×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Don Rickles recalls his career

Pinnacle Award winner explains origins of a funny name

Don Rickles is a comedy legend, the man with the most guest appearances on the Johnny Carson show, a Las Vegas headliner for half a century — and now the recipient of the Pinnacle Award.

Over the decades, he’s delighted thousands simply by insulting them, be they movie stars and politicians or tourists splurging on a casino show. He paved the way for all insult comics to come.

But he doesn’t think of himself as a comic, exactly.

“I’m a theatrical performer,” he says. “My performance is not a guy doing standup who says ‘You’re an idiot, you’re a jerk.’ It’s a situation and it’s an exaggeration that makes it a performance.”

Like Jack Benny and his “world’s cheapest man” persona, Rickles’ act comes out of a character. Think of it as a guy who wants to be nice, but the world is just too annoying for him to keep quiet about it.

It makes sense that Rickles’ act comes out of a character. He started out to be an actor, not a comedian at all.

He graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in a class that included Jason Robards, Anne Bancroft and Grace Kelly. He made the rounds in New York but “Broadway was tough,” he recalls.

He began to be invited to church and synagogue dances, and would kid people there. That led to small club dates, and eventually to gigs as the entertainment between striptease acts.

“They were tough joints,” he says. “I used to do impressions and I did it lousy. So I didn’t do jokes, but I would start talking to the people. You know, ‘Why are you wearing that shirt? Don’t be ridiculous,’ and I was very rough and crude in those days.”

He eventually developed the “Merchant of Venom” persona auds have watched for half a century. “But to this day,” he says, “if you give me a million dollars, I can’t stand up and tell a joke.”

His big break came in 1957 when he played the Slate Brothers Club in Hollywood. When Frank Sinatra came to the show, Rickles unleashed one of his more famous lines: “Make yourself at home, Frank: Hit somebody.” Sinatra, a man not to be messed with, loved it. He became one of Rickles’ boosters.

“The biggest stars in town — Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor — all came to be insulted by Don,” says director John Landis, who is making a documentary about Rickles (parts of this work-in-progress will be screened at the U.S. Comedy Festival). “And this was a time when nobody talked to the stars that way.”

Not even Rickles himself, though, remembers the origin of his signature insult, “You hockey puck.”

“I got garages with hockey pucks,” he says. “When I walk down the street in New York, I swear to God, the building constructor, the guy pounding cement and what not, will yell, ‘Hey, you hockey puck!’

“I think in my saloon days, in the rough days of my beginnings, I had hecklers and I said, ‘Don’t be a hockey puck.’ That’s the only thing I can think of.”

His act is nearly impossible to describe because the words alone can seem harsh. “(It’s) my expressions and my body movement,” Rickles explains. “I say things I get away with, and it becomes a joke.”

After his Slate Brothers gig, Rickles found himself cast in films and he became a regular in Las Vegas — he was considered a lounge act at the time. That changed on a night when headliner Johnny Carson — another Rickles booster –was too sick to perform. Despite the doubts of management, he insisted Rickles go on in his place. Rickles killed and has been a headliner ever since.

“What I realized working on this,” says Landis, “is that with Don, you’re talking about the history of the American entertainment business since World War II.”

Indeed, those interviewed for the documentary include Debbie Reynolds, Sidney Poitier, Clint Eastwood, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and Rickles’ best pal, Bob Newhart.

At 80, Rickles is still busy, playing casinos around the country. He’ll be headlining in Vegas again soon, too, appearing at the Golden Nugget March 22-24.

As for today’s insult comics, he says he doesn’t really know their work.

“I’ve never gone to comedy clubs,” he admits a bit ruefully. “I got older, and after 55 years of doing this, I started to watch the news and baseball and Dodgers and football, and I never got into comedy.

“God bless ’em, let them live and be well, and let them make all the money they can. But I know in my heart that I’m one of a kind, that nobody does what I do.”

More Scene

  • Tina KnowlesSoul of Nation: Art in

    Jay-Z, Tina Knowles Celebrate New 'Soul of a Nation' Exhibit at Broad Museum

    “This show is so important. I mean, it’s our history — and it’s a very important part of our journey,” Tina Knowles Lawson said about Friday night’s opening of the exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963 – 1983” at the Broad Museum in DTLA. “I’m just so impressed [...]

  • Jordan Peele'Us' film premiere, Arrivals, New

    Jordan Peele Explains the Meaning Behind the 'Us' Michael Jackson Reference

    Jordan Peele’s horror movie “Us” is filled with pop culture references, from “Jaws” to “Goonies.” But the most divisive might be right in his opening sequence. Warning, minor spoilers ahead. The movie about a couple (played by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke) and their children being hunted and brutalized by a mysterious family that looks just [...]

  • Danielle Brooks'Ain't Too Proud - The

    How 'Orange Is the New Black' Star Danielle Brooks Became a Broadway Producer

    Danielle Brooks earned a Tony nomination when she made her Broadway debut as Sofia in the 2015 revival of “The Color Purple,” but now the “Orange Is the New Black” star is working behind the scenes as a producer on the new jukebox musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.” “I [...]

  • Nick Offerman Amy Poehler

    'Parks and Recreation' Cast Talks Possibility of a Revival at 10th Anniversary Reunion

    For one night, Hollywood felt a little like Pawnee. The cast of NBC’s hit comedy “Parks and Recreation” reunited at PaleyFest on Thursday in honor of the show’s 10th anniversary. The whole Pawnee gang showed up: Amy Poehler, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Rob Lowe, Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, Retta, and Jim [...]

  • Andy CohenThe Shops and Restaurants at

    Andy Cohen to Receive Vito Russo Award at GLAAD Media Awards

    Mazel, Andy Cohen! Bravo’s late-night talk show host is set to receive the Vito Russo Award at the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards on May 4 in New York City. Sarah Jessica Parker will present him with the award, which is named in honor of GLAAD founder Vito Russo. The annual award goes to openly [...]

  • Variety TV Summit Europe

    Variety TV Summit Europe Coming to London on June 13

    Variety’s TV Summit Europe will coincide with London Tech Week this year, returning to the city on June 13. The international conference will be held at the Royal Lancaster and is co-produced by global events company Informa’s KNect365 division, the world’s largest business-to-business organizer. The one-day summit will focus on the intersection of content and [...]

  • David Furnish, Bryce Dallas Howard, Taron

    'Rocketman': Paramount Previews Footage of Elton John Biopic

    “Rocketman” is ready for lift off. Paramount Pictures threw a cocktail party Monday night to preview 15 minutes of the upcoming Elton John biopic, set for release on May 31, at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the legendary rock club where John made his U.S. debut nearly 50 years ago. The footage featured pieces of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content