Happy heavenly birthday, Don Rickles
After a decade of striving in the comedy clubs, Donald Jay Rickles got his big break in 1957, when Frank Sinatra saw him perform at a club.
Noticing Sinatra in the audience, Rickles improvised his act to hilariously deride the legendary singer. "I just saw your movie The Pride and the Passion and I want to tell you, the cannon's acting was great" were among his lively zingers.
Sinatra was in stitches, causing him to become Rickles's foremost advocate and leading to him becoming a popular headline performer in Las Vegas.
Clearly, Sinatra was among the rare variety of superstars who could laugh at himself, or perhaps it was Rickles's likable personality that made his "insults" seem funny rather than derisive.
Rickles went on to become one of the leading comic talents in the U.S.
He made numerous appearances on television on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Dean Martin's televised roasts.
Rickles starred in comedy shows such as The Don Rickles Show (1972), in which he played an embattled advertising executive. Rickles played the title role in C.P.O. Sharkey (1976–78), about a forked-tongued petty officer at a naval training center with personnel of various racial and cultural backgrounds. He played the irascible father of Richard Lewis in Daddy Dearest (1993).
Rickles also had a formidable career in films.
He was in the 1958 thriller Run Silent, Run Deep, alongside Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.
He also starred in comedies where his talents were put to ample use: Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party, and Pajama Party, all in 1964, and Beach Blanket Bingo in 1965.
He additionally starred in Kelly's Heroes, the 1970 World War II comedy-drama heist film with Clint Eastwood in the lead.
In 1995, Martin Scorsese cast him in Casino, alongside Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone. That very year, Rickles was also part of the hugely successful Toy Story franchise as Mr. Potato Head.
At times, the films were ordinary, but Rickles was always extraordinary.
He continued to be a hit in the late-night comedy shows, making numerous appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Show With David Letterman, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
Health problems inevitably slowed him down physically, but it didn't affect his razor-sharp humor and proclivity to improvise. He continued to appear in Vegas and on late-night shows with the next generation of hosts, such as Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon.
Rickles did much more than just appear in the clubs, on television, and in films.
In 2007, Mr. Rickles published his memoirs, Rickles' Book, which was the subject of the HBO documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, for which he won an Emmy Award.
In 2014, he was the subject of an all-star tribute that had an appearance with the likes of David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, and his old colleague Bob Newhart.
Critics and audiences mostly comprehended Rickles's genius, and few found him deeply offensive.
He didn't live long enough to witness cancel culture and the woke insanity, but he still was targeted by the liberal mob, who weren't as emboldened then as they are now.
In 2012, at the American Film Institute's tribute to actress Shirley MacLaine, Rickles roasted everyone in the audience, including MacLaine herself, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Aniston. etc.
He then joked about the one whom most were petrified even to mention: "President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke."
That was enough for some to brand him a racist, but Rickles, unlike some comics of today, stood by his joke.
Like Jay Leno, Rickles never hesitated to joke about Obama.
Just after Obama was elected in 2008, Rickles appeared on Late Show with David Letterman joking about Obama playing basketball in the White House during a national emergency. At one point, he did an impression of Obama, which caused the studio audience to be audibly uncomfortable:
Obama wasn't the only U.S. president Rickles made fun of. In 1985, at the insistence of Sinatra, Rickles performed at the presidential inauguration ball for Ronald Reagan's second term. Rickles was unsparing and brilliant.
So what is it that made Rickles work?
Human beings, no matter how educated, refined, cultured, and civil they claim to be, will always notice differences of a superficial nature in fellow human beings such as race, facial features, skin color, accents, height, weight, body shape, manner of dressing, body language, disabilities, visible birthmarks, hair or the lack of it or toupees or hair plugs, tattoos, and so much more.
Politeness and common courtesy cause us not to refer to these surface disparities, but it always resides in some gray cells of the brain. This is especially true about those with whom we are closely associated in our personal or professional lives.
Left with no option, people engage in gossip in hushed tones behind closed doors.
The individuals themselves are aware of their superficial disparities; perhaps it bothers them greatly, but it usually goes unmentioned. It could be that the most seemingly perfect-looking and sounding individual has some personal attribute that bothers him.
This is the elephant in the room.
Over a period of time, the tension builds up, which could be compared to an inflating balloon, but this balloon isn't inflated with air, but with formality, pretension, repression, and hesitation.
This is also true for elected officials or movie stars, or business leaders who are usually surrounded by sycophants who lavish blandishments even while they are failing miserably. But once the backs are turned, the deriding and backstabbing start.
It takes a comic such as Rickles to deflate this bubble of formality with a pin of humor by not just stating, but overstating. After the initial discomfort, the tension is released, and soon everyone is laughing.
Rickles was actually offering a collective catharsis for his audiences by saying what everyone hesitated or feared to say. Once the unthinkable or unmentionable is said in public, there can be nothing more that can cause affront or humiliation, which, in time, makes people look beyond them, and the bonds grow stronger.
Comedy wasn't just his profession, but his passion, as revealed in the behind-the-scenes footage of some of his films.
Rickles was often referred to as an "insult" comic, but that was a misnomer because he was never rude or obnoxious. The purpose of his roasts was not to belittle or humiliate, but to elicit laughter.
Even when he was in the middle of his act, mocking anger and mercilessly deriding his target, it was obvious to all that it was all an act. Rickles himself, despite his efforts, would inevitably break into laughter during his routine.
When Rickles roasted famous stars during the AFI tributes, it was always playful and light; he always made a point to end on a note of kindness and warmth.
This probably won't earn him the name Mr. Warmth.
But it sets Rickles apart from the current crop of far-left activists who masquerade as comedians, who see their function not to cause laughter, but to push a political agenda.
Rickles was truly the last of the greats.
We are living in times of great verbal suffocation and strangulation due to the tyranny of the woke mob.
We desperately need another Rickles to blow it all up.
Perhaps we now have a version of Rickles here...
Image: Screen shot from chuckasutra YouTube video.