If you hear the words "hockey puck" and think of ice hockey, you're a hockey fan. If you're a comedy fan, the visage of "Mr. Warmth" himself, the world's most beloved insult comic, will pop into your head... even if no one's quite sure how or why "hockey puck" came to be a put-down. What we do know is that Don Rickles had a unique gift for generating riotous laughs by making fun of his audience's weight, height, gender/sexuality, economic status, looks, and ethnicity without actually hurting any feelings... or suffering any broken bones.
The trick was actually no trick. Rickles was not some natural-born verbal bully who figured out a way to get paid for what he was already doing for free. The road that took him from shy child (with a beloved but dominating mother) to a true artist of the put-down was long and hard, and it pretty clearly concealed a heart full of mush. How else can you explain the near-universal fondness for a man who, dubbed "the Merchant of Venom", teased everyone from short-tempered show business legends to actual royalty, all of whom were proud to be skillfully dissed?
Born May 8, 1926, Donald Jay Rickles left his wartime service in the U.S. Navy in 1946 and headed not for the nightclubs of the Borscht Belt, but straight for the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Art. Serious about the craft of acting, genetics determined that the bullet-headed Rickles would never be a leading man, and years of mostly fruitless effort proved that the path to a career as a character actor was going to be long. Comedy seemed to be a quicker, if no less difficult, path. Over the years, Rickles discovered that traditional gags didn't really work for him, but "working the audience" did.
His democratically fearless way with the insult paid off famously when he spotted Frank Sinatra (pretty much the world's biggest star during the late 1950s) enter his club. Sinatra was the Russell Crowe of his day, but Rickles knew that his formidable mother was a good friend with the superstar singer's mother, so the all-but-unknown comic shrewdly gave Sinatra the Rickles treatment "Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody!" Fortunately for everyone, Sinatra laughed and became his most powerful fan, recruiting notables to pay for the privilege of being insulted by the prematurely-balding wisecracker.
Rickles' fame grew steadily until he became a true household name, lovingly insulting targets that included England's Princess Margaret, and generating huge laughs with numerous appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, on countless variety shows, and far more lucratively in Las Vegas. In a much more modest way, his hard-earned acting chops were also paying off. His long film résumé includes compelling work in the 1958 submarine favorite Run Silent, Run Deep and two 1960s cult classics the war/heist comedy Kelly's Heroes and Roger Corman's science fiction/horror tale, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. It's clear there was more to Rickles than just comparing people to sporting goods.
Still, it's true that Rickles hadn't always gotten his due respect. Believe it or not, being an unofficial court jester to the Rat Pack was the antithesis of cool with younger audiences during the late 1960s and on into the 1980s. It didn't help that he had terrible luck when it came to headlining his own television shows. Two variety shows failed, while the Bilko-esque military comedy C.P.O. Sharkey managed to hang on for two seasons at the late-1970s dawn of the punk rock era. The network TV success enjoyed by his very close friend, ultra-low-key Bob Newhart, simply wasn't in the cards for the overtly-abrasive Rickles, although he did make a number of memorable guest appearances in other people's shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Addams Family, The Twilight Zone (1959), I Spy and Newhart.
Nevertheless, Rickles continued to shine as a hugely popular live performer. In 1985, Republican-convert Sinatra showed his support again by insisting Rickles be included on the bill at President Ronald Reagan's second inauguration. A lifelong Democrat, Rickles considered his performance at the event a career highlight. He and the Chairman again appeared together at the inauguration of George H. W. Bush in 1989.
From that point on, Rickles, a two-time grandfather whose one and only marriage lasted well into its fifth decade, never stopped working live. He continued to exercise his vastly underrated skills as an actor, including featured roles in Martin Scorsese's Casino and as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story trilogy. Gradually, that long-delayed respect started to be paid.
In 2007, film director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers), who had worked as a very young P.A. on Kelly's Heroes, cemented his old friend's status with an outstanding biographical documentary masquerading as a television special. "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project" emphasizes the humanity and simple human decency of its subject alongside his superhuman comedy chops when working with a live audience. The result was an Emmy for Rickles, and the chance to continue doing even more of what the world loved him for telling us we're all a bunch of jerks and making us feel great in the process, which he did up until his death on April 6, 2017, at the age of 90.
Tropes associated with Don Rickles:
- Actor Allusion:
- "What are you lookin' at, ya hockey puck?!" gets dropped by Mr. Potato Head (played by Rickles) in the first Toy Story... to an actual hockey puck.
- Even though he's not playing himself, the final plot-twist in his appearance on Newhart turns the whole episode into a commentary on his public persona/personal reality.
