Don of derision feted
Kind words for the master of comedy insults, writes
MR Warmth got a warm reception from top comics as Don Rickles, the legendary master of the put-down, graciously accepted the Johnny Carson Award at American network Comedy Central’s recent second annual Comedy Awards night.
In a career that spans more than 60 years, Rickles, 86, has appeared in films ranging from the Beach Party films of the early 1960s to Casino in 1995 and sitcoms such as CPO Sharkey.
Perhaps best known these days as the voice of Mr Potato Head in three Toy Story films, he makes his living as an ‘‘aggressive’’ stage comedian, outlasting contemporaries Alan King, role model Milton Berle (who dubbed him the Merchant of Venom) and Carson, a friend who hosted him on the Tonight Show more than 100 times and affectionately called him Mr Warmth. ‘‘It’s sarcastic but it’s true,’’ Rickles says. To many fans, he’s known as the prototypical insult comic. He doesn’t tell jokes, exactly; his act is the ad-libbed singling out of audience members for ridicule. Does he like the insult label? ‘‘No, I don’t, but I got it, and it stuck with me and it didn’t hurt me,’’ he says. ‘‘Insult, to me, was always something offensive.’’
Jon Stewart, who presented the award, says: ‘‘It’s curmudgeon humour more than insult humor. He’s a guy who’s annoyed at you and things that just bother him.’’
Stewart adds: ‘‘He’s a comedic actor who created a character antithetical to his heart. Some comedians exist as a cautionary tale. He exists as an aspiration.’’
Others who paid tribute to the veteran comic included Robert De Niro, Rickles’ Casino costar. ‘‘Working with Don Rickles was a turning point in my own career,’’ he says.
‘‘It was the last time I worked with Martin Scorsese. Eight pictures together, critical successes, awards, stardom and then bam! – one film with Don and it’s all down the toilet.’’
Rickles was especially fond of Frank Sinatra, who had ‘‘a lot’’ to do with Rickles’ success and forced Ronald Reagan’s 1985 inaugural team to include him, in what became a career highlight, by threatening not to attend. Sinatra warmed to Rickles because ‘‘I didn’t show any fear’’.
But it was Carson who cemented his stature among viewers. ‘‘Johnny didn’t mix (socially) as much as Frank,’’ Rickles says. ‘‘He’d hide under the chair. But when the lights came on, there was no one better.’’
Among today’s late-night hosts Rickles rates David Letterman as the closest to Carson, saying he is a loner with a laid-back style – a great listener and a ‘‘sweet’’ man who dines with him after each appearance, and called last December to express condolences for ‘‘the terrible heartache of my life’’ – the death of Rickles’ son Larry, 41.