DATE July 6, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Joe Trippi discusses his experiences as Howard Dean's
campaign manager and his new book "The Revolution Will Not be
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Before making his formal announcement this morning that John Edwards would be
his vice presidential running mate, John Kerry e-mailed his decision to over
one million subscribers to his Web site, an unprecedented use of the Internet.
We're going to talk about the Internet and politics with Joe Trippi. He
pioneered the use of the Internet in presidential politics when he managed
Howard Dean's primary campaign last year. Trippi was widely credited with
helping Dean transform himself into a front-runner. Trippi had previously
worked on the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart
and Richard Gephardt. Now he's written a book called "The Revolution Will Not
Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything." I
spoke with him last Thursday.
Before you had managed the Dean campaign, you'd basically sworn off
presidential politics. Why did you swear off presidential politics?
Mr. JOE TRIPPI (Author, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"): It's the
toughest thing that you can do. It's a draining experience. It's physically
nearly impossible to get through a presidential. And what happens when you do
one is you're absolutely convinced it's the greatest thing you've ever been a
part of, and you're absolutely convinced that you will never, ever, let
yourself do it again. And so in 1980, I did it; I did it in '84; I did it in
'88. And in '88, I really swore off and actually stayed out for 15 years,
kept my promise to myself for 15 years. I don't see myself doing another
one--hopefully I can keep that one--for at least over 15, and if I do that, I
won't be doing another one. You know, they're just really taxing.
GROSS: Yeah. So why did you decide to work on the Dean campaign?
Mr. TRIPPI: Well, I didn't want to. It was one of these things--I really did
not want to run another presidential or be part of one. But again, because it
just--you don't really believe you're going to live through it if you've been
through one. But I fell in love with him. I went out to Iowa on one trip
with him. For the first time in 30 or 40 years, I heard a person running for
president of the United States actually talking about our responsibility as
citizens to each other and not for ourselves, talking about how the greatest
country on this planet should be able to provide health care to every one of
his citizens, and he meant it, and he had done it in Vermont. And I just was
in that room in that house in Iowa, and I was screaming at myself to get out
of there. If I stayed and listened to him any longer, I'd end up doing his
And, well, that side of me won out and I ended up going up to Burlington and,
I think, really starting something with Governor Dean that was one of the
greatest campaigns, I think, in the last 30 or 40 years, all those people out
there that came, that got the message and understood they could make a
GROSS: So what was the size of the Dean campaign when you took it over?
Mr. TRIPPI: Oh, we had about six or seven people. We had less than $100,000
in the bank. When I first got up there, we were trying to--it was impossible,
nearly impossible to scrape enough money to pay for his next airline ticket to
Iowa for him. And we had 432 supporters nationwide. It wasn't anything that
you thought, you know, on paper was going to become much of anything. And we
had almost no money or resources even to dig ourself out of the hole we were
GROSS: Now of course, you thought of using the Internet, really using the
Internet, to help gain financial and voting support for Dean. What was your
initial idea of how the Internet could be used for the campaign?
Mr. TRIPPI: Well...
GROSS: And I should mention here that you'd worked for high-tech businesses,
so you had some experience with the Net.
Mr. TRIPPI: Well, I had, back in the late '90s, visited, spent a lot of time
on bulletin boards on the Web as just a private citizen as well. And one of
the things that happened was I was on this bulletin board of a company named
THQ that made games for PlayStations and Game Boys and Xboxs(ph), of all
things. And there was a guy named David Hanes(ph) on that board who was just
an ordinary citizen. He was very smart. He'd post things. But he also--we
all learned something about each other. He would post things like, `Guys, I'm
sorry I haven't posted for four or five days, but my wife just gave birth to
our baby son Christian.' And later on, he'd tell you how the games were bad,
but, `Hey, Christian walked today.' And you learned that he had a dog named
Bruin(ph) and that he was a triathlete, amateur triathlete who lost every race
he ever ran in. And you really got to know him as a person.
And then one day, someone came on that bulletin board and said, `I have tragic
news. David Hanes died of a massive heart attack today at age 31, leaving his
baby Christian'--I think who was then about 18 months old. And what I saw
happen was this funeral on the Internet. Citizens from all over the country
who barely--didn't know this guy, had never met him, but knew everything about
him, started eulogizing him. And then we tried to start an education fund for
And I remember distinctly thinking, gosh, if you could build a community like
this--we don't do these things today for our next-door neighbor or the
person--too many of us don't--or the person five blocks away in our own
neighborhoods, but here was this community that was built around, of all
things, a PlayStation game maker. And I thought, what--that was the first
time I thought, wow, what could happen if you used that same kind of community
building on the Internet for a presidential campaign or to strengthen our
democracy or to get people involved in actually changing the country? And
that's what we set out to do in the Dean campaign.
And the American people now really have a tool that can let them connect with
each other in really dynamic and energetic ways and really--those of us who
want to change the country--and I believe most Americans believe they really
deep down want to make a difference; they just don't believe they can. But
now we have the tools to do it.
GROSS: Well, one of the things you did in the campaign was, through a Web
site called Meetup.com, you had Dean supporters being able to communicate
with each other. Would you explain how you used this Web site for the
Mr. TRIPPI: Meetup.com is a Web site that allows people to come together,
discuss their hobbies, different interests, and then meet each other offline.
And we had looked at that site and realized that we had to decentralize the
campaign; we had to give people a place to go meet. We didn't have campaign
offices in 50 states. And so we got people to sign up at Meetup.com, sign up
as Dean supporters, and then meet on the first Wednesday of every month. We
started out with really a couple thousand people, and by the end of the
campaign, we had 190,000 Americans meeting together in their own communities
on the first Wednesday of every month. They gather there; they decide what
they were going to do, what precincts they were going to leaflet, what
different campaign things they were going to do over the next 30 days. And
then they'd come up and come back the next first Wednesday and meet up again
and do it all over again. And it was really an astounding thing.
I think it was one of the breakthroughs of the Internet this year is that we
now--MoveOn.org and the Dean campaign in particular prove that you can use the
Internet to get thousands and thousands of people to do things, not on the
Internet, but in their own communities.
GROSS: Now you organized a campaign blog when you were managing Dean's
campaign. What did you want the blog to accomplish?
Mr. TRIPPI: Well it was...
GROSS: And why don't you explain what a blog is, for any of our listeners
that don't know what a blog is.
Mr. TRIPPI: Well, first of all, the real word for it is `Weblog.' It's sort
of a journal that's kept by usually an individual who, you know, just
basically talks about issues or things that interest him, and other people who
have that same interest start reading that blog, which is short for Weblog.
We started the first--it was the first blog in presidential campaign history.
It was called the Call to Action blog. It was ugly and messy and really
difficult to navigate, but we were doing things that no one else had ever done
It would eventually turn into the Blog for America, which was the BMW of
blogs. It was really interactive. You could get comments from your
supporters, ideas from them. And a lot of the great ideas of the campaign
actually came from our own supporters communicating to us on the blog and
giving us great ideas that really helped get the campaign off the ground.
One of the simple things was we had signs up on our site, you know, Iowans
for--`Iowa for Dean,' `Another New Hampshire voter for Dean'--that people
could download. We put up all 50 states. And the first mention on the blog
was, `Hey, you forgot Puerto Rico. You screwed up.' And we immediately, you
know, realized that, yeah, Puerto Rico votes for Democratic nominations, so we
put up a `Puerto Rico for Dean' sign within a minute or two and got a protest
from a guy in London saying that he was an American abroad who was going to
vote in the presidential and we didn't have an `Americans abroad for Dean'
sign. So we put that up immediately, and the thank-you came from Spain. All
this happened in a 10-minute part of time that was an amazing exchange between
us and our supporters, and they saw the mistakes we made and we plugged them.
And that same thing in any other presidential election I'd been involved in
would have probably taken three or four months. I mean, no one in Puerto Rico
would even know that there were signs, and the people in California would have
to try to figure out where the LA headquarters was, and they'd have to get in
their car to go get them. And so in a lot of ways, the blogs made us a lot
stronger, a lot smarter. And that was a small thing, but some of them were
really huge events, ideas that really made the campaign take off.
GROSS: Now there are ways to subvert the Internet; there are ways to use
dirty tricks in e-mail and on the Internet. Did you feel that your blog or
that your e-mail campaigns were undermined at any point through dirty tricks?
Mr. TRIPPI: Yeah, but I don't--you know, back in the old days when Thomas
Jefferson was running for president, it was difficult to go negative on the
guy. You know, how do you say `too soft on crime' or `has no leadership' to
attack the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence? It's kind of tough
to do. So John Adams got a bunch of guys on horseback and they ran around the
states saying that Jefferson was dead, which was kind of hard to disprove back
then. You couldn't hold a newspaper up with the date on it and a picture of
Jefferson and get that around. They just had to get guys on horseback on
Jefferson's side running around screaming, `He's alive, he's alive,' try to
disprove a negative, which is often tough to do.
So we've had those kind of tactics since the very early days of the republic.
