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Don Rickles, the Man Who Insulted His Way to Belovedness

(Kevin Mazur / WireImage / Getty Images)

He mocked everybody equally so they’d know it wasn’t personal.

The ancient Greeks believed in a trio of vengeful goddesses, the Furies, who punished oathbreakers and liars—or, at least, they swore they believed in them while selling sick goats to the gullible at discount prices.

Because it was considered dangerous to attract the attention of these ill-tempered divinities, people would often refer to the Furies discreetly and ironically as Εὐμενίδες, or “the gracious ones.”

The same strategy was used in modern times with famed insult comedian and occasional serious actor Don Rickles, who grew famous for mocking those around him—and was thus dubbed “Mr. Warmth” by his friendly rival, Johnny Carson.

Well, nobody is referring to Rickles as Mr. Warmth now, thanks to his death at age 90 on April 6, 2017.

Yes, yes: As jokes go, that was a pretty cold one. As Rickles himself would probably ask, what other kind of joke would you make about a cold body? That willingness to poke fun in all directions is why the king of insult comedy will not soon be forgotten.

We invite you to share condolences for Don Rickles in our Guest Book.

Born in Queens, New York to Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents in 1926, Donald J. Rickles grew up during the Great Depression and served honorably during the Second World War. He wanted to join Special Services as an entertainer, but was instead made seaman first class. That job he was funny enough for, I suppose. 

After the war, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Not finding much luck as a serious actor, Rickles turned to comedy just as stand-up was beginning to come into its own as a genre separate from vaudeville. Inspired by Milton Berle, Rickles hit the stage in Miami Beach, New York, and Los Angeles.

The nightclub scene was soaked in alcohol and often dominated by organized crime; one had to be quick-witted to defend against hecklers and the more emotionally sensitive members of the criminal underworld, while also guarding against the police and local bluenoses. Rickles had more wit than humor. His impressions were awful, and his jokes regularly bombed, but when he sparred with the audience, picking on appearance and sartorial choices and ethnicity, he shone.

Rickles was no Lenny Bruce; though his material could be vicious, he never cursed or used sexually explicit terms as a part of his routine. He famously would shout back at hecklers, “Would you shut up! You’re a real hockey puck!” It sounded like a swear, but wasn’t one; “hockey puck” was a tame enough insult that Rickles could use it in a 1970s TV commercial when Right Guard deodorant hired him as a spokesman.

Taste today dictates that comedians “kick up and kiss down”—that is, insult the rich and powerful while championing the downtrodden and marginalized. Rickles didn’t play that game; he was what they used to call an equal opportunity offender. Mr. Warmth definitely earned his other nickname, which played on both his Jewishness and his acid humor: “The Merchant of Venom.”

Stereotyping was key to his act. A typical Rickles ethnic joke was: “Italians are fantastic people, really. They can work you over in an alley while singing an opera.” Members of the audience were not spared. Rickles once solemnly glanced down at a nightclub patron who’d emigrated from India and sadly declared, “You people come out of the jungle and take all our good jobs.” Often the humor was in the delivery. At Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, Rickles was introduced by the young TV star Emmanuel Lewis. Rickles, after zinging the President, pretended to fear for his life and suggested that the Marines in attendance “shoot Webster” instead.

Despite his persona as a misanthrope, Rickles worked best when surrounded by famous friends whom he could insult with impunity. He even once claimed: “I never pick on little guys. I only pick on a big guy.” (Webster was unavailable for comment at press time.) One of his earliest supporters was Frank Sinatra, of whom Rickles said, “When you enter a room, you have to kiss his ring. I don't mind, but he has it in his back pocket.” Like Sinatra and others of that generation, Rickles did a lot of work in the casinos of Las Vegas, and palled around with everyone from Elvis to Dean Martin. The decades-long relationship with Ol’ Blue Eyes lasted until Sinatra’s death. Rickles was a pallbearer at the singer’s funeral, and when the priest told Rickles not to lean on the Sinatra’s coffin, Rickles fired back, “Oh, that’s okay, Father. Frank wouldn’t mind. I leaned on him my entire life.”

A perennial on late-night TV, Rickles regularly mocked Johnny Carson’s light workload, wealth, and Nebraska background. “That's it, laugh it up,” he told Carson after noting how little “The Tonight Show” host worked. “You're making $50 million a year and your poor parents are back in Nebraska eating locusts for dinner.” Carson eventually got a measure of revenge for all the japes, famously invading the set of Rickles’s short-lived sitcom “C.P.O. Sharkey,” which was taping near "The Tonight Show," to demand an apology from Rickles for breaking the cigarette box Carson kept on his on-air desk. Rickles was near speechless for a change, and the studio audiences for both shows were delighted.

Nothing of the sort would ever happen so spontaneously today. Among other things, the contemporary public wouldn’t even tolerate a television host smoking on the air.

Rickles’s close connections to celebrities also largely insulated him from criticism—his famous friends knew that his shtick was just that, so he could continue with socially and racially charged material even after the civil rights movement and the era of so-called “political correctness.” In the 1990s, Rickles toasted Quincy Jones at the record producer’s birthday party, a black-tie affair, congratulating him on all his achievements and his wonderful wife. “But no matter how successful you are,” he concluded before a crowd that included Oprah Winfrey and Sidney Poitier, “you’re still a black man.” Jones reportedly laughed off the joke, but Poitier was less than pleased.

