Legendary comedian Don Rickles, famous for insulting nearly everyone, died of kidney failure yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 90. Given today’s political and social climate, it’s unlikely we’ll see anyone like him again.
The video below gives a taste of his humor, and do read the New Yorker profile of Rickles from 2004, “Don’t call me Sir: Don Rickles and the art of the insult.”
It makes the point that although Rickles frequently drew his comedy from stereotypes of women and ethnic groups, it was an equal-opportunity humor with a good motive. As the New Yorker noted, “The stated intention of this genial racism is a liberal one. Rickles is an equal-opportunity offender, the idea goes—a kind of workingman’s Lenny Bruce—deploying stereotype to demonstrate that we are all different and all equal. For many years, he ended his act with a prayer that he would one day see “all bigots vanish from the earth.”
Still, not everyone bought that, and Rickles’s humor wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Judge for yourself:
Again from the New Yorker piece:
To refer to Rickles, as people often have, as “the father of insult comedy” is perhaps a little far-fetched. If insult comedy has a father at all, it is more likely to have been one of the old vaudevillians or a medieval court jester. Even in modern times, there were performers before Rickles who used insult as their central device—most notably, a rumpled, slightly depressive comic of the forties and fifties called Fat Jack Leonard. (It was Leonard who once told Ed Sullivan, “Don’t worry, Ed—someday you’ll find yourself . . . and you’ll be terribly disappointed.”) But Rickles is certainly to be credited with taking insult comedy to an unprecedented level of ferocity. Some of the abuse he coined in the Los Angeles night clubs of the fifties was essentially meaningless—an abstraction of insult—as with the snarling admonition “Don’t be a hockey puck.” Some of it had a crazy, almost poetic specificity. “I don’t know what this is all about, you annoying woman,” he would shout at an unsuspecting female in his audience. “Get a job at a fruit stand. Say, didn’t I see you during the war hanging around the embarkation point in a torn sweater?” All of it was faster and nastier and more confrontational than anything people had seen on a stage before. Strip away the personal charm and the strong strain of surrealist whimsy in his humor, and the line of descent from Rickles to the ultra-aggressive shock comedy of Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison is clear.
By the way, why are so many American comedians, like Rickles, of Jewish background? Jews make up less than 2% of the American population, but seem to constitute least half of our famous comedians. I have my own theories, but would like to hear from the readers.