It's nothing new. On the Net, it is out there. I mean, we had an e-mail go
out--somebody sent an e-mail out from `Dean for Americas' with an S, not `Dean
for America,' but you had to look real close, signed it with my name and sent
it out to hundreds of thousands of people with me saying that we needed
volunteers, but please don't volunteer if you're gay because in all of our
states there's--bunking quarters are close, or something like that. And this
thing took--it really did take on a life of its own, to the point where Iowa
TV stations were running that I'd sent this out. I literally had to go on the
air in Iowa, you know, and say I didn't send it out. Here's a guy, a
candidate who signed the civil unions bill for gay and lesbian couples, giving
them the most basic rights, and the only state to have done it at that point.
And this e-mail's floating around there, it was just totally fabricated, and
the antithesis of what the campaign was about.
So those kinds of things happened, but again, with the Internet, you've
got--and immediately you can go right on--you know, right back out and say
it's not true, at least, in a way that you might have a chance of convincing
people. I think the negativism that was there in the early days of the
republic was a lot tougher on horseback to fight.
GROSS: My guest is Joe Trippi. He managed Howard Dean's presidential primary
campaign. Trippi has written a new book about politics and the Internet.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joe Trippi, and he was the
campaign manager for Howard Dean's presidential primary race. And he's
written a new book called "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy,
The Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything."
I want to ask you about the so-called `I have a scream' speech which Howard
Dean gave after the Iowan caucuses. And, you know, he named, you know, in a
loud voice, in a crowded room, the states that he hoped to win in. And this
was played over and over and over again on the TV news and was used kind of as
a symbol of Howard Dean uncorking, losing his cool. It's this--what does this
tell us about his character? I looked for `I have a scream' in your index;
you refer to this in your index as `Iowa concession speech.' So what was that
whole episode like for you? And actually, let me start with this. Since
you've been talking so much about the importance of the Internet, if you look
at--if you Google `I have a scream' and Howard Dean, what you come up with
first is a lot of remixes.
Mr. TRIPPI: Right.
GROSS: There were a lot of people who took the `I have a scream' speech and
remixed it and put it on their Web site. Was that a good thing or a bad
Mr. TRIPPI: Well, you live by the Internet and you pay the price with--we had
a lot of Dean mixes of great speeches that happened early on. In fact, the
DNC speech that just sort of launched his candidacy from, I think, March of
2003 was remixed over and over again and really spread all over the Net and
helped get us off the ground. So I think, you know, the remixes that are kind
of fun--and you know, I listened to both of them, and a lot of them were
great. But I think what happened there is--I mean, that room was 3,000
people, easy, going out of their minds, you know, really screaming and
hollering and applauding and cheering, and he was just trying to get heard--I
mean, he was trying to--if you look at the real tapes of the thing from behind
and the crowd, not the ones you saw on television, it's just a guy rallying
his troops and doing it loudly because he couldn't hear himself. I mean, you
could not hear yourself in that room.
The most amazing thing to me, having been involved in Gary Hart's campaign in
1988--you know, there's something wrong going on here when a guy like Gary
Hart who understood the threat of terrorism in 1988 was campaigning, saying
that we had to retool our military, had to make it leaner, more agile, that
the Soviet Union was no longer a threat, that the threat was terrorists and
unstable Third World states, and, you know, we all got caught up in this
personal life stuff. And there was a mistake in judgment there on his part.
But we relegated him to the back benches because of, you know, a mistake he
made in 1988. You know, you look at that and you look at 2003 and you look at
post-September 11th, 2001, and you wonder who made the bigger mistake, Gary
Hart or all the sort of gossipy press stuff that destroyed him. And now
we're to the point...
GROSS: The mistake you're referring to is his...
Mr. TRIPPI: Is the Donna Rice...
GROSS: ...affair with Donna Rice.
Mr. TRIPPI: Donna Rice.
Mr. TRIPPI: But now we're getting to the point where--this is where I--you
know, I'm not apologizing for Gary Hart; I'm just posing the question. But
then you have to ask yourself, what have we come to when we now run a guy out
of the race because he actually shows emotion? I mean, he
actually--'cause--Why?--'cause he yells at his concession speech? That's why
we roll him off the stage? And even in 1988, the press was more interested in
tailing Gary Hart than tailing his stands on changing the military to prevent
future terrorist attacks. This guy knew more in 1988 about terrorism than any
other person--than most of the guys running today.
GROSS: My guest is Joe Trippi. He managed Howard Dean's presidential primary
campaign and has written a new book about using the Internet in politics.
