Even in his later years, hunched over a cane, age did not appear to de-fang him. Don Rickles was still quick with his quips, even if the quips came quickly to him because he shot them out every day for six decades, quick with his many facial expressions of disgust and disappointment.
His reactions to audience reactions often brought his jokes from the barely memorable to the legendary. Rarely has a performer conveyed so much with the mere flicker of a expression change.
Don Rickles died today. The stand-up comic was 90, a month shy of his 91st birthday, but he was rarely shy. (I’ll be here all night folks, thanks.)
His stand-up act, till his last days, was remarkable, for someone past age 90 or not even 19, really: it was always unscripted. Yes, he knew what “insults” he was most likely going to deploy “against” audience members, and he knew that somehow he was going to convey that he was on the audience member’s side and not punching down at them. That was the extent of the notes he carried on stage with him. It was a tightrope act.
“If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn’t be funny. There is a difference between an actual insult” and doing that, he often stated.
It is politically incorrect to say one did not like Don Rickles; so I am politically incorrect: I loved Don Rickles. He played the part of America’s boorish uncle who seemed to have a self-imposed mission to crash every American’s dinner party, yet he never appeared to push real buttons in real people, even when he was young and potentially dangerous and not beloved because of longevity.
Which posthumous tribute would he have preferred? The anodyne but sweet Twitter eulogy from Jason Alexander:
Don Rickles was simply the best. He created insult comedy &yet every 1 of his targets felt loved and honored. One of a kind.#RIPdonrickles
— jason alexander (@IJasonAlexander) April 6, 2017
Or this Tweet from The Nation‘s sports editor, Dave Zirin, who then had to defend the “tastelessness” of the post because it honored an insult comic as if Zirin was taking his turn at the Dean Martin’s Roast mic:
Don Rickles' greatest accomplishment was dying years after we all thought he was dead.
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) April 6, 2017
I would like to think he would have preferred Zirin’s, but he would have jabbed at each eulogist, perhaps a bit more gently at Jason Alexander.
It is forgotten that Rickles wanted to be a serious actor, that he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts after his two-year tour of duty in the U.S. Navy in World War II. (He graduated from the Academy in 1948 in the same class with Jason Robards and Charles Durning.) When acting jobs remained scarce, he started doing stand-up, and even though the jobs were steady, they weren’t big, and he wanted to be big.
At some point, he took his frustration at being one of life’s perpetually unnoticed and he made it his act: he noticed that he got bigger laughs during the shows in which he got heckled and in which he came back at the heckler. (And every stand-up gets heckled: I saw Robert Klein get heckled playing a small club in Poughkeepsie in the 1990s, a club that Mr. Klein probably could have purchased in cash without the need to visit an ATM simply to shut it down.)
That became Rickles’ act: bait the audience, heckle it before it could harass him. And the shows became love-fests, even with his insults. Because of his “insults.”
One-of-a-kind, because one was all we could handle. I will miss him.
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