Comedy Legend Don Rickles on the Art of the Insult

The 90-year-old comedy legend, who slayed and subdued crowds with his equal-opportunity put-downs for more than 60 years, died on April 6. In May of 2016, we sat down with him to talk about his life and career

Don Rickles is waiting for me behind a door that sports this nameplate: Mr. Warmth Room. On the second floor of his elegantly appointed, villalike home in Century City, curated memorabilia attests to his comic mastery but also to his Judaism and military service. He has framed medals from his time as a World War II seaman; a large mounted knife, courtesy of the Israeli Defense Forces; the gardenia he wore on his lapel when he served as a pallbearer at Frank Sinatra’s funeral. Now 90, Rickles is already seated, wearing a sport coat and sweater vest. He wonders whether he has shrunk “too low down” in his cushioned chair, but his wit and timing, which still loom large, make him ageless. When I ask him to state his name and occupation into my recorder, he chuckles and says, with familiar sarcasm, “I’m a butcher.” Is he wrong? Since the 1950s, audiences—from presidents and queens to the nightly hoi polloi—have gleefully given themselves up to him as fresh meat. Today young people know him best as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies (a fourth of which is under way). But for those old enough to remember, he’ll always be the guy who dubbed hecklers “hockey pucks.”

Rickles in 1969
Rickles in 1969

Photograph by Lawrence Schiller/Getty Images

About two years ago Jerry Seinfeld said that his Mount Rushmore of comedy would be Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, and you. What do you see as your contribution to the art form in light of those three others?
I think that I’m doing comedy that’s never been done before. There are guys that try to do me, but it never comes off as funny, really funny. And people that do do me, or try to do my kind of repertoire, so to speak—they know it comes from me. And so I, in a sense, without knowing it, became a pioneer. Making fun of people became OK. As a matter of fact, with Trump and all that, they have my name all over the place.

Yes, during the Republican presidential campaign, when Donald Trump and Marco Rubio were exchanging insults, Trump said of Rubio: “All of a sudden he became Don Rickles. And he’s not Don Rickles.” What about Trump? Does he have—
Talent? He’s meshuga. But a lot of people will vote for him because it’s something different, so people get shook up by it.

Rickles and Steve Lawrence on "the Kraft Music Hall" variety show in 1968
Rickles and Steve Lawrence on The Kraft Music Hall variety show in 1968

Photograph by NBC/NBCU via Getty Images

Like other postwar comedians, you honed your style in a strip club.
First I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, which was quite an accomplishment with my image. They said, “This guy is so overpowering in what he does.” That was the groundwork for my comedy. Then when I went to the Wayne Room, a striptease joint in Washington, D.C., run by this guy Maynard Wayne, he molded what I was doing. That’s when I started talking to the sailors in the audience. And then from there, on to the Slate Brothers.

This was when you came to Los Angeles, in the 1950s, when there were clubs like Zardi’s Jazzland and the Interlude in Hollywood. The Slate Brothers was on La Cienega. Is it true you were a fill-in for Lenny Bruce at the club?
I guess he got canceled because of the language he was using onstage. [One of the owners] Henry Slate, rest his soul, heard about me and got me there, and that became magic. A majority of the stars in the Hollywood system came to see me. Burt Lancaster or no matter who the star was—I would just make up something about them, and they’d laugh their fanny off.

You never wrote down your material? Somehow I imagine writers sending you insults they’d hope you’d use.
Anything I do on the stage is all impromptu, made up in my own head. And when they say “insult,” it’s a put-on—an exaggeration. I developed all of this just by sitting in a car talking with my manager about different things when we went to dates together. We’d talk, and all of a sudden I’d say something funny. Then I’d go out onstage and free-fall by the seat of my pants, and that became a whole performance.

In your 2007 memoir, Rickles’ Book, you talk about how much you sweated during your act.
I used to be soaking wet.

I flop-sweat, too. I’m sweating now, meeting you. Didn’t it make you self-conscious?
It didn’t always happen. I didn’t walk out and start to sweat. They didn’t see me dripping on the floor like it’s raining, no. But I was always, as you said, perspiring. Between shows at the Slate Brothers, the guys used to put a hose on me in the alley. Now I get onstage, and I’m just as dry as can be. It’s about confidence.

