Don Rickles died

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.

57 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    He was going strong – sad. I saw that five minutes ago and my impulse was to notify PCC(E) – glad to have saved a few clicks.

  2. Posted April 6, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Jews (at least the Ashkenazi types) and humor…
    1) The music of yiddish and yiddish inflection – it has the kind of line line PUNCH rhythm of jokes.
    2) Doubt and conflict are part of the religion
    3) Irreverence is also part of the religion
    4) Humor comes from both anger and suffering, and when in an oppressed minority, the only way to get your opinion through is through humor and the performing arts. That’s why black folk were right there along with Jews with comedic ability.
    5) Dvar Torahs and Bar Mitzvah speeches are kind of like stand up, and new viewpoints are appreciated in a religion that’s this many years old.
    6) Catholics are also really good, because everyone who’s not in the Church chain of command is an oppressed minority.
    7) This is all bullshit; funny is funny. Bob Hope and Monty Python

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      Agreed about Catholics, especially the Irish Catholic. A lot of George Carlin’s humor came out of this vein.

      As a kid growing up, I always felt Catholics had more in common (culturally at least) with Jews than with Protestants — the shanty Irish Catholics I trace my maternal line to, anyway; the lace-curtain Catholics might as well be WASPs.

      • CJColucci
        Posted April 7, 2017 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        I’ve often noticed that, for certain comedic purposes, Italians and Jews can easily be interchanged. Powerful, nagging mothers or grandmothers? Check. Pushing food on people? Check. (Advantage Italian here — the food is better.) Noisy, vital contrast to stiff WASP co-star? Check.

        • Posted April 7, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

          Poor Primo Levi, then.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted April 7, 2017 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

            Not to mention Roberto Benigni’s character from Life Is Beautiful.

            • Filippo
              Posted April 8, 2017 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

              IIRC, he climbed over rows of chairs to receive an Oscar (?).

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted April 7, 2017 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, Jews & Catholics, they’re both about food, family, and guilt — the Jews are better at guilt, the Italians at food. And the food of both is better than that of the Irish (whose fare is only marginally better than the English). 🙂

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      I’ve sort of seen a similarity between Irish and Jewish humor as well. The sort of “who the hell do any of us think we are” humor. I find I relate to that a lot and I think I use it in my own jokes because it’s a big part of who I am – I don’t respect your authority, I respect your ideas and if crap happens to both of us, we have to laugh at that.

  3. Posted April 6, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    My guess is that Jews have had to laugh at themselves for centuries, since crying did no good. I have a very large book, “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore” edited by Nathan Ausubel with many jokes, stories and songs that Jewish people have created and shared among themselves. I think Don Rickles’ humor extends to non-jews the kind of humor endemic to jews; an extension of the tribe, so to speak, a form of inclusion.

  4. BobTerrace
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I still laugh at that out loud. I also remember Jack Leonard.

  5. Randy schenck
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    The only answer I can come up with is – they are just funnier than gentile. But seriously folks, either you got it or you don’t when it comes to comedy. Rickles was certainly a one of a kind and the Dean Martin roasts were almost made for him.

  6. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Two factors account, IMHO, for Jewish predominance in comedy. You have to be extremely intelligent to be a successful comic and you have to be articulate and outspoken. All characteristics which centuries of oppression and pogroms selected for. There is also the Jewish tradition of arguing with G*d, something which other religions consider heresy punishable by death. Doing that promotes the above mentioned essential characteristics of a successful comedian.

    I always found Rickles very funny, though at times a bit cringy. He will be missed.

    • rickflick
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      I love Ruckles’ comedy.

      I have to agree that Jewish intelligence is a large part of why Rickles and his fellow Jews dominated comedy during the 20th century. It takes a mind running on overtime to sustain a performance that makes us laugh.

      In addition, there must have been social factors at work that led to so many Nobel prizes and film and comedy awards. Perhaps other endeavors were blocked by society’s biases.

      Mel Brooks receiving an academy award called the set of producers and other contributors up on the stage with him and said it looked like a convention of Jews.

      Regardless, the community of Jews is a great boon to humanity.

  7. Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    A tummler (the word is either Hebrew or Yiddish — and suggests something like ‘jester’) is someone who is hired to entertain the guests and a hotel or other function — including, I believe, many Jewish weddings. This character can be quite abrastive and, in certain circumstances, you don’t want to be praised as something bad may happen to you. Better to be mocked or made fun of by a tummler. I believe that it is from this ghetto psychology that the Jewish comedian (not to mention song-and-dance man as well as cabaret) derives. Jews were prominent in these fields in the old country and I am told that, even today, after everything that happened, German theater slang derives in large part from Yiddish expressions!

    • Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      I meant to say ‘cabaret MC’; also the origin of tummler is apparently from the Yiddish

  8. Kevin
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I think Jews have been less afraid to fail, intellectually. This puts their numbers greater in fields that rely on cleverness and creativity: like science, math, art, music, and of course, satire.

  9. Mark
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    It’s unlikely we’ll see anyone like him again? Have you checked the White House lately?

  10. Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    No matter what you might of thought of him this morning, as of this afternoon, Don Rickles is truly revolting — he stinks on ice! His performance is totally lifeless. Even a wilted rutabaga has more get-up-and-go than Don. He might as well be dead.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • BobTerrace
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      That was a tribute in the milieu of Rickles…even though a garbage truck driver could have done better…:)

    • Randy schenck
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Well, that was truly, not funny, but, an obit for anyone.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      He would have approved!

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    … why are so many American comedians, like Rickles, of Jewish background?

    The reasons are legion. One of them is the outsider status of the Ashkenazim in the shtetls of Mitteleuropa, from which most Jewish-American comics trace their roots. Humor was a way to disarm, and to deal with the anger and suffering.

    Another is the inherent sounds and rhythms of Yiddish — all those throat-clearing “ch” words. There’s a funnier word than “bupkis,” maybe?

    • BobTerrace
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      farblondget? Totally lost; or hopelessly mixed up, bewildered, confused; dysfunctional. Farbluzhet

      • Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        Farmischt, farchadat, and farblondjet… am I.

        Yiddish has how many words for penis? More Eskimos are thought (incorrectly) to have for snow: schmuck, schmeckele, Schwanz, shwanzstucker, putz, petzeleh, schlong…

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted April 6, 2017 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

          “Farmischt, farchadat, and farblondjet… am I.”

          Would that Lerner & Lowe’s lingua franca had been Yiddish!

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted April 6, 2017 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, Rodgers & Hart.

        • Posted April 6, 2017 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

          Reminds me of the husband/wife pro golf instructors at the Host Farm-Lancaster in 1967 – he would announce on the PA that he would help with your driver and she would straighten out your putts!

  12. Posted April 6, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I never found Rickles to be funny, and yes fortunately we won’t see his likes again. Closest thing these days are those video’s where people get physically hurt, and others find it funny.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Like many comics of his generation, Rickles did essentially the same act for half a century; it got stale. Plus, he was no doubt at his best not on tv, but live, in a night club, where he could work a bit blue.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      For all the moral turpitude of the modern PC crowd I’m glad we no longer have to watch Chinese audience members having ‘slitty-eye’ jokes made about them, or black people pretend-laughing at jokes about how the colour of their skin means they’ve drawn the short straw in life. There was a reason political correctness became a thing in the first place.

      Also, I don’t think the ‘equal opportunities offender’ defense is always legitimate. In Britain we had a disgusting human landslide of a stand-up called Bernard Manning, who would scatter a few self-deprecating references to his weight among the constant slew of paki and nigger jokes. People used to call him an ‘equal opportunities offender’ too, whereas he was in fact just a tedious, Blimpish old bigot with a tiny poisonous mind.

  13. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I found his kind of comedy fascinating, and I liked him, but was also puzzled about how he could get away with what he was saying. Many times I have seen him say things that would have been considered too far if it was said by someone else. But for some reason audiences never turned on him as far as I know.
    He can never be repeated these days, that is for sure.

    • Posted April 6, 2017 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      He called Reagan “dumb” to his face and made him laugh (at least outwardly). That took guts and he is probably the only one who could have done that.

      • Posted April 7, 2017 at 1:21 am | Permalink

        Pity he never met Trump.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted April 7, 2017 at 8:23 am | Permalink

        Spike Milligan did something similar to Prince Charles after a message from the latter was read out to Milligan while he was receiving some kind of lifetime achievement award. I think he called the Prince a ‘groveling bastard’.

  14. Jbaldwin
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Je suis hockey puck..

  15. Frank Bath
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Yes I’ve wondered about the seeming over representation in jewish people in so many walks of life. Why is it? I’ve read the Ashkenazy are 10 average points up on IQ, and that this tells at the top end of the Bell curve. Jerry, you’re a very clever man, enlighten me.

    • rickflick
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      I think I saw that data mentioned in a Steven Pinker book. Ashkenazi advantage is about 12 points, which provides a disproportionate lift in the upper tail of the bell curve.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 7, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        I read something recently about speculation about the deleterious BRCA mutation also having something to do with intelligence. Can’t remember where I read it or if there was anything to that.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      Education was highly stressed. Even to extremes.

