Don Rickles turned 88 this year and his closest friends and biggest celebrities threw a party in his honor.
As one would expect, it was more of a roast than a tribute, more of a slap in the face than a slap on the back, more of a piling on than a love fest. But Don Rickles, nicknamed Mr. Warmth, wouldn’t have it any other way, you see, for he helped invent the genre of the celebrity roast and skewering his competitors and audience was his calling card.
Most who love comedy understand the trailblazing role that comics like Rickles, Dean Martin and others played several generations ago. They paved the way for today’s stand-up comedians to work a room and put the bite and snark directly into the medium.
They made it cool to roast your fellow artists — almost as a right of passage and the only way to getinvited to join the cool club. Rickles defined — and refined — the art and made it all his own.
No one was better at it than Rickles — and no one wanted to catch his eye more than the people in the room. They wanted him to poke fun at them, embarrass, harass and downright blast them. And Rickles rarely, if ever, disappointed.
As the “closer” for Dean Martin’s celebrity roasts each week, Rickles would destroy the dais (and all who sat upon it), including the likes of Lucille Ball, then-Governor Ronald Reagan, Phillis Diller (whose face he referred to as a leftover piece of unshaped clay), the host Martin and even the “Chairman,” Frank Sinatra.
For many, the relationship that Rickles had with Sinatra was one of legend and lore. How he could get away with the things he said — and did — to Sinatra continues to baffle comics to this day. Most feared Sinatra because of his ties to organized crime and the fact that if you made fun of him, you were likely to either end up dead or “never work in this town again” (which was basically like being dead). Yet, Rickles could blast him about his wives, his behavior, his mob connections and more — all on live television — and be invited back for more! Now, that is pure genius.
I like to think of myself as a part-time comedian at heart and also try (and sometimes succeed) to get away with saying certain things because of my sense of humor and personality. Don Rickles used his warmth and charm to do the same exact thing…only on a much grander scale and much larger stage. He built his career around destroying the psyche of others and taking them down a notch (or two or three). He was unabashed in letting you know your performance “was weak” even while you were basking in the glory of applause and adulation. It was just his way.
And while Rickles was a product of his era — often skewering ethnic and religious groups with free abandon — we now have much higher expectations of civility, tolerance and equality.
In truth, Rickles beat himself up with even greater regularity, something that endeared him to his audiences and peers. That is why he remains a beloved character to this day. Happy 88th, Mr. Warmth!