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.”