Editor’s Note: The Don Rickles video originally available is no longer available. Sorry about that.
Let’s get one thing straight: you’re a hockey puck.
At least you are if you accidentally wandered into Don Rickles’ field of vision during one of his many live shows.
Accept that premise and the rest of this post will be much easier to absorb (and ultimately, enjoy). Rickles made his living (and a good one at that) by not cutting anyone any slack when he was on stage performing or taking part in a “celebrity roast” or just trading comments with a host on late night TV.
Rickles, the world’s greatest insult comedian, the man known as “Mr. Warmth” and the “Equal Opportunity Offender”, died on April 6th at the age of 90. He was in show business for over three quarters of a century and, even as late as 2016, he was performing in 75 shows a year. And you think you need to cut back a little on work….
Rickles was an insult comic, a cut-down artist, the Pooh Bah of Put Down. His act developed–according to legend–when he called out a heckler one night decades ago and the put- down got more applause than Rickles’ regular standup act. No fool, he knew a good thing when he heard it, developed the shtick and turned it into a legendary career.
Rickles had no fear. He insulted everyone, from President Ronald Regan to Frank Sinatra, but the performance characteristic that most endeared him to me was the speed at which he worked. Who knows how much of his material was prepared before a show? Who knows how much of it was improvised, made up on the spot to fit the audience, the times, the days’ events. The speed of Rickles on full blast was breathtaking because once he got up to cruising altitude, on a roll, he did not turn back, he did not pause, he pushed it further and further, collapsing his targets and his audience into physically demanding bursts of laughter. He was one of the rare ones who could make you laugh until you cried. John Gruber, who produces the website Daring Fireball, did a terrific post on Rickles that featured some of his best bits.
Everyone likes a good putdown (some more than others) but a Rickles insults actually became something of a status symbol–if Don didn’t stick it to you, you were not as famous as you thought you were.
With the death of Don Rickles, we are nearing the end of a generation of comics who not only entertained America for most of the 20th century, but who also defined the art of comedy. They’re gone now, the greats from comedy’s golden age: Bob Hope. Henny Youngman. Jonathan Winters. Jack Benny. George Burns. Rodney Dangerfield. Milton Berle. Jackie Vernon. Robin Williams. Richard Pryor. Most of them did undergrad work in the Catskills in upstate New York, and grad school in a thousand little clubs across America. Most of them were Jewish but comedy embraces all who are good, and so in the group of greats you have Bob Hope and Robin Williams (another high speed humorist) and Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor, mixed in along with the great Jewish comedians of the era. They were funny, they were not profane (Pryor had his moments but….), and they worked constantly and, in the process, shaped America’s sense of humor. You don’t have Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld without Burns and Benny and Rickles and Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.
When this post originally went up, it was linked to a film that Jon Landis (director of “The Blues Brothers” and “Animal House”) produced. That link went away (sad, it’s a good film and worth your time to source). However, we have been able to source “An All Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles” which is another special on Rickles. It’s also terrific and just a look at the attendees is all you need to see to know precisely how important Don Rickles was to comedy. Grab a glass of wine or a scotch on the rocks and enjoy, And really, who doesn’t need a good laugh in these very unusual times?
And that is what is so great about comedy, and what was so great about Don Rickles–the good ones cross generations forever. A joke is a joke and everyone in every generation likes to laugh.
When not insulting his friends, the powerful, and his audience, Don Rickles was a pretty good actor–his role as a gambling executive in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” was spectacularly good. Off stage, he was kind and considerate. On stage, he was a nuclear punch line.
Thanks for reading this far. Now enjoy the video tribute to Mr. Rickles.
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