Before Don Rickles passed away just a month shy of his 91st birthday in April 2017, he shot a new talk show style short-form series entitled “Dinner with Don” for AARP Studios. Now, just months later, AARP is premiering the full series online and Variety has obtained Billy Crystal’s episode exclusively.
“You don’t get to meet a living legend that often, you just don’t. But here was someone who was so uniquely beloved in the community for decades, and we realized we had a hand in a masterclass in comedy,” producer and director Bobby Bauer tells Variety. “In the case of Billy and Don, we had two giants in comedy, gifted beyond compare in their own rights, in that one episode.”
In a true example of “build it and they will come,” Bauer’s Stamper Lumber Co. had Rickles attached to the show concept, and that was enough to get Jeffrey Eagle, vice president of AARP Studios to say yes to buying the show. It was also enough to get guests from Amy Poehler to Robert De Niro to Sarah Silverman to Judd Apatow lining up to appear on the series.
“The real tribute is of course to Don but also the pairings and the uniqueness of that and the stories they shared. Everyone was so willing and open,” Eagle says.
Each episode was shot over an hour-long meal and cut into episodes that range from six to nine minutes each, acting as mini documentaries about both Rickles and his episode guest. Some, like Crystal, had long histories with Rickles to explore on-camera, while others like Snoop Dogg or Paul Rudd, met him for the first time when they sat down together. “It all unfolds in a very real way, and then we do a wrap-up of what each guest knew of Don – the lore – with the experience of meeting him at the end of the episode,” Bauer says.
In the case of Rickles and Crystal, Bauer adds, it was like seeing family reunite when they shot the episode at Vincenti Risorante in Brentwood, Calif. “There was a love and an appreciation, and they have these quips and a shorthand with each other,” Bauer says. “It was so wonderful to see Billy really let his guard down and how honored he was to sit with Don, someone who colored him as a young comic.”
Bauer and his team worked with the guests to provide images of the events and moments they discuss over the meal with Rickles to provide not just an auditory tale of Hollywood history, but a visual one as well. The idea is to provide a multi-generational story to fit with AARP’s general philosophy, which Eagle points out is “Live your best life no matter what your age is.”
Distributing the show primarily on AARP’s YouTube channel but also allowing the episodes to live on Facebook is another way to reach that multi-generational audience. Eagle notes that Mark Zuckerberg’s social site is actually the fastest-growing platform for people aged 50 and above, but it reaches a much wider demographic overall. Allowing the audience to binge digitally also give them the choice of watching all of the episodes linearly or simply picking and choosing based on which guests they are most interested in. “That’s the way folks are engaging in content, and we wanted to be current with that and not hold anything back,” Eagle says.
“Dinner with Don” is available for streaming on AARP’s YouTube and Facebook pages as of Sept. 25.
Watch the full episode of “Dinner with Don” featuring Billy Crystal below: