When I was a kid, Rodney Dangerfield was a big name in comedy, but I could never figure out why. He simply wasn’t funny to me, but most people laughed with him anyway.
The world is full of people with talent who never achieve much success, but Dangerfield was just the opposite. He was the man with no real talent — but who managed to become wealthy and famous simply because he refused to quit trying.
I’d never thought much about Dangerfield’s success, but I read an article this morning that has me thinking about how artistic and commercial success happens. It’s a recent piece from the New York Times Magazine about how a “nobody” named Jacob Cohen turned himself into the world-famous comic named Rodney Dangerfield — the man who could “get no respect.”
When he started in comedy, Cohen used the name Jack Roy. (He even legally changed his name to Jack Roy and that remained his legal name for life.) He was a singing waiter at one point, but he was fired. When he did get on stage as a comic, almost nobody thought he was funny. He couldn’t get booked. He was a failure.
Jack Roy was such a failure that he quit comedy after nine years. He was in debt and couldn’t support his wife, so he sold aluminum siding. Eventually, he tried again and failed again. His refusal to give up on comedy wrecked his first marriage.
If you want to know how he changed his act and developed the character named Rodney Dangerfield, read the article I mentioned above. He didn’t just get better through practice. He very consciously eliminated the things that weren’t working for him — the things that required talent — and simply labored over writing the one-liners he became known for. He created a stage persona — a hapless character who gets no respect from anyone. He was the butt of his own jokes.
At the height of his career, Dangerfield was a regular at top comedy clubs and on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Carson clearly thought Dangerfield was funny. Here’s a 10-minute clip from the Tonight Show in 1979. I barely grinned a time or two through all this, but Carson and the audience roared their amusement and approval.
So why does all this matter to me now? Despite the fact that I never found him funny, I finally realize there’s a lesson to be learned from the character we know as Rodney Dangerfield.
Talent is great to have, no matter what you want to do. But talent is never enough — and sometimes, talent isn’t even required for success.
I have real fears about whether I have enough talent to do some of the things I want to do. I let those fears stop me from trying a lot of things I need to do. But Dangerfield’s story suggests that talent isn’t the issue. His early failures — and his later wild success — suggest that what matters is whether you really want to do something and whether you keep trying, even when you appear to be failing.
I will never find the Rodney Dangerfield character to be funny, but the man named Jacob Cohen — and later named Jack Roy — has a lot to teach me about continuing to move forward even when the world isn’t giving you any applause.