- Actually Pretty Funny: Frank Sinatra was a big fan of Rickles, despite his relentless barrage of jokes about his infamous temper and alleged mob ties.
- All Germans Are Nazis: If he encountered one German person in the audience, he would often mock them with the Nazi salute and marching walk and asks, "Does that relax you?"
- Audience Participation: Naturally.
- Bald of Awesome - Obviously.
- Prematurely Bald - Lost much of his hair in his early 20s.
- Berserk Button: His reactions to David Letterman's stutterings are comedy gold.
- In one famous The Tonight Show clip, Rickles discovers Johnny Carson's Berserk Button. While guest hosting one night, Rickles accidentally breaks the prized cigarette case that Carson kept on his desk. The next day Johnny discovers the broken box, asks who did it and takes a cameraman with a portable camera down the hall a few doors to the set where C.P.O. Sharkey was taping and confronted Rickles about it. Judging from Rickles' response, he really had not been let in on the joke and was genuinely afraid Carson was going to belt him right then and there.
- Boomerang Bigot: Not really, but some of his "meanest" jokes are reserved for the Jews, even though he himself was Jewish.
- Catch-Phrase: Rickles had a lot of them.
- "If you want to pop the wife, gotta do what the Jews do; circle the bed first then get an estimate".
- "Now my wife just lays on the bed and goes, 'Is that about it?'"
- "My wife only sits at our Malibu home shining her jewelry and signaling ships."
- "I married a Valium."
- "How long have you had that?" *If he catches the host stuttering*
- "You gave him a cookie, he'll just go away, real pain in the ass."
- "So what do you want me to do, drop my pants and fire a rocket?" (David Letterman always gets a kick about that that he often used it as a Brick Joke every time Rickles is on.)
- Comical Overreacting: Done especially to a host that's annoying to him whether intentional or not.
- Grandfather Clause: Rickles is considered a relic of a bygone era of Classic Comedians (his contemporaries were Johnny Carson, Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Winters, Foster Brooks, etc.) and also represented old-time Las Vegas, and people loved him for it.
- Handicapped Badass: Near the end, he started using a Classy Cane due to a flesh-eating disease that nearly took his right leg, but that didn't stop him from doing stand-ups around the country (even up to Canada).
- Insult Comic: The undisputed king.
- J Word Privileges: One of the few people that could take full advantage in mocking Jews.
- Large Ham: The kind of ham that's marinated in hot chili.
- Leitmotif: When he was introduced to an audience or on a television talk show, the Spanish matador music "La Virgen de la Macarena" was usually played, subtly foreshadowing that someone was about to be metaphorically gored.
- The Mafia: Rickles spoke about performing at clubs run by the mob and how he saw other comics get beaten by heavies for offending the wrong person (and how, in one instance, Frank Sinatra demonstrated his own clout by stopping one such beating with a simple word). He also had a story where his mother told a table full of mobsters that she didn't want them carrying guns around her son when he was performing and how each and every one of them, out of respect, promptly pulled out their guns and placed them on the table in the most polite way possible.
- Misanthrope Supreme: ...Yes.
- Rapid-Fire Comedy: One of the highlights of his stand-ups was to go around the room, trying to "insult" as many people in the audience as he could.
- Recorded and Stand-Up Comedy: With his shtick being an insult comic.
- The Roast: During the Dean Martin era, he was famous for being the only one not using the teleprompter. The Friars Club honored Rickles with a lifetime achievement award, an establishment well known for their roasts.
- Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Many of the younger generations couldn't understand how this old guy could be so mean and insulting.
- Fervent admirer Kathy Griffin calls it "The Rickles License to Kill," meaning that people over a certain age can basically say whatever they want and get away with it.
- Signature Style: Undisputed master in the art of insult comedy without resorting to filthy language.
- Still Got It: Every time he visited a late night talk show, you could expect a lot of verbal burn-jobs thrown at the host. Classic examples were with David Letterman or Craig Ferguson. As usual, Hilarity Ensues.
- Throw It In!: Much of Rickles' material in his stand up was ad-libbed. Unlike many stand-up comedians, Rickles didn't write his own material beforehand; everything in his act was all made up from the stuff he said or thought up and he saved it in his noggin for future reference. That's how good he was.
- Troll: At least, if you were a late night talk show host. Or any other talk show host even. It's what made his late night appearances (from Johnny Carson to Jimmy Kimmel) extra special. He was arguably second only to Robin Williams in terms of derailing the interview and messing with the host and still making it hilariously funny.
- Vocal Dissonance: He always looked really old and sounded relatively young.
- You Keep Using That Word: Rickles didn't like to be labeled as an 'insult comic'. He didn't like the word 'insult' and said that what he did was an "exaggeration", and was not meant to be mean-spirited or derogatory.