Comic Relief: Opus and Rodney Dangerfield

My initial reaction to the despair of Kerry supporting lit bloggers was, I confess, a wry smile. There was a tinge of sadness that they were so upset, but I admit I felt a certain satisfaction that President Bush would torment them for four more years. After reading a bit more of their opinions, however, I began to feel insulted. It is obvious that many on the left assume that Bush supporters are ignorant, intolerant, homophobic, theocrats out to destroy all that these elite cosmopolitans hold dear. They are so angry and disgruntled that many of them are seriously considering leaving the country. They lashed out at America for being so stupid and wondered how they could go on.

At one point I was planning on writing a long rant on just how condescending, intolerant, out-of-touch, and emotional these folks have become. But I decided that would accomplish little. Bloggers who reacted in this manner really could care less what I think and there are few on either side of this divide whose opinion or attitude would be changed by any rant I might offer. So instead, let me offer two books that might serve to cheer up anyone out there who needs it.

The first is a collection of comic strips featuring the Bloom County character Opus. Opus: 25 years of His Sunday Best by Berkeley Breathed is a interesting trip down memory lane with one of the oddest comic characters in the history of the genre. Who would have thought that a “turnip shaped” penguin with a weakness for bad television and Jane Pauley would have entertained comic readers for so many years.


Despite its leftward tilt I have always enjoyed Bloom County and Opus’s quirky sense of humor. I did find it interesting that so little of the humor in this collection involved political or culturally dated references. I suppose that was intentional. Sure, there are the occasional references to President Reagan (even Condi Rice makes an appearance) and jokes about Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, but most of the humor revolves around issues relevant to people’s daily lives. The seeming random nature of life, the insecurities of dating, simple pleasures versus difficult and existential questions, these are the topics that Breathed touches on.

I suppose if here was a theme running through the collection it would be the emptiness of American pop culture and our inability to resist it. The strips constantly mock the celebrity driven and vacuous popular culture and yet point to our inability to resist it. Opus realizes that TV will rot his brain but time and again finds himself in front of it. I know it seems lame to say it, but Opus is funny because we can relate to him. We share his insecurities, his weaknesses, and his appreciation for the absurd.

In addition to the collected strips from Bloom County, Outland, etc. Breathed includes a couple of pages about what he was thinking in various points in his career; why he turned Opus into a Sunday only strip, why he took time off, and why he eventually came back. Fans of Bloom County, and Opus in particular, will want to pick up this unique collection.

Another funny man with a focus on insecurity and weakness is Rodney Dangerfield. When Mr. “I get no respect” passed away recently I thought it might be interesting to learn more about him so I turned to his 2004 autobiography It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me.

As you might imagine an autobiography written by a comic is different from a straightforward biography written by a historian or biographer. This one is no different. The book is largely a collection of jokes and stories that highlight and illuminate Rodney’s life as he looks back on it (even the book’s photographs have humorous tag-lines). So while the reader can piece together the rough outline of Rodney’s life, there are a lot of areas left unexplored. His first marriage is barely touched on for example. But readers do get a rough picture of what it was like to “try and make it big in showbiz.”

Believe it or not, Rodney Dangerfield was not his real name. “Rodney Dangerfield” was born Jacob Cohen in Babylon New York in 1921. He had a rough and tumble childhood. His father was part of a traveling vaudeville act and paid very little attention to his young son. His mother was a cold and self-centered women who seemed incapable of showing affection. Looking for attention elsewhere, Rodney began writing jokes very young and began performing in his late teens. Despite this early start, Rodney, using the stage name Jack Roy at this point, couldn’t seem to make it. Seeing the writing on the wall, he got married and started his own siding business.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s, at the age of 40, that he decided to give comedy another try. Assuming the stage name Rodney Dangerfield for the first time (a name he adopted almost by accident) things began to click. He snagged appearances on the Johnny Carson and Dean Martin shows and soon was a regular at the top clubs. It wasn’t too long before his name, and act, achieved iconic status. His black suit and red tie, his signature line “I don’t get no respect,” and his unique visage were soon universally recognizable. He started his own comedy club, had a long running HBO special, and even started writing for and appearing in movies (the most famous being Caddyshack). He was even a pioneer on the Internet, developing his own web page in 1995.

