I was ugly, very ugly. When I was born, the doctor smacked my mother.

One night I came home. I figured, let my wife come on. I’ll play it cool. Let her make the first move. She went to Florida.

When my old man wanted sex, my mother would show him a picture of me.

I get no respect at all – When I was a kid, I lost my parents at the beach. I asked a lifeguard to help me find them. He said “I don’t know kid, there are so many places they could hide”.

I’ll tell ya, I don’t get no respect… The other day, I got back from a business trip. I got in a cab and said to the driver, “Hey! Take me to where the action is!” So ya know where he took me? He took me to my house!

A girl phoned me the other day and said… ‘Come on over, there’s nobody home.’ I went over. Nobody was home.

I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous – everyone hasn’t met me yet.

My mother never breast fed me, she told me she only liked me as a friend.

My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.

At first glance he’s neat and smart – usually a sharp blue suit, a white shirt and a red tie. The outfit rarely changes. Neither do the mannerisms that threaten to compromise the overall composure. The left hand straying to adjust the tie knot, a knot that does not require adjustment. Every few seconds the hand flies there, fidgets needlessly then drops to the side again. And then, after a short while, the sweating. It’s real. It shines under the lights. He’s obviously working hard but part of the attraction of what he does lies in the contrast between the smart outfit and the material that he’s producing. The sweat is therefore a little jarring, perhaps a product of that contrast. It’s not quite right. He will reach inside his jacket or into a back pocket, produce a handkerchief then mop his brow. Even when he’s finished and sitting next to the host at the desk, he continues to mop his brow. And that seems to suggest that he was tense and is still tense and while it helps the act perhaps in the beginning it wasn’t planned but it suited the act and has now become a part of it and, to some extent, is inseparable from it. Rodney has an urgency that reminds us that if you’re going to channel a stream of gags as if they’re just naturally popping into your head then it’s hard work – these things don’t come naturally. Is that what anybody is actually like? They walk in and these compact formulations are ejected twice a minute until time is up?

The gags are one or two-liners on the whole and must, obviously, be separated in some way if they are to make sense. Between each gag, then, comes this small fusillade of tics, the fiddling and dabbing bringing to mind the tugging of the shirt shoulder, the adjustment of the head band and the bounce after bounce after bounce of the ball before it is served by the tournament tennis player. While we don’t doubt that the tennis player wants very much to deliver, with Rodney we wonder if each new set of birth pangs will be the one that scuttles the enterprise.

So although he is superb his persona isn’t relaxed. It is shot through with tremors from the one who, from beneath its damp skin, animates the performance.  In this respect he’s subtler than Woody Allen. The physique  of the latter, his posture and his vocalisation are brought together harmoniously in the character of the whining weakling who will never experience a satisfying social transaction. But when Rodney pushes through the curtains the first impression is of one who is combative. He has a bullish demeanour, bulging eyes and he seems like a man in a hurry. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if he were packing a handgun. He’s wired.

Except that Rodney tells us, from time to time, ‘I don’t get no respect.’ This is his catchphrase. His act consists in his itemising the hundreds of instances in which he has been disrespected. It’s not observational comedy, the overrated genre which, in its disingenuous claim to derive from the clear and nonjudgmental eye of the portraitist, asks us rue our inability to see the funny side of life that’s beneath our noses. Instead it’s where Rodney, who may or may not suffer from low self-esteem when he’s at home, merely opens a vein of abjection then complains about it within earshot. He’s talking to us but you get the feeling that his internal monologue is not that different.

Oliver Stone clearly suspected that there was a thin line between love and hate when he was casting for Natural Born Killers (1994). The self-flagellation of Rodney’s humour could be turned outward, at which point he would become a psychopath rather than a stand-up. This proved  to be entirely the case. Ed Wilson, his character in the much underrated film, is Rodney to the max, unalleviated by nervous tics or the least indication that he may be domesticated to any degree. A masterclass in cartoonish, horrifying domestic sitcom parody, Rodney’s scenes as abusive, ogling, pawing, incestuous father to Juliette Lewis’s rebel girl Mallory are, despite the use of a sitcom laugh and applause track throughout, appalling yet exhilarating because somehow soon the slavering beast will be neutralised and his comeuppance will be as lurid as his fatherly behaviour is beyond the pale.

 

Towards the end of his amiable work in Cheers, Woody Harrelson was approached by Stone and took the role of Mickey, a natural born killer of a more suitable age for Mallory in the homicidal folie a deux rampage (52 victims) on which the couple embarks after Mickey has despatched Ed with a crowbar.

The first hour of the film is incongruously experimental for a Warner  Brothers product, both formally and in the nihilism of its moral instruction. It is pitched as a satire that will address the enthusiastic attention paid to celebrity killers but is so extravagant and poetic in its means that it becomes, in the same breath, an irresistible paean to unfettered recreational slaughter. The first 15 minutes do not so much test as erase the contours of sitcom convention, setting free an ordinarily muffled content that celebrates, within the frame of a passionate romance between two attractive and murderous young people with a lot in common, the amputation of  sociality that we are encouraged to believe is one of the great privileges of dedicated coupledom.

By presenting Ed/Rodney as the prime and incestuous transgressor Stone creates a space in which the abused and avenging Mickey and Mallory may outdo him as killers yet retain the charm of the natural born. Rodney Dangerfield’s stand-up comedy work is made palatable, furthermore, because it is presented as a species of self-harm but  in the menacing sitcom preamble to Stone’s movie this effect is redirected with the support of, amongst other things, the sound of manic laughter from the laugh track serving to remind us how uniquely thrilling are the pleasures of rupturing taboo.

17.08.2021

Vacant Possession
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