The problem of writing a column a week ahead of its publishing date is, if you write something relating to “breaking news,” by the time your column comes out, the news isn’t breaking anymore, it’s broke and old…sort of like me. Even so, having just heard that Don Rickles passed away today at the age of 90, I’d like to devote the column to him this week.
Sometimes a comedian will make you laugh; sometimes they’re just not that funny. It happens. You can’t hit a homerun every time at bat. Still, some guys have better batting averages than others. For me, when it came to humor, Don Rickles was the Ty Cobb of comics. There have been only a handful of comedians that have consistently made me laugh, or to go back to the baseball reference, hit it out of the park. Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Sid Caesar and Don Rickles always delivered.
Rickles’ career spanned more than six decades, mostly on stage in nightclubs and on the television late-night talk show circuit, most often on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He also appeared in motion pictures as diverse as Run Silent, Run Deep, X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, and Casino. Later on he gained a new young audience when he did the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies.
But it was his insult comedy routine that really made him famous. He mastered a take-no-prisoners style of stand-up comedy; no one was safe from the Rickles insults when he was on stage. He’d zero in on anybody who caught his eye in the audience, whether it was a famous celebrity such as Frank Sinatra, or just a young couple from out of town who happened to catch his show.
His verbal attacks knew no political correctness. He was an equal opportunity insulter. Age, weight, ethnicity and any other physical characteristics were all fodder for his act. And somehow, he managed to do it without ever being nasty or cruel. He was just damned funny and you knew that he meant no harm. And everyone loved it, especially the ones getting the jabs.
“Hockey puck” and “dummy” were favorite insults of his and if you happened to be an entertainer that Rickles picked on regularly, well, that was a pretty good indication that you’d made it in show biz. “Mr. Warmth,” “The Merchant of Venom,” and “The Sultan of Insult” were some of his nicknames through the years.
The following are just a small sampling of his famous put-down lines:
To a guy in the audience: “Who picks out your clothes, Stevie Wonder?”
“Italians are fantastic people, really. They can work you over in an alley while singing an opera.”
“Room service is great if you want to pay $500 for a club sandwich.”
“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.”
Speaking of Frank Sinatra: “When you enter a room, you have to kiss his ring. I don’t mind, but he has it in his back pocket.”
To Frank Sinatra, while performing at a club in 1957: “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody.”
Speaking to Martin Scorcese, who directed him in Casino: “Marty…somebody get a phone book so you can see me. Forty million jobs in show business, I got a midget to direct me.”
At a tribute to Clint Eastwood: “Clint, I’m sorry, but I just gotta say what’s on everybody’s mind here tonight: You’re a terrible actor.”
While roasting Bob Hope on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast: “We kid about great stars such as you Bob. Why? Because you’re old and washed up.”
For many years Don and his wife Barbara were best friends with Bob Newhart and his wife, Ginny. They went on vacations all over the world together. When Rickles passed, naturally it hit Newhart hard. “He was one of the kindest, caring and most sensitive human beings we have ever known. We are totally unprepared for this.”
Don Rickles reminded us that it was okay to laugh at ourselves and not take life so seriously. The world will be less funny and a little colder without “Mr. Warmth” in it.
Greg Crosby is a writer and cartoonist and former executive at the Walt Disney Company.