Making a Case For Dark Comedy #5: Don Rickles

Comic legend Don Rickles died last week.

The first thought I had was "Uh-oh, I hoped he's recorded his voice work for Toy Story 4! Please! Please oh please!" (For what it's worth, it doesn't appear he had recorded anything for the film.)

The second thought I had was "Aww...he died." And then I became happy thinking of all the great memories I had of him doing comedy on TV when I was a kid, most especially within the realm of the Late Night Talk Show Circuit. One way or another, this short, wrinkled old guy would appear on one of the late night shows, sit down and tear into the host—or anything that caught his attention—for the next seven or so minutes. He seemed absolutely irritated to even be there, completely put out at the prospect of having to go on another one of these stupid shows. But he was also hilarious. He knew the right jabs and how to land them at the exact right moment. And oddly enough, it looked like he was actually having fun out there... How could somebody so angry actually be happy?

You see, as a kid you are not told anything about being an adult other than "You'll have to get a job someday!" which sounded horrifying. Instead, you learn about adult things by creeping around and listening to other people's conversation and watching things on television you are not supposed to. I had an older brother who used to love watching Letterman. Sometimes, when he knew he would miss a show, he would even tape it onto VHS. Until a certain age I only caught clips of Letterman, but as my bedtime began to expand I made a point to stay up and watch it, almost every night, for years and years. My brother seemed to have sophisticated tastes and I wanted to be a grownup like him.

But I didn't know what was happening when Rickles would come out there. Who would invite a guy like this onto a show? He was old and he wasn't pretty and he just made fun of everyone. Who wants someone like that around? It took me years to realize comedians intentionally develop a persona or a schtick. All the great oldtimers had them: Joan Rivers, Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters... As a kid you think those people are cracking jokes using their true personality, as if they are that manic and neurotic and miserable every moment of their lives. 

I now know that Rickles' persona was an insult comic (though he didn't like the term all that much), but more than that, he was a bomb defuser. It would be incredibly shallow to say that an insult comic's job is to go out on stage and roast everyone, when really their job was to dismantle his audience's defenses by getting everyone to laugh at themselves. I can see how Rickles' technique was not for everyone though: ALL comics get us to laugh at our own weaknesses and failings (as well as the tragedies and absurdities of life), but a comic like Rickles eviscerated people to their core. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson could take his ribbing, but not a lot of normal folk want to look the fool. Making someone say "Oh, what a silly person I am" would sound trite to Rickles. Instead, his goal was to continually make everyone say "What a pitiful excuse for a human life I am!" while laughing at ourselves.

But that is not exactly true. Rickles was actually a careful comedian. He took his material pretty far and was certainly highly insulting, but he insulted people just enough to paradoxically become endearing. One major part of his timing was the space he gave after his insults, where a twinkle would appear in his eye, and a wry smile would raise on one side of his mouth. Yes, he was going to make you feel awful about yourself, but in the end his main point was always to say "Aww, you're alright. Don't worry about it. Now that I've made fun of you, we can be friends." He tested people by seeing how much they could take, and if they could endure the Rickles Gauntlet of Insults, he knew they could be trusted, whether they were another celebrity or his audience. Because at his core Rickles was really a teddy bear (even if a tough one), as this illuminating interview with Terry Gross demonstrates (it is also able to be streamed below).

Growing up, this type of insult comedy was absent from my personal life. I had a number of highly sarcastic aunts and uncles. They were all insult and no acceptance. In other words, they only half understood comedy. They truly thought it was their job to make people feel bad about themselves, to make others feel alienated, all while exalting themselves as superior. I hated the way they treated me growing up. They always made me feel stupid. Looking back, as much as I am sad about how they treated myself and others, I am now equally sad about their stilted comedic sensibilities! Oh, how much funnier they could have been if they would have included others in their sarcasm and acerbic criticisms. They only cut and never healed with their "jokes".

Rickles, unlike my aunts and uncles, managed to strike a balance between grumpiness and joviality. He knew the point of a "negative" or "insulting" joke was to raise us out of the mire, that laughter dispels our sour moods. My aunts and uncles however, merely thought the point of curmudgeonly humor was to be curmudgeonly itself, to enjoy dwelling in their own misery. 

Rickles also did one more important thing: through his insults he sought to level the playing field between everyone in the room. Once we realized we were all alike, that we were all screwups, then we could get down to business and start laughing at each other. Never did he make his mission more explicit then at the end of his 1968 comedy album Hello Dummy
I am no rabbi, priest or reverend. You know this. I stand here and speak of all faiths, creeds and colors. And why not? Really, why not? Because in my experience in the Navy, when things were rough, nobody bothered or cared to ask. Color, church, synagogue, who cared? Frightened to death, we stood together on the bow of the ship and said, please - and that is the truth - please, when our time is up, we will all be on one team. So why do we need bigotry and nonsense? Let's enjoy while almighty God gives us time.

Will Rogers once said, I never picked on a little guy, only big people. May I say to this entire audience, on a hectic night, you are pretty big. And I do thank each and every one of you. (found here, at the 34:30 mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjXOe9hkDzE)

The problem with Rickles is that I can imagine many people never got his "schtick". They couldn't get past the insults. It was too harsh, too brutal, too hurtful and too insensitive*. But in my personal life I've learned some amazing lessons from this man's work that I take with me everywhere I go: disarm them by getting them to laugh at themselves. 

*I have one caveat: I have trouble finding anything funny about his racial, ethnic, or nationalistic humor. Not only do people in the 21st century find it offensive or wrong, but in listening back to those kinds of "jokes" it's often difficult to figure out exactly what he was trying to make fun of about Mexicans and Japanese and Filipinos and Italians and Jews. In other words, the ethnic stuff was some of his worst material. To me, it seems like his approach was to take the basest stereotype about a group of people and then apply his typical jabs. You don't have to be all that enlightened of a person to realize those stereotypes are hardly true. So yeah, those jokes are offensive and they're also pretty lame.

Other entries in the "Making a Case For Dark Comedy Series":

Making a Case For Dark Comedy #4: Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the Peanuts Gang
Making a Case For Dark Comedy #3: The Leauge of Gentlemen
Making a Case For Dark Comedy #2: Rev.
Making a Case For Dark Comedy #1: Maria Bamford

Now here are some clips and interviews pooled together from various sources. There are hours worth of Riggles on the internet if you care to go looking for it. These are the segments that struck me the most though. 



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