Rodney Dangerfield Photograph by Michael Llewellyn
Gregory Kirschling
May 28, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The famous guy smoking medicinal marijuana in the corner of a comedy club is old and pretty sad. ”I’ve been depressed my entire life,” he admits without much prodding, his trademark bulging eyes watery with rheum. ”Always depressed. That’s the way it is. I had a f—ing horrible childhood. My father saw me two hours a year, and that was it. My mother stole money from me.” He’s carried these blues into his twilight years; depression knocked him out completely for a time in the 1990s (”I couldn’t function for two years”), and really, it still won’t go away — ”It’s always there, man.” And while he’s glad he found pot 61 years ago, and he acknowledges that ”it’s a little easier if you have someone,” referring to his doting younger wife, most of the time he’s stuck thinking about a line he claims Erma Bombeck stole from him: ”Life’s just a bowl of pits.”

Moments later, the old man is out of his seat and wobbling, however improbably, to the stage. ”Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Rodney Dangerfield!” cries the emcee at L.A.’s Laugh Factory, where the 82-year-old living legend has arrived unannounced to try out new material for only the second time since his extraordinary ”brain bypass” operation last year. It’s good practice for the upcoming publicity tour tied to the ”Back to School” star’s new memoir, ”It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs” (HarperEntertainment, $25.95). And as soon as he takes the mic, he’s a changed man, instantly alive and riffing in the guttural rapid-fire that almost anyone in the country would recognize as his.

”I’m in a good mood, really,” he begins, after a standing ovation from a half-empty but shocked Saturday-night house. ”I just finished my first book. Now I’m gonna read anudder one!” His old club getup — he’s known for his red tie — is hanging in the Smithsonian; tonight, in a concession to shambling octogenarian comfort, he’s on stage in an open-fronted white safari shirt, blue khaki short shorts, and leather clogs. ”Awww, my wife, she has a weight problem. I want sex, she says WAIT!” He isn’t wearing a tie to pull at for emphasis, as he famously used to do in the days he was America’s most successful practitioner of old-school stand-up; instead, he leans into his mike stand like a dipping dancer or an old-time radio crooner. ”The day we got married, that was a beauty, oh, the day we got married. I gave her the ring and she gave me the finger!” Big laughs. His runny eyes sparkling under the lights, Dangerfield waits. ”Any questions, perhaps?” he asks. ”I’ve been around. I know everything.”

The new book is Rodney’s amazing story, leavened with a joke literally on every page (”I tell ya, I know I’m ugly. My proctologist stuck his finger in my mouth”). After that ”f — -ing horrible” childhood, the native New Yorker lived a floundering comedian’s life until he was 28, when he quit to sell paint and aluminum siding. At 40, he tried showbiz again — and gradually rose to icon status, thanks to 97 ”Tonight Show” appearances, a still-standing New York comedy club he opened in 1969 called Dangerfield’s, his ”No respect!” catchphrase, and, after the 1980 hit ”Caddyshack,” movies. A father of two, he married and busted up with the same woman twice, but only found marital calm in 1993, when he wed Joan, a fetching blond Mormon 30 years his junior. In recent years, he’s continued to make movies — including 2000’s ”My 5 Wives,” a polygamy comedy inspired by Joan’s religion — but he’s taken unbelievable knocks too, suffering frequent blue spells and going under the knife four times since 1992, most recently for a double heart bypass in 2000 and that brain operation last April.

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