Let's hear one of the `I have a scream' remixes from the Internet. This one
is mixed with the Outkast hit "Hey Ya!" We'll start with the actual soundbite
from Dean's Iowa concession speech.
Dr. HOWARD DEAN (Former Governor, Vermont; Democratic Presidential Candidate):
(From 2003) We're going to California and Texas and New York. And we're going
to South Dakota and to Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're
going to Washington, DC, to take back the White House! (Screams)
(Soundbite of "Hey Ya!" remixed with Dean speech)
Backup Singers: Hey ya.
Dr. DEAN: (Screams)
Backup Singers: Hey ya.
Dr. DEAN: (Screams) And then we're going to Washington, DC. (Screams) We're
going to California. (Screams) And Washington and Michigan and Washington.
(Screams) And South Dakota and Oregon and then (Screams) then--and then--and
then we're going to California. (Screams) And then we're going to Washington,
GROSS: So what was your approach to doing damage control after the `I have a
Mr. TRIPPI: Well, I mean, from my point of view, we were pretty terminal
before that speech ever happened. I mean, that speech just meant that it was
going to be very difficult to ever get back, although I had my doubts about
that anyway. And we had taken such a pounding in Iowa that, you know, I
really--I think we make too much of that speech today. I don't think it was
the last straw or anything. But in terms of damage control, I mean, we did
everything we could do. I mean, we went on Letterman's show and made fun of
ourselves on the Top Ten list. We, you know, did the Diane Sawyer interview
on ABC with Governor and Judy Dean, his wife, you know, and I think they did
great. And he did very well in a debate in that period, too, where we were
all trying to push back on this.
But the problem, you know, is that we were shooting single bullets, you know,
one at a time. We were shooting and rolling, shooting and rolling, shooting
and rolling, and the entire national media was out there with Uzis and--with
that tape, I mean, of the speech in Iowa, just literally machine-gunning us.
And so, you know, shooting and rolling wasn't doing any good.
GROSS: Joe Trippi managed Howard Dean's presidential primary campaign.
Trippi's new book is called "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy,
the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything." He'll be back in the second
half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of applause)
GROSS: Coming up, Rodney Dangerfield. He has a new memoir called "It's Not
Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs." And we
continue our conversation with Joe Trippi, who worked as Howard Dean's
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of the interview I
recorded last week with Joe Trippi. He managed Howard Dean's presidential
primary campaign and used the Internet to mobilize voters, raise money and
transform Dean into a front-runner. Trippi has written a new book about the
Internet and politics called "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Trippi
left Dean's campaign last January.
Now Howard Dean hired Roy Neel to run the campaign after--how long had you
been managing it at that point?
Mr. TRIPPI: I think about 13 months.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Then you left the campaign. Now Neel had worked with Al
Gore. Gore had endorsed Dean in the primary. One school of thought says that
this was all bad for Dean because it made him seem more establishment and less
like the insurgent candidate. You're a partisan here, but would you agree
Mr. TRIPPI: No, I think Gore didn't hurt because it was an establishment
endorsement. Gore hurt because the day he endorsed us, it meant all the
other campaigns--all of them in unison--decided they had to destroy Howard
Dean. And I think the national press corps didn't say `destroy Howard Dean.'
They just said, `Oh, my gosh, this guy's going to be the nominee, and we have
a responsibility to ask him the tough questions and test his mettle,' which
the press does have that responsibility.
And I think those two forces--there was no conspiracy, but those two forces
combined and a third thing, I think, which needs to be said--we were many,
many things. One of the things we were essentially was, you know, an amateur
baseball team playing in the majors. And I don't mean that in any disrespect
to anybody, but the governor had never run for office before, really. He'd
become governor when the sitting governor, Snelling, passed away of a heart
attack, so he didn't run for governor. The first time he ran for re-election,
no one real ran against him. And then, a testament to his governing, he
really did get health care for those kids; he really did get prescription drug
benefits for those seniors; lowered the income tax twice. No one real ever
ran against him. He essentially ran against Bozo the Clown for governor every
year that he was re-elected.
So you have both of those forces moving in on us and Governor Dean who is in
the first real campaign of his life. And it's not for Congress, it's not for
governor; it's for president of the United States. And he, me and others in
the campaign made some rookie mistakes there the last three or four weeks that
were not anybody's fault. It's not his fault that he was such a good governor
he never had a tough race.
GROSS: What mistake, in retrospect, do you think you've made?
Mr. TRIPPI: Oh, I made lots. I mean, the biggest one, it was--gosh, I was on
"Crossfire" with Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson about four days before Iowa.