Did you ever worry about going too far onstage in terms of offending someone?
Maybe when I went home and had dinner, I might have thought, “I said that to Charlie?” But then I said, “They really laughed.” I never said, “Ooh, Jesus, that was terrible what I said.” My theory is, even to this day, I have great confidence in what I do, and I don’t do anything blue. Never. I never used fuck or suck. Son of a bitch is my biggest word, really. Anything I say on the stage I believe in.

You recorded your 1968 album, Hello Dummy!, at the Sahara in Las Vegas, where you became a wildly popular headliner after starting as a lounge act. You did shows at midnight, 2 a.m., and 5 a.m. What was that like?
Doing a show at five in the morning with a guy having coffee and eggs, I’d say, “Charlie, where you from?” He’d say, “I’m out of coffee.” You know, I had this real chichi crowd. I’d walk down the whole bar and make fun of each person. I had nerve like you can’t believe because I was trying to make a name for myself. I was the only guy they started charging $5 to see in the lounge. And it used to be packed at two in the morning. You couldn’t get near it. I’d get offstage and go into the casino and, at the top of my voice, shout, “I want this gambling stopped now. If it’s not stopped, I’m going to call the cops. I don’t need this.” And the entire casino froze. And then I said, “OK, carry on.”

With Robert De Niro in Casino (1995)
With Robert De Niro in Casino (1995)

Photograph courtesy Berliner Studio/BeImages

The Mob ran Las Vegas then. And not just Vegas. You worked at a lot of places around the country that were “connected.” How did you navigate that?
Well, the Mob knew me. We were robbed in Chicago—all my wife’s jewelry, everything. I went on Johnny Carson and made a joke about it. Two days later, in Florida, my mother calls me, and everything they took was in a bag in her house. They returned it. They said, “We’re so sorry. We didn’t know it was Don.”

Many years later, when Martin Scorsese re-created the Mob era of Vegas with his film Casino, he cast you as Robert De Niro’s casino manager. It was a very different part for you: quiet.
Marty said, “I need your face in this movie. But do me a favor. De Niro is a very serious guy. Before we do the movie, you’ve got to go to the Hotel Bel-Air and meet him. Just be nice. Don’t make no jokes. Don’t kid around.” He had just finished Cape Fear, De Niro, and I’ll never forget it. He had the hair over his face. He still was in that makeup. And I walked in and said, “Hey, Bob. Don Rickles.” [He does an impression of De Niro mumbling.] I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. The first shot in the Riviera, he and I are walking down to the casino, I’m playing his bodyguard and friend Billy Sherbert, and they went, “Roll ’em,” and he goes [more mumbling], and I went, “Hold it! I can’t take this anymore. I can’t. Marty, get somebody that can talk, for Christ’s sake. This guy’s making $8 billion. I’m making $2 and a coffee cup.” And he started laughing, De Niro. And then we started to become friends. In another take he’s sitting at the bar with a cigarette, and he’s supposed to be thinking. It’s about two minutes, and he’s… [pretends to be puffing]. Finally I lean over and say, “Will you say the goddamn lines? It’s almost six o’clock, for Christ’s sake. I’ve got to go home.” Nobody else would do that with him.

That reminds me of Frank Sinatra. You famously met him when he came to see you perform in Miami and you told him, “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody.” How did you get away with insulting him, given how prickly Sinatra was said to be?
He always respected me because of my [close] relations with my mother, and my background. I was never in trouble, you know. He liked that a lot. Once in Monte Carlo we were sitting by a big bay window. It was [the New York restaurateur] Jilly Rizzo and me and Frank. Anyway, we’re sitting there drinking, and all of a sudden—ba-ba-boom—lightning! And he said, “What the hell is that?” I said, “Well, Frank, there’s a storm out there.” He said, “I want it stopped.” That’s the way he’d talk. He said, “You and Jilly make that goddamn storm…”—and we went outside and stood in the rain in tuxedos. And—our luck—the storm stopped, and we walked inside, and he said, “You’ve done a good job.” We were soaking wet. Frank had the kind of charisma that, when he’d walk into a restaurant, everything stopped. I swear to God. It was magnificent. There’s nobody like him in all the years that I’ve been around, stars and people of importance, even presidents. He had that extra something. But still, when I saw Frank, I might interrupt him: “Frank, I’m talking.” Nobody did that with him. He’d fall on the floor. I could say anything to him, within reason.

