Calling someone names may be mean and immature, but when Don Rickles did it, it was art.
The quick-witted comic died today, of kidney failure, at age 90. He leaves behind a rich legacy of dragging people’s names through the mud, only to have those people crack up at him, appreciatively, and beg for even muddier mud.
Rickles is perhaps the all-time greatest and most famous insult comic. His sets were performance art pieces that thrived on the “crowd work” portions most comics only thread into their sets when there’s a lull. One of his go-to insults was to call someone a hockey puck, a staple that even made it into Toy Story, with the Rickles-voiced Mr. Potato Head character lobbing it at an actual hockey puck. (His character in a Simpsons episode screams the word as he flies by on an explosion-cloud, prompting Homer to point out, “Don Rickles zinged ya, Marge.”) To get a real sense of his style, though, one need look no further than how Rickles burned his fellow celebrities.
Indeed, as imposing and towering a figure as Frank Sinatra was, Ol’ Blue Eyes melted into laughter whenever Rickles was around, letting the comic get away with verbal murder at his expense. He was the king of sting in any Friars Club roast, influencing everyone from Jeffrey Ross to Natasha Leggero who would gain notoriety with the form in later generations. He was also a relentless presence on talk shows dating back to 1965, and appeared on one of Letterman’s final episodes.
The jokes were unsparing, in a time before so-called political correctness, but audiences of every faith, nationality, and physical type abided them, out of conviction that Rickles had good in his heart. Fittingly enough, in the immediate aftermath of his passing, comedian Patton Oswalt started the hashtag, #RicklesInHeaven, which imagines who Rickles would be roasting when he made it past the pearly gates.
"Oh great, Churchill and Capote are here tonight. Sorry folks, we're all out of scotch!" #RicklesInHeaven
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) April 6, 2017
For an inkling of what he was like in top form here on Earth, though, have a look below at some of Don Rickles’ best celebrity burns.
- “It’s sweet of you, Dave – I know your busy schedule of going to the bank and trying to figure out what the hell you do.” [The Dave in question is David Letterman]
- “Listen, gang, I’ll be on Jimmy Kimmel 4/22. It seems Jimmy asked me to add a little humor to the show.”
- “Regis Philbin is here, my dear friend. He goes down to Notre Dame, crosses himself, then they put a football in his ass and kick him.”
- “What’s Bob Hope doing here? Is the war over?” [Bob Hope, a frequent USO show fixture, was in the audience of The Dean Martin Show during the middle of the Vietnam War]
- “Phyllis Diller, ladies and gentlemen, who when she was born, God ran out of clay and made her face trick-or-treat Charlie. As her husband said on her wedding night, ‘Noooooo!'”
- “Bob Newhart made the claim that he was my best friend. I have not met Bob Newhart.”
- “What an evening, so good to see you. I didn’t know you were still on!” [Johnny Carson was indeed still on the air and hosting The Tonight Show when Rickles said this.
- “This is a good jacket. You’ll come on tomorrow night with cotton candy and work the carnival.” [Johnny Carson was a regular target of Rickles’s]
- “Nobody else has said it and I say it from my heart: You’re a lousy actor” [Clint Eastwood]
- “Ricardo, why do I kid you? Because I don’t like you.” [Ricardo Montalban]
- “You’re like a little mouse in a state prison” [Paul Schaffer, who is bald and has a trademark set of glasses]
- “That’s a great bit” he says pointing at Jimmy Fallon’s finger, which is in a cast. Fallon laughs and swears that his finger is really broken. “Tomorrow night,” Rickles continues, “come back with your head wrapped.”
- “I spoke to the barber convention and they need you badly” [Questlove]