Unfortunately, Rodney’s fame was shared with continual health problems. He struggled with depression for most of his life, and soon added heart and lung problems. Years of heavy smoking, drinking, and eating took their toll. After recovering from two aneurysm surgeries, heart surgery and brain bypass surgery Rodney passed away on October 5 of this year following complications from heart valve replacement surgery.

It’s Not Easy Being Me, is like a long conversation with Rodney over drinks. He tells the story in a meandering way, highlighting his struggles along the way, the personalities and people he has met, and the hard work and dedication it took to finally make it. The book reflects Rodney’s sense of humor and is not really family friendly. Like its author, it is loud, slightly vulgar, and full of over-the-top humor. Fans of Rodney Dangerfield, and students of comedy, will want to read this final missive from a comic legend. It is a quintessential American success story and provides quite a few laughs along the way.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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3 Comments

  • Kevin, I find abhorrent your spiteful glee at the genuine heartache of a group of people who – whatever your differences – have provided you with hours and hours of pleasure. At best, it’s mean-spirited and narrow; at worst it confirms precisely all that you attempt to disavow about Republicans and the right. Shame on you. It’s terribly disappointing if not totally surprising.

    I am not in a position to gainsay your claim that you are not an “ignorant, intolerant, homophobic, theocrat” (although today’s post hits two out of four, so the odds aren’t quite in your favor), but if in fact you are not, then you’re something far worse – an otherwise intelligent person who has for motivations that might range from greed to fear to ignorance has chosen to turn a blind eye to the worst excesses of this presidency. It’s on precisely that sort of a wave that Hitler was freely elected chancellor by the German people – and as a Jew, I do not make that comparison lightly or frivously.

    You’re right, Kevin. I no longer care about what your opinions or attitudes are. And I apologize for being rude on your site but at this point, you’ve earned it. This is my last comment posted to CM, which I will stop visiting. I request you similarly refrain from TEV.

  • Kevin, I find abhorrent your spiteful glee at the genuine heartache of a group of people who – whatever your differences – have provided you with hours and hours of pleasure. At best, it’s mean-spirited and narrow; at worst it confirms precisely all that you attempt to disavow about Republicans and the right. Shame on you. It’s terribly disappointing if not totally surprising.

    I am not in a position to gainsay your claim that you are not an “ignorant, intolerant, homophobic, theocrat” (although today’s post hits two out of four, so the odds aren’t quite in your favor), but if in fact you are not, then you’re something far worse – an otherwise intelligent person who has for motivations that might range from greed to fear to ignorance has chosen to turn a blind eye to the worst excesses of this presidency. It’s on precisely that sort of a wave that Hitler was freely elected chancellor by the German people – and as a Jew, I do not make that comparison lightly or frivously.

    You’re right, Kevin. I no longer care about what your opinions or attitudes are. And I apologize for being rude on your site but at this point, you’ve earned it. This is my last comment posted to CM, which I will stop visiting. I request you similarly refrain from TEV.

  • Mark,

    If you will excuse my language, give me a F!@#ing break. I simply said I had a “certain satisfaction” that was “tinged with sadness.” Is that spiteful glee? Is a “wry smile” “spiteful glee?” My initial reaction wasn’t even the point, I was trying to communicate what it feels like to read the reactions of people who clearly despise the beliefs you hold dear. Do you see the irony in your over-the-top response?

    Do you even realize what has been said about the so called Red States? Did you read the Jane Smiley piece? Leftists can insult me and my party to the nth degree but I admit to a certain satisfaction that Bush won and I am condemned?! Can you tell me with a straight face that you would have spent one minute worrying about my state of mind if Kerry had won? Would your first response have been concern over my reaction?

    I am sorry if what I wrote upset you but it is a presidential election for Pete’s sake, life goes on. Trust me I lived through 8 years of Bill Clinton. Can’t you even see that some people might find it humorous that Bush won despite, in fact because of, one of the largest turnouts in history? See Bush the tyranical dictator re-elected after one of the most hotly contested elections in history and one of the largest turnouts. Surely there is some irnoy in the fact that the left’s intial reaction seemed to be anger and vitriol at the very democracy they were praising just moments before. I think a bit of perspective might be in order.