‘Where’s Rodney?’ Was One of the Many Questions Raised By ‘Where’s Rodney?’
“One, Poochie needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two, whenever Poochie’s not on-screen, all the other characters should be asking ‘Where’s Poochie?’ Three…” — Homer Simpson, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”
“Kids, they can see other kids all the time do the things they do but when they see an adult with a childlike sensibility or a silly sensibility that’s what kids would love. That’s like Rodney. That’s why kids love Rodney.” — Todd Glass, “The Bitter Buddha”
On a random Monday night in the summer of 19901, NBC for thirty minutes quietly threw Where’s Rodney? on the air. It was summer burn-off theater, a pilot that did not get picked up to series that the network decided to show because viewers might be tricked into believing it was some sort of Rodney Dangerfield special (which it kind of was). The show was produced by the powerful, esteemed Aaron Spelling Productions, but it was written by two men who do not have IMDB pages. It starred comedy icon Rodney Dangerfield, but he only appeared for a combined four to five minutes out of the twenty two that weren’t commercials. The conceit was elegantly simplistic and cool in theory: a 14-year-old, plagued by all of the typical problems a 14-year-old in a lower-middle middle class family who isn’t classified as cool by the social gatekeepers at the school he attends, has the ability to teleport his hero Rodney Dangerfield from thin air to wherever he is to give him some advice. The problem was that Rodney Dangerfield stole the show that was about him, significantly overshadowing the eighty percent of Where’s Rodney? when nobody knew the answer to the title’s question.
Dangerfield began his life as Jacob Rodney Cohen. At 20 years old he changed it (legally) to Jack Roy and performed for nine years to complete and utter anonymity. He effectively retired to work “real” jobs to support his family. Still working as a salesman by day, Roy got back in the game at 40, this time as a gruff, disrespected man named Rodney Dangerfield, a name and persona taken from a character on Jack Benny’s radio show. Roy as Dangerfield got his big break as Rodney — like seemingly everybody else who didn’t get it on Carson — on The Ed Sullivan Show. By the eighties he had his name (his persona’s name anyway) on one of the more influential comedy clubs in the country, starred in Caddyshack, Easy Money, and Back to School, and most impressively of all didn’t end his career or even really embarrass himself in 1983 when he released the hip hop single “Rappin’ Rodney.”
By 1990, the man was 69, and at the end of what would be his most popular period, no doubt making the idea of starring in his own show without appearing in most of the scenes very appealing. It was kind of foolproof in a way as far as Dangerfield was concerned: if Where’s Rodney? failed, everyone would say it was because the hilarious Dangerfield wasn’t in it enough. If it got a full season order: all of the monies. But the former is the scenario that played out.
Where’s Rodney? plays on the fact that Dangerfield was a hero to some disenfranchised, sexually frustrated youths. Because 1990 was right before grunge took off, there were no obvious alternative paraphernalia that the main character — 14-year-old Rodney “My name is Rodney too!” Barnes — would have adorned in his bedroom besides Dangerfield posters when looking back upon it in 2013, so generally the devotion is plausible2. Rodney Barnes was at the age when an artist can drastically shape his or her personality and worldview, and Jared Rushton essentially was playing a teenager doing a Rodney Dangerfield impression, who despite the unfortunate mullet was fairly likable. Young Rodney was like the old: kind of a dick, but never to the point of maliciousness. He was eager to be one of the popular kids who don’t share that enthusiasm in the slightest, but already was capable of having friends of his own3. His issue in the pilot — and aside from being caught cheating on an exam would probably constitute a majority of the plots had the series moved forward — was that he had trouble asking out, then keeping a date with Cindy, a cheerleader. After successfully summoning Dangerfield the first time, he successfully scores a date, but young Rodney is reminded that he already had promised to hang out with his grandparents after his birthday party, and he can’t cancel on them, because they drove to be with him. Young Rodney, like most teenagers, had trouble talking to his parents about his problems, and his friends just debate the actual attractiveness of Cindy, so the wishing of Dangerfield to help again doesn’t come off as too needy or depressing. Old Rodney proves to be a sage that is always right when he gets around to the advice after uttering a bunch of funny jokes from his act, and our hero goes on an unseen date with Cindy and his grandparents.
The scenes between Rushton and Dangerfield are in scientific terms “adorable” and “neat,” which unfortunately of course makes everything in comparison absolute garbage, both in terms of the humor and of the emotions. It isn’t exactly fair when the older Rodney is able to say all of those comedy club tested routines compared to the rest of the script, but life isn’t fair, as Dangerfield preached repeatedly, and Dangerfield walked away with virtually all of the funny material. In the conclusion of the pilot (spoiler), Cindy is seen with a much taller, conventionally more handsome (no mullet) student, cluing young Rodney that his dreams of making a bunch of half-cheerleader babies a thing of the past — it was exactly how you would figure a Dangerfield-influenced storyline would end. A dejected Rushton was left alone in the hallway, cuing Dangerfield to magically appear on his own accord to comfort him. “Hey kid, don’t feel too bad. I like it when girls walk out on me. They usually go out running.” Then Dangerfield put his arm around his biggest fan. It was legitimately touching, even if it completely threw away the fickle sci-fi logic the sitcom introduced twenty minutes earlier.
The whole rest of the episode was a tonal mess. Young Rodney had loving parents, Ann and Lou. Lou was the superintendent of the apartment building, quick with the (weak) jokes but clearly exasperated by his blue-collar job. At one point, Lou was on the verge of telling off a tenant over the phone, but realized his powerlessness in the situation and acquiesced to her demands, canceling a movie night with his family that he had been looking forward to. It underscored all of the tragedy in the tragicomedy of Rodney Dangerfield’s standup with none of the comedy to balance it. The possible motivation behind this was to illustrate how the Barnes men were Rodney Dangerfield at different stages of life, with Jay Thomas’ Lou acting as a warning to Jared Rushton’s character of a possible future where you can’t laugh off all of the times you feel disrespected and get reminded of your minimal status in the world. But that shit is depressing, and does not track with anything else in the pilot before or after. Dangerfield was always a tragicomic figure, both on stage and off of it: the persona could never catch a damn break; towards the end of his life, John Roy talked about how he wished most people could differentiate between who he really was and the character he played. Where’s Rodney? wasn’t necessarily out of bounds with getting serious, but it’s an ambitious balance to hold down, and a particularly tough one where the spotlighted premise of the show seems straight out of the mind of Homer Simpson.
As often as it’s been written in the Brilliantly Canceled column, a few tweaks to this show could have really made a positive difference. In this case though, it probably wasn’t possible for Rodney Dangerfield to have simply appeared in more scenes due to age, commitments and/or giving enough of a shit. More episodes could have worked on giving the other actors a chance to carry the weight of the series, to the point where Dangerfield’s presence was simply a fun bonus, but it wasn’t to be.
1June 11, 1990 to be specific. One commercial aired during the episode was for the new show Seinfeld, which at the time was halfway through its four-episode first season.
2Still, the life-sized Dangerfield figure where the disrespected one appears to be wearing pajamas is strange.
3Two of the three played by Soleil Moon Frye and a mulleted Breckin Meyer. Meyer was perfecting his bro persona early in his career, playing the devil on young Rodney’s shoulder to counter Moon Frye’s angel persona.