Don Rickles was a one of a kind. Born and raised in Queens, veteran of WWII in the Pacific, trained actor, married for more than 50 years to the same woman (despite what they say about Hollywood), and family man.
As a comic legend he was fast, funny, smart, and a workhorse until the day he died. But the loss the comedy world suffered Thursday, highlighted another quality of his work. Behind every insult he threw out, there truly was love in his heart and kindness in the soul that made all the teasing alright. Rickles was never the bully.
That truth can be hard to grasp because he possessed a quality that just can’t be taught. Even the sharpest, cleverest comics that try to do a roast or do crowd work, won’t succeed if the comedy doesn’t come with the loving spirit of someone like Rickles. It can’t be taught, and Rickles was born with that gift and brought it to the stage.
Rickles’ act has been called edgy and daring (especially when going after some very powerful people in his early days). But it was also vulnerable… Every joke depended on letting the audience see where he came from, where the jab was aimed in its subtext, before they laughed… and they seemed to laugh every time. Rickles’ comedy was never smug or aggressive because that’s not the type of person he was. Comedy wasn’t a weapon in his hands, it was a tool to bring people together.
And watching Don Rickles perform over a 60-year career, it’s remarkable to see the joy he brought to his work. When he was on a roll, the only person having a better time than the audience was Rickles. His goal as a comic was simple–get a laugh, make people feel good. It just happened to be that more often than not, that comes from acknowledging our insecurities and finding the ability to laugh at them with others. And there’s a lot to be said for that pure, simple significance he brought to his profession…he knew it feels good to laugh, it feels better to laugh with people, and he went out there every night to make that happen.
By the time Don Rickles was the household name he became, the power of his “burns” were known by just about everyone. To be acknowledged by Rickles was a gift. As Seth Meyers said last night “There’s nothing better than getting burned by Don Rickles.” The more Rickles would jab, the more he liked his target, because Rickles lived by the saying “if I didn’t like you, I wouldn’t make fun of you.” And Rickles seemed to like a lot of people. Instagram is filled with stories today of comedians proud that they were on the receiving end of Rickles’ barbs. His horseplay with Johnny Carson was the highlight of his appearances on the Tonight Show and the reason he appeared so often…the only thing funnier were the times Carson would jab back at him even harder. In recent years, Rickles showed how spry he was with appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and showed the same genuine affection for his host, while throwing out insults at him.
Don Rickles’ passing is felt by generations, as he had the strange ability to be a comic for all ages. Maybe it’s the fact that his insult comedy is really just an extension of the way kids tease their friends. Or the old man quality he seemed to possess even in the movies he made in the 60s. It was part of his appeal–Rickles was like the absolute funniest grandfather in the world; uncensored, but warm, quick to tease, but probably even faster with a hug. He was immune to the pressures of the PC police, despite performing up till the very end…there was just something about him that let him get away with it. That special warmth everyone saw coming through, no matter how brutal the insults.