Las Vegas

Farewell to Don Rickles, Master of the Malice-Free Insult

The legendary comic died Thursday at 90

Only Don Rickles could get away with insulting Frank Sinatra: “Make yourself at home, Frank – hit somebody.”

Only Don Rickles (unlike Stephen Colbert) could get laughs from a sitting president by mercilessly mocking him to his face: “Is this too fast, Ronnie?” he asked 73-year-old Ronald Reagan in 1985, during a rapid-fire routine at the then-president’s second inaugural ball.

Only Don Rickles could turn addressing someone “Hello, Dummy,” or calling them a “hockey puck,” into a much-sought badge of honor.

That’s because Rickles, who churned caustic comedy out of seemingly everyone’s shortcomings, perfected the art of the malice-free insult.

Rickles’ death Thursday at age 90 ended the long reign of a stand-up king ahead of his time: He stood out as an equal-opportunity offender who made fun not of people as much as the stupidity of stereotypes.

Not everybody saw it that way, of course. The native New Yorker’s humor, filled with jabs at his audience members’ religion, race and ethnicity, appeared destined, at least on the face of it, to upset all. He certainly infuriated some folks, who found no redeeming value in his acidic approach.

But his many fans, especially those of us fortunate to have seen him perform live, sized up Rickles as a man who loved people – and loved making them laugh at themselves. His ironic nickname, “Mr. Warmth,” worked on multiple levels. 

He remained a relevant entertainment force for six decades – and not just because he invented the mic drop. He influenced generations of comedians: Jerry Seinfeld put Rickles on his imaginary Mount Rushmore of comedy. Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts and “Roast Battle” program ripped pages from Rickles’ act. Ditto for Howard Stern.

Rickles’ appeal transcended generations, as evidenced by his enduring popularity as a quick-witted guest through multiple iterations of “The Tonight Show,” David Letterman’s two late night programs and other shows.

The trumpet-propelled strains of “La Macarena (The Bullfighter’s Song),” Rickles’ theme song, heralded a siren call to laughter – especially when he bantered with Johnny Carson, who once famously invaded the set of Rickles’ 1970s sitcom “C.P.O. Sharkey,” sparking a classic comic confrontation.

Rickles also proved himself a strong dramatic actor – most notably by more than holding his own against Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film “Casino.” It was an apt role for a comedian who helped transform Las Vegas into an entertainment mecca and stood as one of the last links to the Rat Pack era.

Rickles wasn’t that good an actor, though, that fans couldn’t see through his fake-anger shtick. A truly nasty man wouldn’t have lasted near as long on the public stage as Rickles did.

At a time when accusations of “political correctness” signal division, comedy mourns a great whose politically incorrect humor somehow brought people together. Don Rickles, with a sneer and bad word for everyone, carried joy to millions – including Sinatra, who always laughed loudest at the comic who showed his love through insults.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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