The Unbearable Lightness of Don Rickles

His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it is too offensive to be offensive. – Gay Talese

don_ricklesDon Rickles is bigger than stand-up comedy. The same way Frank Sinatra is bigger than singing. They each developed a style which would, in essence, become its own genre. They were both actors and, more accurately, entertainers. And they both forged their respective careers by refusing to compromise or vainly chase ephemeral trends. Such stuff as icons are made.

Don Rickles studied acting formally at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas studied. Rickles admits he wasn’t the best student at the Academy, but he received advice and direction there which he applied throughout his career. Rickles landed some film and television roles and appeared in a few stage productions, but the loudmouthed Jewish kid from Jackson Heights made a name for himself with his quick, merciless wit.

Don Rickles never hesitates to credit his mother for much of his success. Like most comedians of his era, Rickles got his start playing mob-run dives and strip clubs. Etta Rickles, who he affectionately refers to as “General Patton,” hustled all the comedian’s early gigs, marching into club owners’ offices and demanding her son be given a slot.

Shortly after the Rickles family moved to Palm Beach, Etta learned that Frank Sinatra was performing in town, and that the famous singer’s mother, Dolly Sinatra, was staying at a nearby hotel. Etta somehow met, and charmed, Dolly. The two mothers hit it off and Dolly assured Etta that her son Frank would be at Don’s show that night. Dolly Sinatra made good on her promise; Frank and entourage showed up for Rickles’ set. Upon seeing Sinatra enter, Rickles quipped, “Make yourself comfortable, Frank, hit somebody.” Silence. Sinatra’s entourage looked to the Chairman for direction. Sinatra howled. Rickles doubled down, “Frank, believe me, I’m telling you this as a friend: Your voice is gone.”

That was it. No one had ever roasted Sinatra publicly (or privately for that matter) like this before, and lived to tell about it. Sinatra couldn’t help but respect this smart-assed, bullet-headed comedian. A lifelong friendship was formed.

I always pictured myself facing the audience as the matador. – Don Rickles

Rickles is not unlike the court jesters of Medieval times, permitted to mock kings. But Rickles saw himself more as a warrior than a fool. At some point Rickles began using the traditional bullfighting song, “La Virgen De La Macarena,” as his opener. Jerry Seinfeld said, “it takes a genius to pull off what he does. By pitting himself against his audience he’s performing an act that on any night could result in catastrophe. It’s no wonder he chose the Spanish matador theme as his song.”

Each Don Rickles performance is like a boxing match. While he has certain stock jokes in his arsenal, practiced jabs and combinations, nothing is planned or written in advance of any particular show. He riffs off the audience, improvising his set, rolling with the punches. This “gladiatorial” approach, as Jon Stewart calls it, is the opposite of comedians like Bob Hope or Johnny Carson who relied on a team of writers for their material. Bob Hope was so rehearsed that he once called a meeting of his writing team to discuss six different alternatives for how Rickles should say a particular line in a bit they did together. The line: “Hi, Bob.”

Even Carson would ditch his prearranged notes when Rickles made one of his legendary appearances on The Tonight Show – the only time Carson went off script. Every Carson appearance was magic, two comedic giants riffing off each other in pure, unplanned adlib. Nothing even remotely that exciting can be found today on late night television, where guests begin their answer almost before the publicist-generated, pre-screened questions leave the host’s mouth.

Rickles didn’t always save it for the stage or the studio. The Rat Pack were notorious practical jokers and Rickles, although not an official member, fit right in with their school boy hijinks during the glory years of Vegas. One night Rickles was on a date at the Sands. His companion noticed Sinatra and entourage sitting in a VIP section of the restaurant. Rickles approached Sinatra and asked if he would come say hello to his date, to ensure the comedian’s chance of getting lucky. When Sinatra eventually sauntered up to Rickles’ table to make the pre-arranged hello, Rickles shot out loudly so that the whole place could hear, “Not now, Frank – can’t you see I’m with somebody!” As payback, Sinatra had two of his security guards escort Rickles out of the casino mid-date. But not before the butt of the joke “fell down laughing.”

Another anecdote is recounted by Gay Talese in his landmark Esquire article, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Sinatra and entourage, including Dean Martin and Joey Bishop, crashed Rickles’ set at the Sahara lounge. They engaged in an hour of banter – Rickles firing mercilessly and the inebriated Rat Pack egging him on – until finally:

Sinatra, standing up, said, ‘All right, com’on, get this thing over with. I gotta go.’

‘Shaddup and sit down!’ Rickles snapped. ‘I’ve had to listen to you sing….’

‘Who do you think you’re talking to?’ Sinatra yelled back.

‘Dick Haymes,’ Rickles replied, and Sinatra laughed again.

Rickles’ trademark insults cut right to the heart of things. Early in his career, before he reinvented himself in the 1950’s, Frank Sinatra was a teen idle, a bobby sox crooner. In the 1940’s Sinatra’s biggest competition was Dick Haymes. In fact, the two vocalists had a strikingly similar approach to their singing style, which further fueled their rivalry.

Rickles tells it slightly different in his memoir. He recalls that Sinatra asked who his favorite singer was, to which he quipped, “The truth, Frank? Dick Haymes.” Either way it happened, the point was made. At this stage in his career Sinatra was the biggest star in the world and nobody remembered how he once sounded like another, lesser-known singer from the previous decade, back before he fully developed his own style. Rickles’ dig called Sinatra out in a way that told the singer the comedian knew of what he spoke.

