Oh man, Don Rickles.
Remember when they used to show old episodes of Saturday Night Live on Comedy Central? I once watched an episode from 1984. The host was Don Rickles. His opening monologue was pure Don Rickles, which is to say that he insulted everyone in the audience. It didn’t matter who the person was, Rickles was going to insult them. He insulted John Madden. He insulted Brandon Tartikoff, the president of the NBC. He insulted the people who had just come in from off the street. I don’t remember much about the specific insults. The main thing that I remember is that the audience absolutely loved it. Even before Rickles thanked them all for being good sports, the audience was eating out of his hand.
Don Rickles was the King of Insult Comedy. His nickname was Mr. Warmth. The nickname was not as ironic as you might think. Off-stage, Rickles was reportedly a kind and generous man. And, on-stage, Rickles may have insulted the audience but he did it with a twinkle in his eye and he always thanked him at the end. His humor may have been built on insults but it was also built on self-depreciation. The only person he made fun of more than the guy sitting in front row of the audience was himself. Going to one of his shows might lead to you being called a “hockey puck,” but Rickles’s ultimate message was always that we’re all in this together.
As funny as Rickles was, he was also lucky enough to start his career in the 1950s. (Reportedly, he got his big break when he saw Frank Sinatra in the audience, said, “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody!” and insulted his work in his last movie. Sinatra loved it.) If Don Rickles had started his career this century, his politically incorrect humor would have gotten him banned from most clubs and Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham would have led a twitter campaign to have him incarcerated. Don Rickles was lucky enough to by funny at a time when comedians were actually rewarded for making us laugh.
What was your favorite Don Rickles role? He always said that his grandkids only liked him because he voiced Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films. Rickles also had a rare dramatic role in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, more than holding his own against heavyweight actors like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.
Don Rickles died today at the age of 90. I would say rest in peace but I don’t think Don Rickles would have appreciated the “in peace” part. I will just say goodbye, Mr. Rickles and thank you for the laughter.