  16. Brian Salkas
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I once read in a paper called “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” that the Ashkenazim suffer from about 6 or so diseases that are all Mendelian diseases. Genetic drift due to founders effect is unlikely the cause of these traits, there is not much evidence of a bottleneck, and their presence is therefor due to natural selection, most likely between about 800AD to 1600AD. The proposed hypothesis was that the traits that cause the disease are recessive. So when only one allele is inherited, the mutation may raise IQ (especially effecting verbal and mathematical ability, but not spatial ability) but if two copies are present, then it causes the disease. I believe there is no reason to think these alleles were selected for to give immunity against diseases (like sickle-cell is to malaria)
    That is my poorly written summary, but you guys can google it, I think it is available to the public, if not, you can youtube “Steven pinker – Jews genes and IQ” he does a great job explaining it. I have some doubts about this hypothesis because we still are not sure how heritable that IQ is. In order for this hypothesis to work, IQ needs to be around 80% heritable. Plus 800 years is not a very long time at all so the pressure would have had to be very strong. But as Pinker states, it is easily falsifiable, we just need to administer IQ tests to Ashkenazi Jews with and without these specific alleles and then we can compare the results. If there is no difference in ability, then the hypothesis is false.

    • Henry Fitzgerald
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 12:41 am | Permalink

      The strength of the selection pressure required doesn’t seem to me to be much an objection to this theory – or am I missing something? (This is a general “am I missing something” question – I’m writing from the armchair and know next to nothing of these matters.) If the Ashkenazi Jews indisputably have these genetic rareties, and we can rule out chance in the form of a genetic bottleneck, what can we conclude except that natural selection is involved somehow? The traits being selected for needn’t be intelligence, but whatever they are, we’ll simply have to wear the conclusion that there was some sort of strong selection pressure for something.

      Also (and I’m also worried by the thought that maybe I’m missing something here), is the general heritability of IQ really make-or-break for this theory? Is it even relevant? With sickle cell anaemia, for instance, we should only be interested in how reliably one particular pair of alleles causes malarial resistance – not how heritable malarial resistance is generally, in the world at large.

      I suppose this is beside the point, since your proposed test is the obvious step regardless.

      • Brian Salkas
        Posted April 7, 2017 at 3:56 am | Permalink

        yeah good points you made, I am by no means an expert and would love to hear from one on this topic. By the way, how did you use italics?

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted April 7, 2017 at 5:00 am | Permalink

          Type <i>insert italic comment here</i>

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted April 7, 2017 at 5:02 am | Permalink

          Which should come out looking like:
          insert italic comment here

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      I think I read something similar wrt the BRCA mutation. That thing is deadly though even if it is recessive. Perhaps at the time it was advantageous, people died around that early time anyway.

  17. Posted April 6, 2017 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Take Henny Youngman. Now he was funny. Jewish and funny.

    • Roger
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 1:24 am | Permalink

      Take Henny Youngman, please!

      • Roger
        Posted April 7, 2017 at 1:27 am | Permalink

        Thanks for the setup by the way darwinwins. Great straight man. You’ll go far kid.

        • Roger
          Posted April 7, 2017 at 1:31 am | Permalink

          darwinwins: “Great, he stole my joke. And took credit.” We’ll be here all week folks.

        • Posted April 7, 2017 at 9:35 am | Permalink

          You have a ready wit, Roger. Tell me when it is ready.

  18. mfdempsey1946
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is still with us.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      Yeah, he’s frighteningly good. As a Brit I’ve been hoovering up a lot of Conan material over the last six months. We never got any of his shows on TV here, which is a shame because he’s a proper comic genius.

  19. Kingasaurus
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    I actually thought Rickles was passable and a little underrated as an actor. He didn’t do a lot of films so he’s not really known for that, but there’s a couple of good ones there.

    “Run Silent, Run Deep” is a classic war film and he’s a standout part of a great ensemble there.

    “Man with the X-Ray Eyes” is a cult favorite and Rickles is notoriously creepy as the unethical sideshow barker/promoter.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      I liked him as the staff sergeant in Kelly’s Heroes and as De Niro’s second-in-command in Casino.

  20. Walt Jones
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I didn’t like him when I was young (in the ’70s). Now, however, after seeing the polarity of real bigots in action (and election) and their opposite numbers on the touchy feely side, I can laugh (out loud) at someone who neither ignores nor demonizes the differences.

  21. Mike
    Posted April 9, 2017 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed that compilation, gave me a good laugh,a genuinely funny man.


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