And our momentum's slowing down; we cannot have a mistake right then. I
hadn't made a mistake with the press up to that point, not a real bad
one--luckily because it's only luck that you can get through 13 months without
blowing yourself up at least once. And I blew myself up and the campaign up a
little bit four days before Iowa when Tucker Carlson, I think, turned to me
and said, `Jeez, you've got all these congressional endorsements, you've got
Gore, you've got Tom Harkin. Who's next? Jimmy Carter?' And I knew that we
were meeting with Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia, on Sunday, so I said, `Tune
in Sunday and find out.' Well, I also knew Carter wasn't going to endorse us.
It was a jokey quip.
The next thing that happened, CNN and the entire news media goes into `Dean to
be endorsed by Carter on Sunday.' Carter's going to great lengths to say, `I
didn't invite Dean down here, and I'm not going to endorse him.' So here we
are, you know, four days before Iowa, and now I've launched a controversy
about whether Carter's endorsing us, whether we're trying to pull a fast one.
All for what was going to be an innocent stop to go to church with Jimmy
Carter in Plains, Georgia, suddenly turned out to be, you know, a terrible hit
for the campaign. I did that.
You know, there were others. I'm not--you know, my point of view of this
thing is that a presidential campaign is really tough. We had a lot of great
people. Most of them came on their own, drove up from Utah or Alabama, kids
who'd never worked on a campaign before who were suddenly running huge chunks
of the country because of their energy. We couldn't get the A team of
Democratic Party politics to come work for Howard Dean. They thought we were
ridiculous. They thought he had no chance. They weren't going to waste their
time or their careers on him. And so we had this great, amazing campaign of
amateurs, essentially, who ran circles around the New York Yankees, the Los
Angeles Dodgers and the Red Sox for 13 months.
GROSS: One last question: At the beginning of the interview you said that
you went to work for Howard Dean, even though you'd sworn off presidential
politics, because you love him. You still love him. I mean, he replaced you
with somebody else. He lost. You still love him.
Mr. TRIPPI: I think Howard Dean showed more courage than just about any
politician I can think of throughout that campaign. He was against that war
when 80 percent of the American people were for it. This guy stuck his chin
out and changed this party and helped change the country. I'm happy that he
let me have any opportunity to be a part of it. I'm proud of what I did.
I'm proud of continuing my fight. He had every right to make the changes in
his campaign; it was his campaign.
GROSS: One last question: What is the greatest way that you think the Dean
campaign changed the Democratic Party?
Mr. TRIPPI: I think the party didn't think it could beat Bush. It just was
so afraid of taking Bush on. They were so afraid of him. They were afraid of
his favorability ratings. They were afraid of the war president; that many of
them voted for the war out of fear, not out of conscience. I think many of
them support--he had 99 senators support the Patriot Act. Only one, Russ
Feingold, had the bald guts to say, `No, I'm not supporting this thing. It's
taking America's citizens' rights away.'
And, you know, Dean was the first guy to come along and say, `What the hell is
going on here? What's gone on with the--where did the principles of this
party go?' And he called the party out on it, and the grassroots said, `Yeah,
finally. Finally someone's speaking the truth.' And what happened was
congressmen out there, other senators, most of the candidates, including John
Kerry, started to move towards Dean's positions at least in rhetoric if they
couldn't change their votes. But I think it really woke up the party and woke
up an energy and activism in this country that's so sorely needed if we're
really going to change the system.
GROSS: Well, Joe Trippi, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. TRIPPI: Thank you. It's great to be here.
GROSS: Joe Trippi's new book is called "The Revolution Will Not Be
Coming up, we give Rodney Dangerfield some respect. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Rodney Dangerfield discusses his career and new book,
"It's Not Easy Bein' Me"
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Rodney Dangerfield created his comic persona around his signature
Mr. RODNEY DANGERFIELD: One of my problems--you know, I don't get no respect,
no respect at all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Every time I get in an elevator, the operator says the same
thing to me: `Basement.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DANGERFIELD: I get no respect. The other day I was standing in front of
a big apartment house. The doorman asked me to get him a cab.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Same thing with my friends. No respect. My friends tell me
when I call on the phone I should use a certain signal. I have to let it
ring twice, hang up and don't call back.
GROSS: At the age of 82, Rodney Dangerfield is still complaining about
respect. But in reality he's revered by many younger comics, not only for his
stand-up comedy but for his performances in such movies as "Caddyshack," "Back
to School" and "Natural Born Killers." Jim Carrey wrote the introduction for
Dangerfield's new autobiography, "It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No
Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs."
