How Failure Taught Rodney Dangerfield the Importance of Craft

When shy teenager Jacob Cohen took to the improv stage for the first time, guess what happened?

He got no respect. No laughs either.

Cohen just wasn’t talented enough. As desperate as he was to perform, he demonstrated no natural ability to make people laugh.

Well aware of this, he nevertheless attempted to break through for nine years. Besides his name though – he became Jack Roy at age 19 – nothing much changed over this time. His determination seemed futile.

Eventually, Roy would claim, the desire to live a normal life with his new wife and child led him to depart the industry, move to New Jersey, and become an aluminum siding salesman.

“At the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit!”

It’s not hard to imagine this desire was meant to relieve the burden that was the weight of failure. Most people would not last nine days in a job they knew they weren’t capable of performing, let alone nine years.

But Roy understood that talent wasn’t the defining factor in excellence. It would certainly have been of assistance, sure, but it wasn’t the make or break.

What was the defining factor? Well, he’d just have to work that out.

In the 1960s, while still working as a salesman, Roy began to experiment with comedy once again. It cost him his marriage. He fell into debt. After a string of performances at hotels in the Catskill Mountains, he couldn’t get booked.

He returned to the East Coast a failure once again. This time, however, he had found the answer he was looking for.

What truly made a great comedian was the craft.

How to make people laugh was the important part. Who made them laugh was simply an offshoot of that.

Roy started deconstructing the work of his peers in the same way a curious child might take apart a clock to figure out what makes it tick.

In order to confirm his findings, he needed to return to the stage once again. This time, however, he would do so not as himself, but as a persona. He would become a relatable every-man for whom nothing goes right.

The character’s name would be Rodney Dangerfield.

The next decade was filled with trial and error. Dangerfield became a hit in 1967 when he was called in as a replacement on The Ed Sullivan Show, and quickly became a regular. Still, his performances were often as cold as they were hot. His setups would be too long, his delivery too flat.

This was Dangerfield learning his craft.

The work became no less simple as he refined the punchy, self-deprecating one-liners that would come to redefine the industry.

Dangerfield would establish several variations of the same basic joke in order to see what elicited reactions. This led to several awkward performances, several of them on national television, but it was just part of the process for a man who, by then, was used to taking the bad with the good.

He was patient. Courageous. Determined. In one interview, Dangerfield revealed it took him three months to feel confident about the jokes he’d written for a six minute talk-show appearance.

By the time Dangerfield was internationally celebrated as a master of his craft, he was in his 60s. He died at 82.

Few who would ever dream about pursuing their passion actually do it, and succeed. About 8 percent, we believe.

Those that do know that achieving excellence isn’t something that comes naturally to most. They understand that fear is part of the process. They work hard at their craft, recognising failure is another step towards success, so long as they are willing to continue.

Are you?

This article was inspired by Alex Halberstadt’s
Letter of Recommendation: Rodney Dangerfield
article for The New York Times.

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