Listen up, you hockey pucks. One of the greats has left the building.
I first heard Don Rickles on the Johnny Carson show in the 1960s. I couldn't believe what he was saying, and that people were laughing. He was insulting everyone, including Johnny, and no one was laughing harder than Carson. Wow, I thought, someone can insult you and make you love it. This was an entirely new notion for me.
We've had a lot of insult comics, but he was the first, and at least in my mind, the very best. Andrew Dice Clay and Lisa Lampanelli are insult comics, but their comedy relies on incredible vulgarity, and that's the easy way out. Rickles wasn't vulgar at all. He summed it up best himself when he said, “Other people say funny things; I say things funny.” And boy, did he ever. No one was safe from his cutting wit. Watch a YouTube video and see for yourself. He was a comedy genius on the level of Robin Williams or Jonathan Winters. Permit me to give you just a taste:
“Italians are fantastic people, really. They can work you over in an alley while singing an opera.”
“Asians are nice people, but they burn a lot of shirts.”
“No matter where you go in this world, you will always find a Jew sitting in the beach chair next to you.”
“Yeah, I make fun of blacks, and why not? I'm not black.”
Yes, sometimes people squirmed. Sometimes we felt a bit uncomfortable, but his genius was that he was never mean-spirited. He genuinely liked people, and you could tell. He didn't tell jokes like other comedians. He'd just come out and start talking to the audience. There aren't many people who can do that and be consistently funny. Don Rickles could.
If you've never seen the clip of when he broke Johnny Carson's cigar box, you must Google it. He was guest hosting the Tonight Show and accidentally broke the box. Worried that Carson would find out, he just left it, hoping Johnny would blame someone else. When Carson discovered that the box was broken, he asked the audience who had done it, and they immediately threw Rickles under the bus. It just so happened that Rickles was taping another show in the next studio and Carson went looking for him. You'll have to watch the rest yourself; I don't want to spoil it.
Frank Sinatra called him “Bullet Head.” Johnny Carson called him “Mr. Warmth.” Most people called him Mr. Rickles. I will miss him, and even if you haven't heard his comedy, you will too.