Although Dangerfield hopes to perform again, he's had some pretty major health
problems in the past few years, including heart-bypass surgery, a heart attack
and surgery to bypass clogged arteries in his brain. He came to a studio in
New York to record our interview.
Rodney Dangerfield, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now I gotta ask you, you know, your
comedy is built around your most famous line, `I don't get no respect.' And
you've said that "The Godfather" inspired you to come up with it. How did it
come to you? Did you think of it the first time you saw "The Godfather"
movie? Like, how did it actually...
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Maybe not the first time...
Mr. DANGERFIELD: ...but I heard the word `respect.' When "The Godfather"
came out, all you hear was, `She's with me. Show her respect.' `I want
respect. I'm with him.' `OK. Don't know respect? Respect--you're out of
your mind, you know? Respect.' So I wrote a joke about respect and see what
the reaction would be. It's the first joke I wrote. I was working in a place
called Upstairs at the Duplex in Greenwich Village. And I told the joke, and
I says--the first time I said ...(unintelligible) `I don't get no respect.' I
said, `When I was a kid, they played hide-and-seek. They wouldn't even look
for me, you know?' And that was the first joke I wrote, and that was the--and
the audience came over to me afterwards and said, `Hey, me, too, Rodney, no
respect.' `Me, too, Rodney, no respect.' And all of a sudden I found an image,
you know? And it's been good for me (laughs). I mean, I've written probably
over 500 `no respect' jokes and all in that `no respect' theme, you know?
GROSS: Now you started doing the `respect' stuff when you came back to show
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Right.
GROSS: ...at around the age of 40. You had left show business for around 12
years. You had a family; you needed to make money to support your family...
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Right.
GROSS: ...you went into the aluminum siding business for a while.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Right.
GROSS: What was your act like the first time around?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: When I quit show business--you have any idea how well I was
doing at the time I quit? I was the only one who knew I quit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What was your act like back then when you were in your 20s?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Oh, well, this is a--I was immature and young. I came back
at 40, I had an image ...(unintelligible) that was it. My act was more of
a--immature material, I guess. I'd show a fellow driving a car and coming out
with his girl, or a fellow goes to a dance, he looks over at the girls and
makes remarks, you know, something like that.
GROSS: And you did impressions when you were in your 20s, didn't you?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yes. When I was young, I did impressions. I did W.C.
Fields and Al Jolson. Amateur night, so I was working, you know? But I did
impressions, only those two. I did a Chinese act, "On Too Long."
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And you sang, too, right?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yes, I sang. I sang Jolson; I did his numbers. In fact, I
once did a show with Al Jolson. I was a kid, 21, in Atlantic City, and he was
doing a benefit show there and asked me to go on, do five minutes before him
to warm up the audience. I said, `OK.' So...
GROSS: Now when you started performing, you didn't use the name Rodney
Dangerfield. That was a name...
Mr. DANGERFIELD: My legal name is Jack Roy, R-O-Y. And I started
performing, and that was the name I used the first time in my career. When I
came back the second time, then I became Rodney Dangerfield. And with a name
like that, if you don't hit, you're an idiot, you know. So I'm...
GROSS: Now I know it was an emcee who gave you the name Rodney Dangerfield,
Mr. DANGERFIELD: It was the owner of a club up in Inwood, New York, Inwood
Lounge, you know. And at that time I was just coming back to show business.
I don't know how good I am or this or that, so I asked him not to put my name
in the paper; to make up some other phony name of some kind. He did that, and
he put in the paper Rodney Dangerfield. So I walked out in the club. It was
the same people after 15 years ago that heard I was working, and they came
back. And so they yelled out to me when I walked on. They said, `Rodney
Dangerfield?' I said, `Look, if you're going to change your name, change it.'
GROSS: Now you were born with the last name of Roy, but Roy was actually your
father's stage name.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: That's right.
GROSS: His birth name was Cohen.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: His first name was Phil, Philip. Philip Cohen is his legal
name, but he became Roy and Arthur. Arthur was my uncle, and they did a
vaudeville act, you know--comedy vaudeville act. That was...
GROSS: What was the act like?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: They would break plates. They would throw plates into the
theater like a boomerang, and it would swing over the people's heads and come
back to the stage. That was quite a feat to do it, but they did that mostly
in their act; that was part of it, you know. And other than that, there were
some little juggling and humor, whatever went on there, you know.
