Even at 4-foot-10, Danny DeVito is a pop-culture colossus. He’s an integral part of the ensemble of two of the most beloved comedy television series of all time. He’s a brother to Homer Simpson, and a friend to Nicholson, Douglas and Clooney. And he’s an underrated auteur whose dark comedies showed that his pursuit of laughs was actually a quest for meaning and purpose. In honor of his turning 78 — in his native New Jersey, his birthday, November 17th, is now an official state holiday — we pay tribute to this short king of (short) kings with a week dedicated to his most indelible work and the cultural footprint he continues to blaze.

A rumor passed through the SUNY Purchase campus in the fall of 2018. In the basement of one of the nondescript art buildings in the verdant hills of Westchester, you will find a men’s bathroom. Inside, there is a steel paper-towel dispenser that guards an ancient, eldritch secret. Pull on its handle, and you might tumble head over heels into the arcane DeVito Dimension.

I noticed a crack in the brick next to the metal, and my fingers fit under it. The next thing I know, I’m holding the dispenser as if it were a door,” remembers 22-year old Kaitlin Balfe, now a SUNY Purchase graduate. “My friend helped me put it aside, and all I hear from him is, ‘Oh my fucking god what is this.’”

Balfe posted the results of her discovery on Twitter. Yes, behind the walls of the bathroom, in a tiny concrete grotto, laid a makeshift shrine to TV comedian, Tony Award nominee and old-school Hollywood eccentric, Danny DeVito. A two-foot cardboard cutout of the legend stood in a rocky corner — hidden away in the same way a witch would stash her summoning reagents. Around DeVito’s feet, Balfe found a small pile of discarded garbage — metro cards, candy wrappers and an unused condom, mementos that were pulled out of jean pockets and laid on the floor as a peculiar form of tribute.

This “Narnia-adjacent” hidden realm, as Balfe calls it, was sealed up shortly afterwards by the school administrators, likely fearing some sort of liability exposure. (To be fair, there isn’t great ventilation in a hidden chamber in a college bathroom.) But the altar of filth consecrated in DeVito’s honor was burned into internet history forever. In some strange, inarticulable way, it seemed like the perfect tribute to the actor’s legacy.

“He’s unique because he’s famous, yet doesn’t fit the image of a massive celebrity in any way, which people are drawn to and feel comfortable with. This is the same comfort that we get from seeing relatable content online. It’s such a niche vibe,” explains Balfe, when I ask for her thoughts on the resonance of the SUNY Purchase reliquary. “Danny DeVito is the face of the Gen-Z bible, and I don’t see him being replaced anytime soon.”

By any reasonable estimate, DeVito has enjoyed an incredibly successful, and incredibly normal, career in Tinseltown. He has never been an outré experimentalist or an outsider artist; DeVito started appearing in movies in the 1970s and has burnished a long catalog of gilded, Academy-endorsed classics (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Terms of Endearment, L.A. Confidential and so on.) He is also a kingmaking producer, bringing to life Pulp Fiction and Garden State, and has occasionally dabbled in directing, voiceover work and the occasional spot of political activism. He is, in other words, a bon vivant; a remarkably gifted aesthete who has lived a genuinely enviable life. Most people who pass through Hollywood don’t achieve even one percent of what DeVito has enjoyed in the performing arts, which makes it even more strange that in the prism of Twitter memes, DeVito is right at home in a profane chantry — condemned to the sort of grime that Satanists might use to commune with Beezlebub. 

Danny DeVito is rich, famous and far more talented than any of us, but he also speaks to the squalid little gremlins living in our souls. “Your shrine honors me,” said DeVito, when he caught wind of the SUNY Purchase tribute. “My heart is filled with love and garbage.” 

Don Caldwell, editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, notes that DeVito has been the subject of internet fascination for several years. (Full disclosure: Cracked and Know Your Meme share the same parent company.) In 2016, for instance, there was a semi-ironic campaign to cast the actor as the voice of the titular Detective Pikachu, which, quite frankly, would’ve gotten me out to the box office. (Two years ago, something similar happened when amateur memers petitioned Marvel to make DeVito the new Wolverine.) The humor here is self-evident — DeVito stands at a Lilliputian 4-foot-10, and he frequently posts what he calls his “troll foot” on his Twitter account. He is not leading man material, which only encourages fans to imagine a reality where he's earned top billing, anyway.

“He’s beloved. People like to prop him up. He has this air of silliness — this comedic figure,” says Caldwell. “He reminds people to not take things too seriously.”

Caldwell is right on the money. DeVito’s success is, in of itself, a small miracle. Men that look like DeVito aren’t supposed to amount to anything more than character actors, so all of his lauded accomplishments remind us of the core absurdity of the rules we tell ourselves about the way the world works. (If DeVito can strike it big, why can't I?) But that spirit of irreverence wouldn’t exist without It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, the venerable FX comedy that has shockingly distinguished itself as DeVito’s most iconic project. His character, Frank Reynolds, mirrors the sort of DeVito you might find in the SUNY bathroom: a grubby, paranoid cretin with a penchant for strip clubs and self-loathing. In seemingly every episode, Reynolds gets wrapped up in a doomed Ponzi scheme or a bizarre sex scandal. When you look at some of the most resonant DeVito memes on the web — say, DeVito brandishing dual pistols like a Counter-Strike agent, or DeVito receiving a blow job with a smug look on his face — it’s clear that Reynolds is the man who has truly captured our imagination. 

“He’s a villain, he’s a satirical villain. We tend to attach a following to villains and anti-heroes,” says Balfe.

DeVito clearly understands that for the rest of his life, his own existence will be permanently conjoined with the Always Sunny facsimile. For as great an actor as he is, DeVito doesn’t possess Christian Bale’s transformative chops. When you see DeVito on screen, he will always, unmistakably, be Danny DeVito. It’s that inescapable Sean Connery effect, so why not lean into it? I already mentioned the feet pics he liberally posts on social media to all of our shock and delight, but that’s just the surface of his shitposting acumen. Remember, for instance, when he clapped back at Antonin Scalia with the now-iconic Retire Bitch? “He has a certain amount of self-awareness. He’s embraced this aspect of his personality,” says Caldwell. 

Case in point: DeVito’s Twitter profile picture features him shirtless in front of his computer, holding up the URL to his profile scrawled out in ugly, Sharpie ink. It will probably remain that way, hovering in cyberspace, long after he leaves this world. DeVito is 78 now, and living at a time when his septuagenarian peers completely misunderstand the internet. We are living in an epidemic of elderly Americans posting terrible, malformed, incoherent memes. So thank god we at least have DeVito — a naturally charismatic troll who has never, ever lost a step throughout the decades. In fact, in our current superheated internet culture, it’s almost like DeVito has finally hit his stride. He cracked the code: As long as you’re making yourself laugh, you don’t need to worry about anything else.

“DeVito just posts odd content, but I don’t think it’s a direct nod to his fans,” concludes Balfe. “I think he’s just being himself.”

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