September 04, 2010

Rodney Dangerfield Explains A Schmear

By Wolynski © 2010

In the 80's I knew Rodney Dangerfield to say hello. He used to come in to the comedy club "Catch A Rising Star" on the upper east side to try out new material and was very genial towards all the comics.

At the time I worked out of a photography studio in the east 70's - a magnificent, dilapidated warehouse overlooking the East River transformed into the best space in Manhattan by the great artist Rene Miville.

One day I finished early and was walking towards the subway around 1 p.m, when I bumped into Rodney carrying loads of plastic shopping bags. He said hello, don't I know you from the club, I live around the corner and I need some help making sandwiches for the boys. He saw I was hesitant and assured me his Jamaican maid was there. So I said O.K. and he gave me half his load.

Rodney lived in a high rise overlooking the river, two apartments knocked into one. The place, although furnished, was a little bleak, as if the owner didn't care. Rodney showed me into the kitchen where the maid was bustling and Keno the dog was yapping. He changed into his customary bathrobe, we both sat down at the banquette and emptied the shopping bags, a crapload of day-old bagels and cream cheese. Rodney explained he's going on tour with the boys the following day and needs to make sandwiches. I stared at him in disbelief. He was at the height of his career, just having done Easy Money and Back To School - I kept thinking, why not call Bloomingdale's and order two food hampers? He's a fucking multimillionaire. Still, I was game - this might be a fun afternoon making sandwiches with the funniest man in America.

Rodney handed me a knife, sat down next to me and we started slicing the bagels. He told me the story of his life - he was born Jacob Cohen, but changed it to Jack Roy, because he got tired of paying speeding tickets - cops were kinder to gentiles. At 40 he was $40,000 in debt, no prospects, two kids, an alcoholic wife who eventually killed herself. Rodney left comedy a while and opened an aluminum siding business with Robert Ludlum, who went on to write The Bourne Ultimatum. Suddenly he stopped and inspected my pile of day-old bagels.

"Too much cream cheese - a schmear, do I have tell you what a schmear is, what kind of Jew are you?"

Schmear means "cheap" in Yiddish, Rodney? Right, young lady, enough lip out of you. A schmear is a smear.

He made me re-do my bagels, removing excess cream cheese and from that moment on kept slapping my wrist whenever I exceeded his idea of a schmear. Schmear, a schmear of cream cheese! Those poor boys on the bus, I kept thinking. Rodney can't afford cream cheese?

At some point I had to use the bathroom. It was shelf upon shelf upon shelf of hotel shampoos, moisturizers and bath robes. Rodney said when he was broke no one gave him anything, but now everything is free.

We finished the bagels while Rodney told me how Jack Benny said he needed to find a hook and thus "I ain't go no respect" was born.

Rodney decided we needed a treat after our hard work and we went into the living room, the windows wide open onto the river. He rummaged in a closet and took out what looked like a pound of flour wrapped in plastic. No, this is the shit stuff. He rummaged some more and found what looked like half a pound of flour and poured it onto the table. Suddenly the doorbell rang and Rodney shuffled off to take the delivery. When he opened the door, the ensuing breeze made the cocaine swirl all over the room. I got covered in a thin film like some devilish dandruff.

I'm amazed Rodney lived as long as he did. He did line after line to my two. I finally bid him goodbye and decided to walk a block and then another and another. I walked 60 blocks all the way home and at 1 a.m. I did 70 sit-ups. If cocaine were always this good, heck, I'd be an addict.

A few days later I ran into Rodney at "Catch." He invited me to the Green Kitchen, a diner next door and promptly pointed to the tuna sandwich, the cheapest thing on the menu. If I were a shoe salesman, he said, you wouldn't be having dinner with me. You wouldn't be a shoe salesman, Rodney, you'd own the shoe store. Good answer, kid, good answer.

Rodney took my phone number and a few days later left a message on my machine. My upstairs neighbor was there when I played them back. Your friend does a good impression of Rodney, he said.

Rodney invited me to a gig at Westbury on Long Island. I arrived at his building. Dennis Blair, the opening act and his wife Peggy were already there. Rodney came downstairs with an alarming amount of plastic shopping bags.

His act was brilliant - some of it looked off the cuff, but later backstage he showed me the script to that show - it was 100% prepared. Rodney changed into his bathrobe and guests started arriving backstage. A sumptuous spread of cold cuts and salads was laid out, as befitting a super star. Rodney picked up a shopping bag, took out a roll of Reynolds wrap and saran wrap, handed them to me, pointed at the food and said, "Kid, start wrapping." Just as the guests were digging in, I started wrapping.

On the way back to Manhattan, Rodney lit up a joint in the limo. Rain was coming down on the Long Island Expressway, a downpour. Suddenly Rodney dropped the roach and started frantically searching. He made the limo pull up on the shoulder, we all piled out and the chauffeur looked for the roach with a flashlight. We were all soaked to the skin by the time he found it.

Later Rodney and I discussed his cheapness. He said most of his life he was so broke that now he can't spend anything.

A couple of weeks later, I bumped into Rodney on my way from the studio. Hey, kid, what are you doing? Come to the health club with me, we'll go swimming. We went to the health club and he got me a bathing suit. An afternoon with Rodney in the health club... almost as funny as the sandwiches.
When I was born I was so ugly, the doctor slapped my mother.

My wife and I were happy for 20 years. Then we met.

I told my psychiatrist everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous - everyone hasn't met me yet.

Wolynski is a comic and photographer living in Las Vegas.

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