GROSS: Now I know you weren't close to your father, and he really didn't even
live with the family when you were growing up. But I'm wondering if you went
to see him much, if you saw his act much.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: I never saw his act; I was too young. But I used to go to
see him twice a year. He lived in New York, a half-hour from Kew Gardens
where we lived. And I'd take a subway in, 10 years old, 12 years old,
whatever it was, and I'd meet him for an hour, and he'd walk me back to the
subway and I'd go home. My father saw me two hours a year; that's what it
GROSS: So did it make you want to be in show business?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Who knows? I don't know. You know, show me some love, show
me some--I mean, hear the laughs, the applause. I'll take love any way I can
get it, you know. And I guess--Who knows?--to get love, you know, in show
business; to try and make some money, but there's no money in it when you
start. So it's just because you like to do it, I guess.
GROSS: It seems like you had a really rough childhood. You never got to see
your father, but two hours a year you got to see him. You didn't really like
your mother; she sounds like she was a really difficult woman.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yeah.
GROSS: Was there anything that was fun or funny in your childhood? Were
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Nothing funny at all.
GROSS: Seriously? So you think you had an unhappy childhood all the time?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Extremely. I never went to a ball game; no one took me
anywhere. My mother was very, very unfair, the way she operated. Terry, I
think you read the story. I saved up a hundred bucks for the--selling ice
cream on the beach, and she took it. You know what I mean?
GROSS: Did you start being funny--I mean, if your childhood was so miserable,
were you funny when you were a child? Did you make other people laugh, even
if you weren't laughing?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yeah. I guess I was sort of being funny when I was about
13, 14. I used to mind a newsstand, and a friend of mine from when we went to
school would come down. I'd make him laugh an hour and a half.
GROSS: So what were the first jokes you remember telling on stage?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: When I was 17 years old, I was booked by an agent named
Jack Miller(ph), who packed about 10 people in his car in New York, and we all
drove out to Newark, and we did a job at a theater there. And he paid
everyone $2 each, and you got paid in quarters. Why no one ever knew. Well,
you get paid in quarters. The first joke I told out there, and it still got a
laugh for me, you know. I said, `Look at the audience tonight. The women
look like a beautiful bed of roses. Of course, there's a weed here and there,
you know.' So that was the joke I told, and I was 17.
GROSS: When you decided to get back into show business, one of the ways you
did it was by opening up your own club.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Well, I'll tell you, the club was opened way after I was in
show business. I was already doing OK when I opened the club, you know. And
I opened the club for--well, one big reason was I had two small kids at home,
you know, at four and eight, and I couldn't leave town and leave them alone.
I had a domestic situation that was difficult, you know. So I decided to open
a nightclub, so that I could be in New York and work in New York only and my
kids won't be alone, you know.
GROSS: How often did you perform at it yourself?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: When the club opened, I worked there for nine years. And
then I would start taking breaks and, I mean, going out.
GROSS: Did you have to come up with a lot of new material, since you were
staying in the same city?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Well...
GROSS: What comics usually do is they travel around, so the people in
Minneapolis haven't heard the material that they did in New York, and you can
use the same act.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Now, you know, everyone in my club, as in many
clubs--there's never the same people. It is always changing because my
business all came from out of town. So if I was on "The Tonight Show" with
Johnny Carson, they would know--he would say I was working at my own place,
Dangerfield's, in New York. And a lot of people would come to New York and
they'd come to the club, you know. Just had to do the show on "Carson" every
three or four months, and that would keep business coming in from out of town.
GROSS: Now you helped a lot of comics get started at your club.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: You want to name some of them?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yeah. Well, Jim Carrey. I met Jim, though--he worked at a
club, too, but I met him--I was working in Toronto, and they told me to catch
this fellow; they think he's pretty good. And I caught him, and he was doing
impressions. And he was great, great. So I asked him to work with me, and
the first job we went to was Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, which was a big deal
to him, he told me. You know what I mean? And after that he opened for me
for two years on the road. So I was directly responsible helping him get in
the States and everything else.
Sam Kinison is one of my proteges--or was. He's a genius, Sam Kinison was,
you know. He was too much--and I thought he was great. And I put him on my
show; twice he was on. And Jerry...
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yeah, Jerry Seinfeld. He was on the show, too, and a lot
of others: Bob Saget, Louie Anderson, Rita Rudner.
GROSS: I don't think this was at your club, but I know Andy Kaufman used to
open for you.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yeah, yeah. I loved Andy, you know (laughs). He opened for
me--I asked him if he wanted to do a couple of jobs for me. He says, `Yeah.'
I said, `OK.' And Andy's bit, you see, is he'd come on as a different
character and make the audience hate him. That was the bit. In his act, they
were coming on stage; they hit him, they hated him. You know what I mean?
