't expect any aural acrobatics, though. This is Dolby Digital Mono manipulated into a two-channel cheat that sounds sensational, but offers no real depth, ambience, or immersive aspects. If you want to hear jokes and hear them well, these DVDs will do the job. But nothing about the auditory elements screams "sensational" or "superb."
As for bonus features, there is an entire third disc of them—or, at least, that is what they are called. Suffice it to say you will not find any commentary, discographies, filmographies, or biographies anywhere on the discs. You get the four splendid supplements on the third DVD and that's it. And since they contain some of the best material in the package, they are well worth the inclusion.
Comedy is patently personal, a "one man's treasure" truism that can never be universally applied. Some will think of a box set focusing on the television work of Rodney Dangerfield and flip into spasms of fan-based ballistics. Others will choke on the notion of having to watch this dopey dim-bulb sweat and stammer his way through another collection of corny old jokes. Like most funny fossils from a long bygone era, Rodney Dangerfield: No Respect—The Ultimate Collection, will probably only speak to the people who were around to witness the not-so-sudden overnight success of this long-suffering stand-up comedian firsthand.
Though few will find everything about this inconsistent box set as clever and complete as the man himself, there is still a great deal of importance and nostalgia to be had here. Some of it may be unintentional and campy, but the truth is, when he was on and in his element, Dangerfield was funny. There are frequent fragments of such show business symbiosis as part of Rodney Dangerfield: No Respect—The Ultimate Collection, and they help prove at least one of the artist's adages wrong. His lack of admiration was all an act. Rodney Dangerfield was one of a kind, and you don't get more respected than that.
Rodney Dangerfield: No Respect—The Ultimate Collection is found guilty of being inconsistent and dated. It is, however, acquitted on all other charges, especially those revolving around the humor and the wit of its title entity. With time served and a lenient heart, the Court hereby suspends any sentence and releases this box set on its own recognizance.
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Studio: R2 Entertainment
• Opening Night at Rodney's Place Cable Special (1989)
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