Gay Talese was on to something when he said that Rickles’ humor is “too offensive to be offensive.” Rickles seems to have figured out early the secret to the style of comedy he perfected. This is twofold: 1) Be a decent person in real life. 2) Spare no one.

Don Rickles has made fun of everyone, from world leaders to Mafia goons, and right to their face. In the early years, the latter threatened his wellbeing on more than one occasion. But even the mob heavies eventually figured out it was all an act. In fact, it became part of the fun; almost a badge of honor. If Rickles calls you out, you must be somebody.

Rickles’ brand of insult humor is based in the “roast” tradition, first documented at a Friars Club dinner in 1910, and later immortalized by Dean Martin et al with The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast television specials. The idea is that the victim of the roast must be respected and admired by those doing the roasting. Don Rickles does not insult people because he dislikes them; quite the opposite. Nothing is sacred and nobody is safe with Don Rickles, whether it be his paying audience, close friends like Dean Martin, or childhood matinee idols like Roy Rogers. Rickles spares no one.

Rickles can get away with his infamous ethnic jokes because in real life he is not a racist and because he makes as many Jewish jokes as anything else. This is the same approach that has worked for provocateurs like Kinky Friedman or Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. South Park, perhaps more than any other comedy writing, spares literally no one. Nothing is sacred to Parker and Stone – not the Holocaust, not AIDS, nothing – to the point where no one claiming to be offended can be taken seriously. This is the Rickles model taken to its logical conclusion.

Don’t write letters folks. We cover them all. – Don Rickles

Rickles’ decency as a human was a frequent topic at the television special, One Night Only: An All Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles, which aired on Spike TV last May.

Jon Stewart said: “This man is love…the most amazing thing about Don Rickles is his inherent decency. He is such a good and decent man…For younger comedians, we admired the way that he battled the audience, that he stood up for us… he gave us hope, and humor is indelibly within him. It’s all he is.”

Robert De Niro called Rickles “something rare…a wonderful human being. If he weren’t he would never be able to get away with being such an asshole.”

Tracy Morgan defended not only Rickles’ brand of humor in general but specifically his refusal to apologize in the face of what has become the now-standard, predictable and dull outcry from the pitchforked mobs who pounced on Rickles when he told a racial joke about President Obama at an American Film Institute tribute to Shirley MacLaine. Rickles refused to apologize and Morgan applauded him for this. Morgan praised Rickles for his fearlessness before closing, “The reason I love you most? You never discriminated.”

Precisely. The irony here is that those demanding an apology failed to see that Don Rickles would have discriminated only if he spared the President. Whether the joke itself was funny or not is irrelevant. Some jokes miss, and most of Rickles’ zings don’t work on paper. It’s in his presence, his consistency, his very being. The irony is that Rickles’ racial joke about Obama is the antithesis of discrimination. The massacre in Paris last week should be a reminder to us all to be cautious in our cries for censorship of expression. We need to get past this era of self-righteous, selective outrage, where we demand public apologies – public shaming – from any artist who dares to challenge us, even if that challenge is offensive by design. The alternative is tyranny and, eventually, bloodshed. The very act of forcing an artist to retract their words because someone is offended is far more offensive than the underlying words could ever be.

Rickles, by the way, is an outspoken, lifelong Democrat. Yet, of the five presidents he’s met personally, Rickles says he had the most fun with Ronald Reagan, who he famously roasted at the 1985 inauguration – a gig his pal Sinatra got for him – by dropping the microphone on the stage before making cracks about Reagan’s age and attention span. Rickles comes from an era where you didn’t have to vilify or disassociate with someone simply because they held differing political views or belonged to a different political party. We could use more of that kind of decency in our discourse these days.

I keep working. I gotta keep working. – Don Rickles

At 88 years old, the wheelchair-bound Don Rickles is still out there on the road performing, and anyone can still witness this lost art. When the lights dim and you hear the dramatic call of the trumpet and you see the matador take his place in the spotlight and grab his microphone, his only weapon, you are about to witness an improvisational performance art that will die with Don Rickles. That he still does this in an era of such closed-minded, sanctimonious and humorless political correctness is astonishing. That no living comedian has the ability to recreate this performance art at this level while maintaining the love and affection of those he insults is telling about the man’s true genius. To wallow in the weeds searching for seeds of tastelessness with which to cling is to miss the point and to miss, sadly, one of the giants who walks among us still. If the Rickles oeuvre teaches us anything, it is to lighten up; don’t take yourself so seriously. And light is something this world, and all of us in it, can always use more of.

In the closing monologue to his album Hello Dummy!, recorded live in 1968 – a year of significant social and racial upheaval in America – Don Rickles said this:

My humor, ladies and gentlemen, is directed in a way to laugh at ourselves…I stand here and speak of all faiths, creeds and colors. And why not? Really, why not? Because in my experience in the Navy, when things were rough, nobody bothered or cared to ask color, church, synagogue. Who cares?…When our time is up we will all be on one team so why do we need bigotry and nonsense?…Will Rogers once said, ‘I never picked on the little guy, only big people.’ May I say to this entire audience on a hectic night, you are pretty big and I do thank each and every one of you.


4 responses

  1. Reblogged this on Li Ying's London Journalism Journal and commented:
    Like the humour and wit of it.

  2. […] on their ethnicity, from Mel Brooks to Margaret Cho, Paul Rodriguez to Chris Rock. Comedians, like Don Rickles, who use crass racial humor in a positive light as a means to bring people together, are often misunderstood and shunned by the ignorant and the […]

  3. Don Rickles’ homeland was independent when he was born. Lithuania was independent from 1918-1940 and again 1991 onwards. Lithuania refused to join the Commonwealth of Independent States!

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