And that's what he would do. And I got a big kick out of it. And people told
me, `Well, have a guy die for you. It would get us laughs.' I says, `No,
he's great. It's all right ...(unintelligible.' He said, `OK.' He was a
very talented guy, and he was different. For example, the whole audience was
booing him, absolutely booing him: `Get out, you bum! Boo! Boo!' Right?
And so Andy says, `Now there's a few of you out there who are ruining it for
the rest of you.' But the whole place wanted him off. You know what I mean?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DANGERFIELD: In fact, the second night the boss got smart. He put a huge
net right across the whole stage because they were going to throw things at
him. He knew it, right? And he did it. It worked OK. He only got hit
twice. Egg went through the net and a tomato, I think. And the rest
was--just stopped it.
GROSS: My guest is Rodney Dangerfield. His new autobiography is called "It's
Not Easy Bein' Me." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Rodney Dangerfield, and he has a new autobiography which
is called "It's Not Easy Bein' Me."
You know, you mentioned in your book that you've had problems with depression
over the years.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yeah, I've been depressed many times.
GROSS: It seems to be true of a lot of comics.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: I don't know. Depression--you know, the thing has no areas.
It can happen to an electrician, to a dockworker, anybody, you know. But I've
experienced it, I guess, my whole life, you know. When I was 15, I was
writing jokes just to get away from it all. I wanted to escape from life, so
I wrote jokes, you know.
GROSS: What was awful about your life?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Well, being brought up with no father and a mother who was
extremely selfish, right? She never made me breakfast her entire life; always
got up at 11:00. But before I'd go to school, I'd mind the newsstand for an
hour and a half, and I always had the same breakfast: Orangeade, doughnut and
coffee. That was a home-cooked meal for me (laughs).
GROSS: Did your mother ever see you perform? Did she live to see you become
Mr. DANGERFIELD: I don't know. No, no. No. My father did. In fact, I flew
him up here from Florida to come to the club and spend a night or two in the
apartment with me. So he flew up there. He saw whatever success I had at the
GROSS: Did your relationship change when he saw how successful you were?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: No, I don't think that had nothing to do with it. Our
relationship changed because I became older, and I forgave him for everything.
He cried to me, and he said, `Will you forgive me?' He meant for never seeing
me, never--know what I mean?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Two hours a year, I told you. And knowing my mother, he
couldn't have been happy with her, you know. I like my father better as a
person, you know?
GROSS: Now you write in your book that your father's funeral was one of the
loneliest moments of your life...
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yeah, right, right.
GROSS: ...and that you were the only one there.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: I was there alone, you know.
GROSS: Yeah, you were the only one at the funeral.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: I was there alone. And as they were lowering his body into
the ground, one of the workers comes over to me and says, `Hey, Rodney, can I
have your autograph?' What timing, you know (laughs)?
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about how you put together your act? Do
jokes just come to you whole, or do you have to, like, work at them and refine
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Well, sometimes you hit one right off the bat, suddenly,
boom, right? And sometimes you can try, but you've got to sit and write one,
like I wrote a joke, you know, the other day. It was in the book, I think,
you know. I'm getting old. I had an accident. I was arrested for hit and
GROSS: (Laughs) And then how do you figure out how to put them all together
to make up, like, an act?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Well, I have to put together a stand-up, which is usually
about eight jokes, and a panel, which is about 30 jokes. So I need
approximately 38 new jokes each time. And what you do is you take them and
you put them in--you make a necklace out of it. You put them together, so one
follows another correctly, you know, and they make sense. I don't know what
else to say. You put them together. And I guess sometimes you can't tell
people exactly how you do something, you know.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: It's difficult.
GROSS: Having built so much of your career on this `don't get no respect'
image, do you realize how appreciated you are now in comedy? Do you have a
sense of that?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Yeah. In my own head, though, you see, I can never be a big
shot. And I just--like, if I check in a hotel and the bellhop grabs my bag, I
feel like I should be taking the bag, you know? But I appreciate the fact
that I'm popular with people. It's a very nice feeling rather than to be
unpopular. So I'm happy about the way things went.
GROSS: So are you performing anymore?
Mr. DANGERFIELD: I haven't performed in a long time now, about a year and a
half, you know, because I was recuperating from an operation twice or
something like that. But I will be performing very shortly and go back and
see if I can fool them again.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. DANGERFIELD: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Rodney Dangerfield's new autobiography is called "It's Not Easy Bein'
Me"." A new album featuring him singing called "Romeo Rodney" is scheduled to
be released at the end of the year.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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