“Italians are fantastic people, really. They can work you over in an alley while singing an opera.”
“I was nice to the people in the Philippines for the two-and-a-half years I was there, because I knew eventually I’d have to kiss up to them so my grandchildren could have toys.”
Those are just a couple of the famous jokes from Don Rickles, the legendary comedian and actor who died of kidney failure Thursday at age 90. The man Johnny Carson affectionately called “Mr. Warmth” was the ultimate insult comic, a massive influence on hundreds of comedians and one of the most beloved performers in Hollywood’s history. There will never be a comedian like him again because humor has gone from personal and ethnic to profane and political.
Rickles’ passing indeed comes at a time when envelope-pushing comedians everywhere find themselves barraged by harassment from politically correct critics.
The comedian Anthony Jeselnik took aim at the issue in his 2015 special “Thoughts and Prayers”: “I get really mad when people get sensitive about comedy. If you’re sensitive about comedy, it’s the dumbest thing you can do. I call them the Joke Police. They always have one rule: ‘You can’t make fun of this right now.’ After a couple of years, they move on to something else.”
What such critics fail to appreciate is that poking fun at a sensitive topic doesn’t mean the speaker necessarily shares the belief behind it; it’s a joke. When it’s done right — and no one did it better than Rickles — it’s making fun of the stereotype, not wallowing in it.
As Rickles himself famously said, “If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn’t be funny; there is a difference between an actual insult and just having fun.”
Today, in this politically correct climate, critics immediately weigh in on Twitter and demand apologies. Make a joke with a racial theme — suddenly you’re racist. Make a joke about gender differences, and suddenly you’re sexist. The actual intent behind the joke is lost behind knee-jerk reactions to anything that sets off your particular sensitivity.
Comedian Ricky Gervais recently spoke out on Twitter about those upset with some of his harsh jokes: “Offense often occurs when people mistake the subject of a joke with the actual target. They’re not always the same. Basically, offense is about feelings, and feelings are personal. Jokes about ‘bad things’ don’t have to necessarily be pro those bad things.”
It’s a line Rickles walked throughout his entire career. No one was off-limits for a joke, including — and sometimes especially — Jewish people. (Rickles himself was Jewish.) His insults were as barbed as insults get, but always equal opportunity, always acknowledging that “we’re all in this together — and just because we have some differences, there’s no reason we can’t make fun of them.”
“They called me ‘the insult guy,’ but it’s never mean-spirited,” Rickles was often quoted as saying. “I’m just exaggerating everything about us and about life … When I’m onstage, I’m acting.”
By all accounts, Rickles was a wonderful friend, a thoughtful, caring man, and a devoted husband to his wife of 52 years, Barbara, who survives him. He was a lifelong Democrat who also had many Republican friends; he performed at the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, alongside his close friend Frank Sinatra. He was a World War II Navy veteran who was honorably discharged in 1946.
Bernie Mac, a black comedian and actor who died in 2008, was a huge Rickles fan. Mac spoke to The New Yorker in 2004 about seeing Rickles on a Dean Martin celebrity roast when he (Mac) was a boy.
“[Rickles] had no respect for any person, and he was doing his thing to everybody — black, white, Jewish, Asian. I fell in love with him,” Mac said. “I saw the joke, you know? My family saw the joke. My old grandfather, who came from the South — even he got Rickles. He was like, ‘This [guy] is crazy.’”
Rickles’ brand of humor was introduced to a whole new generation when he provided the voice of Mr. Potato Head for Pixar’s beloved “Toy Story” film series. It was unknown at press time whether he had completed his voiceover work on the next film, “Toy Story 4,” before his death. (That film has been in production for some time, but it’s not due in theaters until summer 2019. It was originally scheduled for a summer 2018 release.)
During his long stand-up career, Rickles also did a lot of acting, appearing in many television shows — such as “C.P.O. Sharkey” in the 1970s — and had semi-dramatic roles in films such as “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) and “Casino” (1995).
The distinction between Rickles’ act and the man himself could be appreciated Thursday on Twitter and Instagram. The legend was memorialized by a broadly diverse assortment of comedians, actors, and personalities. They included Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Kimmel, George Takei, Sandra Bernhard, Billy Crystal, LeVar Burton, Billy Eichner, Barbra Streisand, and Tom Hanks, among many others.
Rickles’ longtime close friend Bob Newhart, a comic legend himself, released a statement from both himself and his wife on the passing of Rickles: “He was called ‘The Merchant of Venom,’ but in truth, he was one of the kindest, caring and most sensitive human beings we have ever known. We are devastated and our world will never be the same.”
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