Don Rickles, the man who defined insult humor to a generation, has died at age 90. The bullet-headed comedian secured his fame insulting celebrities to their faces, and working nightclub crowds with a combination of terse jokes and quick sarcasm. When Rickles first came on the scene in the late 1950s, most of America had never seen anything like him: a man who had little respect for anyone and was seemingly fearless about alienating show business figures much more powerful than he was.
It took a while for him to achieve that notoriety, however. Rickles worked for years in small clubs as a conventional standup comedian, until slowly but surely, he began to realize it was the stuff that other comedians used as throwaway lines — jokes used to silence hecklers in the audience — that could be the real meat of his performances.
Rickles was catapulted to prominence by Frank Sinatra in the early 1960s, when the singer attended one of the comedian’s shows. Sinatra was amused and impressed by the way Rickles refused to be intimidated by him. Rickles sauntered over to Sinatra’s table and said into the microphone, “Stand up, Frank, be yourself — hit somebody.” Sinatra guffawed, and started using Rickles as his opening act and recommending him for other jobs.
Rickles was soon dubbed, sarcastically, “Mr. Warmth,” although I prefer his other, less well-known nickname, “The Merchant of Venom.” Those early years of Rickles’s insults could provoke gasps from audiences. He frequently trafficked in what would now be considered highly insulting stereotypes of blacks and Asians, and made targets of audience members regarding their weight or other physical traits.
One of the best summations of what Rickles was like can be seen in this 1983 appearance on David Letterman’s NBC Late Night show. Look at the way he insults band musician Hiram Bullock. (“You’re black, and I’m white. That’s the breaks!”) Look at how he picks away at Letterman’s then lowly network status (“I can say anything, because at 12:30, nobody’s up”). And note when Rickles mentions Letterman’s alma mater, the host is genuinely surprised. “How did you know I went to Ball State?” asks Dave. Rickles shoots back with withering condescension: “Because you’re my whole life!” See how hard Letterman laughs at that. When Letterman, as was his custom with elders, addresses Rickles as “sir,” Rickles snaps, “You don’t have to call me sir; King of All Jews will suffice.”
If Rickles was caustically insensitive with his punch lines, he was canny enough to keep a lot of his material clean, which made him palatable for talk-show bookers. (His signature insults to absolutely anyone were, “Hello, dummy!” and “Hey, you hockey puck!”) Rickles regularly reduced Johnny Carson to helpless giggles on The Tonight Show. He essentially invented insult humor as a genre on television, and could be said to have single-handedly inspired Dean Martin’s highly successful NBC Celebrity Roasts — basically tidied-up versions of the down-and-dirty humor that occurred at New York’s Friars Club roasts. Here’s Rickles doing one of Martin’s network roasts, of Sinatra.
Rickles struggled to be something more than an insult comic. He had a spotty career in movies and on television. He appeared in everything from the 1965 Frankie Avalon musical Beach Blanket Bingo to an episode of The Twilight Zone (“Mr. Dingle, the Strong”) without making much of an impact. The 1976 sitcom that was supposed to make him as big a TV star as his dear friend Bob Newhart, a military comedy called C.P.O. Sharkey, limped along in the ratings for barely two seasons.
When given the chance, he was a good actor, as small roles in 1958’s Run Silent, Run Deep and Martin Scorsese’s 1995 Casino proved. Rickles became known to a new generation as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies.
It’s hard to know how Rickles’s reputation will hold up in the future, given that his form of derision now seems tame by cable-TV standards. But for a few decades there, Rickles was the guy everyone in America wanted to be insulted by.
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• Hollywood Reacts to the Death of Comic Legend Don Rickles