Aside from his signature black suit and red tie, Rodney Dangerfield’s iconic catchphrase — “I don’t get no respect” — was the centerpiece of, not only his standup routines but also his award-winning career as a whole. In fact, his aptly titled comedy album, No Respect, even won a Grammy Award in 1981. The inspiration for the famous tagline, however, wasn’t exactly the laughing matter he turned into decades of keeping audiences in stitches and his unique brand of self-deprecating comedy, prior to his death in 2004 at age 82.
Dangerfield grew up 'unloved and unwanted'
Dangerfield (real name: Jacob Cohen) was born in Babylon, New York, and lived in several New York City neighborhoods before settling in Kew Gardens, Queens with his mother, Dorothy Teitelbaum, and sister when he was 10 years old. Shortly after Dangerfield’s birth, his father, comic and juggler Phil Roy, abandoned the family, and he grew up “unloved and unwanted,” according to Dangerfield's widow, Joan.
Admitting that, as a kid, he had “no supervision at all,” Dangerfield wrote about being molested when he was five years old in his 2004 autobiography, Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs. When asked in an interview later that year what toll that had taken on him, he replied, “I don’t know. It affects everyone differently. I could have come out being a nicer person, or I could have come out being a nasty person. In my case, I guess I was born a very good person.“
To help support the family, Dangerfield juggled an array of jobs as a teen, including selling ice cream on the beach, delivering groceries, taking care of a newsstand, working at a soda fountain, barking for the theater and driving a fish truck.
“His mother convinced him to open a savings account one summer so he could save up for a football uniform,” Joan told The New York Times. She also noted that the family matriarch also often withheld affection and kindness: “Then she stole his money.”
In 2004, Dangerfield confessed that if he could change anything about his life he’d choose a “different mother, different father, different sister, different everything, but I’ll stay the same.”
Local historian Carl Ballenas said that, in his adolescence, Dangerfield also often found himself the target of anti-Semitism from teachers and classmates alike. “The whole ‘no respect’ theme came from his environment. Kew Gardens was the birthplace, the formation of his themed monologues and catchphrase,” Ballenas has said.
'I don't get no respect' was Dangerfield's way of saying 'no one liked me'
As a coping mechanism, Dangerfield threw himself into comedy, and when he turned 17, he started trying out his act at local clubs’ amateur nights. “Rodney Dangerfield turned to humor and got people to laugh with him, not at him,” added Ballenas. Two years later, Dangerfield adopted the stage name Jack Roy — later making the new moniker legal — and began performing stand-up full-time.
With a career as a comedian beginning to ramp up, he began to test out new material with New York audiences — and eventually, the “no respect” catchphrase was officially born. As Dangerfield explained in a 1986 interview: “I had this joke: ‘I played hide and seek; they wouldn’t even look for me.’ To make it work better, you look for something to put in front of it: I was so poor, I was so dumb, so this, so that. I thought, ‘Now what fits that joke?’ Well, ‘No one liked me’ was all right. But then I thought, a more profound thing would be, ‘I get no respect.”’
Dangerfield, who had overheard mobsters using the phrase during one of his shows, later got encouragement from fellow comedian Jack Benny. “He was an ace. He was a doll,” Dangerfield reflected during a 1979 interview. “And he says to me, ‘Rodney, I’m cheap and I’m 39, that’s my image, but your ‘no respect’ thing, that’s into the soul of everybody. Everybody can identify with that. Everyone gets cut off in traffic, everyone gets stood up by a girl, kids are rude to them, whatever.’ He says to me, ‘Every day something happens where people feel they didn’t get respect.’”
The phrase eventually cemented Dangerfield's place in the world of comedy
After taking a 15-year hiatus from comedy, during which he worked selling paint and siding and began to raise a family in Englewood, New Jersey, Dangerfield returned to his roots at age 42. He got his first big break, performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1970s, followed shortly thereafter by regular appearances on The Dean Martin Show and the Tonight Show. His “no respect” bit, of course, became the highlight.
From there, the rest was history, as Dangerfield went on to appear in such films as 1980’s Caddyshack, 1983’s Easy Money, Back to School in 1986, as well as 1994’s Natural Born Killers.
Despite his difficult childhood, by the time Dangerfield died in October 2004, he had certainly gained the respect he deserved.