The headlines were plastered across the web recently: “Don Rickles Shocks Hollywood Crowd with Racial Obama Joke.” Wow, talk about breaking news, a comedian actually insulting a politician! But did he go too far, in this day and age?
It seems that Mr. Warmth, as Johnny Carson christened the veteran comedian many years ago, not-so-subtly linked the current president to a janitor during a June 7 awards ceremony. His comment was edited from the TV Land show when it was broadcast later in the month.
This wasn’t the first time Rickles had walked the racial comedy tightrope.
Appearing on the David Letterman Show many years ago, sitting next to Denzel Washington, Rickles pointed to his fellow guest and commented to Letterman. “Why is he here? Does he have to clean up or something?” Washington and the audience laughed. No one complained, but was it offensive?
Now 86, Rickles has been an equal opportunity offender for over 50 years. Politicians, celebrities, his closest friends, every ethnic and racial group imaginable, and countless audience members have been verbally whacked with his sledgehammer brand of insult comedy.
Of Italians, Rickles says: “I love the Italian people. They eat spaghetti, they swell up and they die fast, and the whole family has a festival.” But the Mafia never goes after him.
Ronald Reagan was another favorite target for Rickles’ barbs, and he addressed the president at his 2nd Inaugural Ball in 1985.
“Good evening Mr. President. It’s a big treat for me to fly all the way from California to be here for this kind of money…. Remember when you were governor and you used to walk over to my table? Now you’re big, and you’re getting on my nerves… Ronnie, am I going too fast for you?”
Probably not the most polite way to address a sitting president, but Reagan laughed and the Secret Service didn’t put a tail on the comedian.
Controversy aside, what’s most remarkable about Rickles is his success at doing what most other comedians could never do: recycle humor from one decade to the next. I don’t think he’s written a new line into his act since 1965. And yet, fans still roar with laughter.
For instance, at the AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony for director Martin Scorsese, in 1997, Rickles said: “I look around the room and, aside from Clint Eastwood, I’m the biggest name here.”
The following year, he spoke at Don Adam’s 75th birthday party. “I see by this turn out, Don, I’m the biggest name here.”
Along these lines, a decade later, when director John Lasseter received his Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 2011, Rickles spoke at the ceremony. “Today as I stand and look around, I see I’m the biggest name here.”
And everyone laughed, genuinely, each time.
If you’re a Rickles’ fan, you probably laugh, too, no matter how many times he claims to be the biggest star in the room, tells a fellow celebrity “your career is over,” or points to some poor schmuck in the audience and yells “you’re beginning to annoy me.”
That’s been Don’s act for half a century, and he does it brilliantly.
I actually had the opportunity to interview Mr. Rickles for the Malibu Times back in 2008 (interview still on their web site). After introducing myself and explaining what the interview would be about, he simply said, “Never heard of you,” and added sarcastically “no, seriously, I’ve been waiting my entire life for this interview.”
Wow, I’d been “Rickled” – insulted by the master himself.
"I don't do jokes," Rickles told me. "My shows are a theatrical performance. They're not mean-spirited, just a form of exaggerating everything about people and life itself."
And often that takes the form of ethnic or racial humor. As for charges of ethnic and racial comedy offenses, some would probably find Rickles guilty.
But from the accounts of those who know him, there isn’t a mean or racist bone in Rickles’ body. Certainly, compared to the vile remarks others make about some in today’s political arena, Rickles’ Obama comment was rather tame. Love him or loath him, it’s all an act, of course.
Maybe America has lost its sense of humor. Or maybe we have just grown up and realize some topics on deep-rooted racial stereotypes are no longer appropriate. Then again, perhaps news outlets are just desperate to find stories where there are none.
Whatever the truth, don’t expect Rickles to change his style any time soon.
However, perhaps he shouldn’t have deviated from what he told Craig Ferguson on The Late, Late Show in 2011: “I don’t do jokes about the president. He’ll get moody and come over to the house.”
Nick Thomas has written for more than 200 magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Christian Science Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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