In an episode of Tales From The Crypt, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, Don Rickles plays a successful ventriloquist whose career was cut short by a terrible tragedy. After years out of the spotlight an aspiring ventriloquist, played by Bobcat Goldthwaite, asks him to come to a performance. After bombing Rickles tells him, “It wasn’t terrible. Okay, it was terrible. You had no technique, no material, no concentration, and you had no idea how to work the audience.” He then suggests that the younger performer consider another line of work. He seems genuinely pained as he says this, as though he really is speaking to an aspiring performer. Watching it I wonder if his performance came out of experience, if Rickles had to be so brutally honest to younger performers or if, when he was young, he’d been told he’d never make it as a comedian. If it were the latter maybe it would explain the origins of his act. Most comedians try to win audiences over. As the original insult comic Rickles was determined to make audiences hate him, and they loved him for it.
It helped that he so often punched up, going after the rich and famous–in particular Frank Sinatra, but other members of the Rat Pack too. When I was a kid I think my introduction to Rickles was hearing him say, “I don’t hate Sammy Davis Jr. because he’s black. I hate him because he’s a Jew.” He also punched down, too, going after minorities and calling out faults of audience members–he was an equal opportunity offender. It started as an accident, as he would say in interviews. One night, doing badly with prepared jokes, he insulted a man in the audience and got big laughs. And yet the insults were never meant to be real, never meant to hurt. As he says at the end of his album Hello Dummy,
“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.”
And sometimes Rickles was on the receiving end which could be just as funny. Bob Newhart said they hung out together because “Someone has to be his friend.”
A lot has been written about the rise of stand-up comedy in the latter half of the 20th century, but where many of its innovators–Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce–and members of the generation before–Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, Red Skelton–get a lot of attention Don Rickles has barely rated a mention. Gerald Nachmann’s Seriously Funny: Rebel Comedians Of The Fifties And Sixties only describes Rickles as “professionally obnoxious”.
Now that he’s gone I hope he’ll get a fuller, fairer assessment as a comedian and a performer, someone who had technique, material, concentration, and knew how to work an audience, even when he wasn’t in front of an audience, acting on TV shows and in movies ranging from Kelly’s Heroes to the Toy Story films. To simply forget him would be an insult.
Hail and farewell Don Rickles, ya old hockey puck.