Just Shut Up, and Think About Rickles
Don Rickles isn’t just doing comedy. He is fighting the good fight--one of the last of the good fighters. Rickles represents a generation of entertainers vanishing with the century, victims of changing tastes and styles but mostly of the merciless passage of time.
Frank Sinatra, of course, is gone. George Burns did live to be 100, but not many weeks longer. Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin have all died within fairly recent years. Milton Berle and Bob Hope are in their 90s, and Hope no longer has the physical stamina to perform except in brief commercials. Johnny Carson retired and won’t budge from his mountain in Malibu.
There were many more--most of them gone or inactive. They were comics who could sing, singers who could dance, dancers who could do comedy. They were the all-around entertainers. What are we left with? David Letterman throwing pencils at the camera for $16 million a year.
I came to Atlantic City to see a natural wonder, or really, an unnatural wonder: Rickles, who in his 70s is practically a kid compared to Berle and Hope. He held forth for a manic weekend at the Xanadu Room of Trump’s Taj Mahal. For 90 minutes, Rickles huffed, puffed, strutted, sweated, ranted and raved across the full width of a vast stage.
He seemed mythic, ageless, fearless--endowed by the gods with a miraculous gift. It’s got to be more than just some weird old gene.
Rickles is, of course, the master of insult comedy, or what seems to be insult comedy, and for years he has been a reliable guest on TV talk shows, fearlessly attacking whomever the host might be. His nights with Carson were gala events, Rickles hurling abuse, the last of the angry old men, and Carson slipping in a devastating zinger every now and then.
Regis Philbin, who worships Rickles, recently followed him with a camera crew to the Letterman show for a hilarious sequence later played back on “Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee.”
As Letterman once noted during a previous Rickles appearance, seeing Rickles’ act in person is a completely different experience from his explosive TV appearances. His show is a three-act stream-of-consciousness play, in a way, each act separated by a song along the order of “I’m really a nice guy” and “I just want to be loved.” Then he goes right back into mad tantrums of abuse.
Rickles still does jokes about ethnic groups--virtually all ethnic groups. He even uses the otherwise verboten slang word for “Polish person.” He mocks Italians, African Americans, Japanese, Germans and, of course, Jews like himself and his wife--who, he says, drowned in the family pool because she was wearing too much jewelry.
But everyone sees through the ruse. There’s no venom. In fact the act is a celebration of diversity, of the melting pot mentality at the heart of the American dream. In a sentimental moment, Rickles prays for the day “when all the bigots will have vanished from the Earth.” He knows he will not live to see it. Who will?
Backstage after the show, freshly showered and powdered and looking as harmlessly cute as a baby’s bottom, Rickles sits exhausted on a sofa, his attractive wife, Barbara, brunt of innumerable onstage jokes, nearby. “I’m going up to Montreal to be inducted into Canada’s Comedy Hall of Fame,” he says. “I can’t get into this country’s. So I make a joke of it and say maybe I’ll get into Bulgaria’s.”
The only sad thing about the night was the median age of the audience, which appeared to be 65, many of them infirm. A few young people were scattered through the crowd, though, and they seemed to take Rickles less for granted than many old-timers do. They knew when his act was over they had seen something rare and oddly important--and astonishing.
Don Rickles doesn’t need to be in a hall of fame. Don Rickles is a hall of fame. If you ever get the chance to see him, go. Who knows how much longer we’ll have him to kick us around?