There was widespread agreement that Rickles went too far when he targeted President Barack Obama in 2012 at the American Film Institute’s tribute to Shirley MacLaine. “I shouldn’t make fun of blacks,” he said—true!—but then continued on with a personalized new version of an old line he’d used on Sammy Davis Jr. years before: “President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.”

The joke bombed, and criticism was near universal. While Rickles had often been granted special dispensation to target anyone with his humor, the first African-American President of the United States had been granted a similar social dispensation from being the target of racialized humor.

Nobody gave Don Rickles the memo, though. Until the Obama backlash, he had thrived for decades telling ethnic jokes, even as society grew ever more sensitive to their offensiveness. In part, that’s because his commitment to insulting every group of people in equal measure was a powerful shield for deflecting criticism. His stand-up act was often interspersed with a list of the types of people he enjoyed making fun of—“Irish, Jews, Italians”—but accompanied by a promise that he liked everyone. He often concluded his shows with a prayer that bigotry be erased from the world.

Likewise, Rickles finished his roasting of President Reagan in 1985 by saying, “To you, our dear President, may God be good to you and yours for the coming four years and beyond that. You’re a great gentleman and a great credit to the country. May He give you health, the Almighty, and may you reign as long as you wish. God bless.” That’s one way to avoid being beaten to death by Marines in dress uniform. Rickles often made nice with his targets, just to pull the rug out from under them—but then would ultimately wrap up with a warm comment, an appeal to universal brotherhood, a paean to God and universal love of all humanity, or at least a commercial break.

Though he never made it as a serious actor, Rickles did appear in several films. He played a small role in the 1958 war film "Run Silent, Run Deep," and still fit into a military uniform twelve years later for the comical "Kelly’s Heroes." He did some of his insult comic routine as a carnival barker in Roger Corman’s low budget sci-fi flick “X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes,” playing well against Academy Award winner Ray Milland in that small role.

Rickles was eager enough for dramatic bona fides that he included a scene from “Inherit the Wind” from his 1975 home video “Buy This Tape, You Hockey Puck,” in which he played William Jennings Bryan opposite Jack Klugman’s Clarence Darrow. It was out of place on a compilation tape that also included Rickles mocking Elliot Gould for resting his hands in the high pockets of his very 1970s suit jacket. “I guess your psychiatrist put ‘em so you’d stop…” Rickles ad-libbed.

John Landis, who was a production assistant on "Kelly’s Heroes," cast Rickles in his 1992 vampire film “Innocent Blood,” and it didn’t end well for the comedian. He died twice in that comedy-horror film, just like the old days doing two shows a night in Miami Beach. Landis later produced a star-studded documentary, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” for HBO. As it turns out, Rickles’s celebrity friends and fellow comedians really did like him. “Everybody wants to be sh*t on by Don Rickles,” said Sarah Silverman, whom we hope had her wish come true.

As a Vegas regular, Rickles traveled familiar territory as a pit boss in Martin Scorcese’s “Casino,” in which he was severely beaten by a telephone-wielding Joe Pesci. On the set, he often cracked jokes about Scorcese’s height (he’s short) and star Robert DeNiro’s mumbling (he actually mumbles all the time).

Rickles will certainly go down in film history not for any of these gigs, though, but for his role as the voice of Mister Potato Head in the “Toy Story” series of films. Sure, Scorcese is a genius and all, but kids love watching those “Toy Story” movies over and over—a fourth is due for 2019—and most parents have various lines of dialogue written directly onto their synapses by now.

When he died, Rickles was booked. He never stopped working, though he was no longer a stand-up. He sat in a chair on stage and pointed out his front-row targets with a cane. “How long have you been married?” he liked to ask older couples sitting near the stage. “I’ve been married for forty-nine years!” Rickles bellowed, and with perfect timing, just as the congratulatory applause would begin to subside and he could be heard perfectly, he snapped, “Don’t clap! You’ve never seen her.”

Most of Rickles’s repertoire only retained its shock value because he was sticking with half-century-old jokes—that was the shocking bit. The middle-of-the-road audience of aging boomers who liked their transgressive comedy without dirty words, or any real transgression, kept Rickles active. That, and the financial geniuses who would book a 90-year-old comedian for gigs a year in advance. Sorry, ticketholders for the concert at the Smith Center in Las Vegas: The February 2018 Don Rickles show will not be happening, but the tickets themselves will definitely be collectors’ items.

Will we see the likes of Don Rickles again? Of course not. It’s easy to offend these days, but it’s hard to develop a reputation as an edgy comedian without working blue. Lots of stand-ups mine politically incorrect veins of race and sexuality, but none of them humbly pray for universal brotherhood afterward. The entire Internet has adopted his rhetorical techniques of the casually dismissive one-liner and the punchline-free joke. “I can’t even,” is the Don Rickles eye roll; “Bye, Felicia!” is his sneering, “Why do I kid? Because I don’t like you.” Nobody stands out as the insult comedian, because we’re all so free with insults.

Rickles was an everyman, the office cut-up, the loudmouth uncle who didn’t even need three beers in him before he started in on his brother’s double chin. Though the world may not have strictly needed Don Rickles, we were pleased to have him. And if we’re lucky—hell, if he’s lucky—he’s at heaven’s pearly gates right now, preparing to take advantage of the altitude and sh*t on us all.

Nick Mamatas is the author of Insults Every Man Should Know as well as seven and a half novels, including I Am ProvidenceThe Last Weekend, and The Damned Highway with Brian Keene. 

We invite you to share condolences for Don Rickles in our Guest Book.