I don’t remember the first time I saw the late, great Don Rickles on TV, but if it was a comedic appearance, I laughed my ass off. I think it was one of his appearances on an episode of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast from 1974, but I think it may have been a few years earlier thanks to X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes airing on what I think was WPIX’ late, great Chiller Theater. Anyway, Don was the master of perfectly timed insults, the Prince of the Putdown, The Man You Went To See When You Needed To Be Taken Down A Few Notches And Wanted To Pay For The Privilege Of Being Insulted By The Best. Period. That sort of insult comedy was a great deal bigger back when Rickles was playing the circuit, when people were less triggered and more willing to laugh at themselves thanks to a man who could peg you with zingers, moving onto the next lucky or unlucky sap who dared to sit too close to the stage. Don made it work because you knew he was a total pussycat off stage, but once he got up to perform, all bets were off and if he singled you out, you’d better be prepared for the worst with an entire room full of people laughing at you.
Watching him in these old clips still makes me laugh loudly and that’s the best medicine for pretty much anything that ails you. I recall working for a guy many moons ago who was a bit of a stingy sourpuss, yet he paid good money to see Don live a few times around the country. Let me tell you, his mood was so much lighter after he returned that he was quite the nicest guy on the planet for a few days. I got a random raise once after one of his trips to see Rickles perform, apparently thanks to an ugly tie I’d given him as a birthday gift and a guy and his wife seated next to him who wanted to switch seats at the last minute. So I own an indirect thanks to the funnyman for getting me more money at one point in my life. Thanks, Don, er… Mr. Rickles. I’d probably not know what to say to the man if I ran into him at Patsy’s here in NYC, but I understand that he was pretty good with fans who approached him. Off stage, he was still a big prankster with his close friends, but treated regular folk just right.
Now, you probably don’t need to buy both seasons of CPO Sharkey on DVD if you need a Rickles fix (although you should, as it was quite a hilariously wacky show for the era. My suggestion is to grab a copy of the 2007 documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project for a nice and hilarious look at the man at work. Yes, he also did a few dramatic performances and of course, younger folks will remember him as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies. I’ll stop here because I need some laughs, and Don would probably give me one of those looks and lay into me something fierce for trying to be too damn sentimental.