September 25, 2018

The difference between Don Rickles and Donald Trump

At a time when a leading presidential candidate calls Mexicans “rapists,” Muslims “terrorists” and his opponents “losers,” I thought it would be refreshing to spend an evening basking in the nostalgia of a kinder, gentler America.

So last Saturday night, I went to see Don Rickles.

The legendary comic gave a one-night-only, sold-out performance on Jan. 30 at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. I spotted Steve Martin, Martin Short, Tommy LaSorda, Haim and Cheryl Saban, Joe Mantegna, Bob Newhart and Seth Rogen in the packed, multigenerational crowd. For Rickles, it was a performance. For the rest of us, a pilgrimage.

I grew up on Rickles. Every wisecrack a snarky kid could only dream of saying aloud, he actually did. However you were supposed to behave, he didn’t. He called his TV hosts “dummy” and made fun of stars, politicians and audience members. He was the pioneer of edgy. When Rickles came on the “Howard Stern Show” for the first time, in 2008, Howard rose to his feet in tribute — and didn’t sit for the entire interview.

On Saturday night, the lights went down and clips from Rickles’ greatest appearances played on a large screen. There was Rickles insulting President Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the presidential inaugural: “Am I going too fast for you, Ronnie?” Rickles making Mafia jokes to Frank Sinatra’s face. Fearless, fast as a shark.

Then a 25-piece orchestra cued the matador music, the screen went up and there sat the man himself, Mr. Warmth.

“Stop the music, goddammit! Stop the music!” he fumed at the conductor. “What kind of money am I paying you?”

Rickles, who is 89 years old, did most of his act from a chair. He rose to his feet once, bending like a question mark onto a tripod cane — and that was just to do his shtick about making love to his wife, Barbara. As Rickles himself might say, the man looked like he was in pain.

“I have something called necrotizing fasciitis,” he announced. “It’s a disease that the Black people get.”

Actually, it’s an often deadly flesh-eating infection that the comedian contracted in 2014, and it nearly cost him a leg. But the show must go on. Not with a new act — but with the same wit.

At one point, Rickles brought onstage an audience member who’d been brave enough to sit where Rickles could see him: a Korean American whom Rickles kept making World War II Japanese jokes about.

“Two and a half years I was running around the Philippines, looking for your uncle,” he said.

Then Rickles pointed to a man two rows back wearing a hipster fedora. “The guy with the hat on — it’s not Yom Kippur. Take the goddamn hat off.”

He asked the man if he was Jewish. “Half, on my mother’s side.”

“What about your father?”

“We don’t talk about him.”

Rickles brought the man onstage, introduced him to the Asian American.

“Here, meet your father.”

A big laugh — if Rickles looked like a wreck, his mind was sharp.

And, yes, he called out Jews, Blacks, Mexicans, gays, fat people, women.

“You Italian? Spanish! Call up immigration. Forty million Jews, I got a Spanish fat guy right in the goddamn front.”

“Is that your wife, sir?” Cue the eye roll. “No, I’m kidding, you’re a stunning woman. Poor bastard must have cataracts.”

“I’ve been married 50 years. Don’t applaud, you never saw her. Jewish broad. She just lays in bed and goes, blahhhhhhh.”

It’s hard to imagine Rickles appearing on any college campus today. In the age of “microaggressions,” Rickles would be a macroaggressor, one more example of white privilege having a laugh at the expense of the victimized. But what made his comedy so powerful was the fact that he knew he wasn’t so powerful.

Rickles came from nothing — poor, unprepossessing (Sinatra’s nickname for him was “Bullet Head”), the son of Max, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania (their post-Ellis Island name was Richters) and a strong-willed mother, Etta. He was raised in a Yiddish-speaking home in Queens. During World War II, he saw combat while serving on a PT tender. After, he hoofed around Broadway, desperate for a break. His act grew out of countless nights performing in strip clubs, where he got his biggest laughs for heckling the hecklers.

Maybe people didn’t get angry at the short Jew lacing into them because they thought they were better than him. Or because Rickles doesn’t spare himself. “When you’re older, your underwear gets stuck in the valley,” he said, shifting in his chair. “Then you get up, and you realize your socks are wet.”

Or maybe, as Chris Rock said in a documentary on Rickles, “Being funny is like being a pretty woman: You can get away with a lot.”

That points to the biggest difference between the two Donalds. Trump’s insults may have cost him Iowa, but Rickles’ have won him a legendary career. Because Trump means it, and Rickles is joking.

The rest of Rickles’ act that night was awash in sentiment: a tribute to his mother, to his World War II service, to his best friend, Newhart, and his best foil, Sinatra. There were more clips, shmaltzy songs, and in the end, he gave the Asian American and the hipster bottles of Champagne.

Then it was over. Two standing ovations from 1,200 people. Not bad for a bald Jew born during the Coolidge administration.

I don’t know how many more shows Rickles has planned, or has in him. But I still wouldn’t want to sit where he could see me. Because Don Rickles was, is and always will be the greatest insult comic of them all — next to Time itself.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal.  Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism. To support sensible gun control, go to everytown.org.