In 1966, Gay Talese wrote a much-admired profile for Esquire titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” At one point Talese follows Sinatra and his entourage to Vegas, where they drop in on you during a show at the Sahara. Talese described your act like this: “His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one—it is too offensive to be offensive.”
Well, that’s kind of strong, but it’s, in a way, a compliment. I always say, When you stand on a stage, you can’t please everybody. But predominantly people who are coming to see me enjoy me. People don’t walk out. Like if I’m being very honest [his eyes dart to my ankles]:Your socks are ridiculous. You just laughed. The way I said that, you laugh at it because it’s the attitude. It’s the way you say things. I say, “That’s your wife? Ooh, what—a bus hit her?” But not something that’s vicious, you know? They put somebody in a wheelchair in the front. I said, “That damn thing needs some oiling. Get a can of oil and fix that.” And they laugh because it’s not hurtful. It’s like taking notice of their thing in life and laughing at it. I talk about all of us.

Rickles with Frank Sinatra on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" in 1976
Rickles with Frank Sinatra on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson in 1976

Photograph courtesy Berliner Studios/BEImages

Let’s go back to the beginning. You were the only child of Max and Etta Rickles, of Jackson Heights in Queens. Your father was an insurance salesman. Was he funny?
No. He was—how shall I say it?—sort of an off-the-cuff kind of guy. Not with jokes, though. He was always sizing up people. My father was a big macher in the synagogue. He was loved by everybody. He was the kind of guy that could go over to your wife, and she could be in her bathrobe, and he could hug her, and she’d say, “Oh, Max, it’s so good to see you.” He was a charming man. We lived like a block from the shul, and he’d say, “Oh, the lights are on. I’ve got to go tell the guy to shut them off.” We were Orthodox but not to the rules, so to speak.

I wondered if you were religious because even after eviscerating an audience member, you might sprinkle in a “God bless.” Or when you speak of someone who has died, you always add, “God rest his soul.” Is that an expression of your faith, or superstition?
That’s my upbringing. I don’t go to shul anymore and daven my brains out, no. But back then, we had a cantor that used to—oh, this is funny. He’d come from the back—we had a small synagogue, and he’d wear a high hat, with the white tallis—and he comes down the aisle. [He chants in prayer]. He’d get to the bimah and sit down next to me. I was always holding the Torah. And he’d whisper, “Find out the Yankees score.”

As much as you’re hailed as the greatest put-down artist of all time, you tag the put-downs with love. Joan Rivers, with whom you toured, once told Playboy that she would never apologize from the stage for offending anyone and you shouldn’t, either. “Don shouldn’t cop out,” she said then.
Well, that worked for her personality. For me, I thought what I said fit.

With Carol Burnett on her long-running TV show
With Carol Burnett on her long-running TV show

Photograph Wynnefield Productions

I went back and watched the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast specials. When you were the “Man of the Week,” it was Bob Newhart and Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, and you get up at the end and destroy everybody on the dais. But before you finish, you talk sincerely about your father. You’re sentimental.
I play a clip [from my current show] of my mother saying good night to me, and she says, “I’m with you, Don, in spirit.” It’s scary. It’s almost like she was there, and she’s on the screen saying good night to me. It’s wonderful. A lot of people said, “Don’t do that,” but it’s me. Sort of like the way I give a salute when I leave the stage. I had a tragedy in my life. I lost my son [producer Larry Rickles, who died in 2011 at the age of 41]. You never get over it. God forbid you should ever get over it. There’s no ending to that. It’s always with us. So I always say “Good night, Larry” at the end of my act. It makes me feel good. All my shows, at the end—I call it my rabbi shtick. I tell a little bit of a serious moment and say good night. So they don’t think I’m a crazy person.

You long joked that your mother was like “a Jew Patton.”
My mother, for years, never understood. “Why do you pick on people?” she said. “Why can’t you be like Alan King—nice?” I said, “Ma, I don’t want to be like him.” And all of a sudden, I started to be successful, and she said, “You’re very bright.” She was a very domineering, caring little lady, and very smart. If it wasn’t for her, I probably never would have been successful.

Let’s talk about your television career. You played a New York ad executive in the short-lived 1972 CBS sitcom The Don Rickles Show and starred in NBC’s C.P.O. Sharkey for two seasons. And there were other projects that didn’t get off the ground.
That was the joke they all said. Johnny Carson used to rib me, you know: “He has more pilots than airplanes.”

I’ve read that Carson worded it like this: You’d had your hand in more pilots than an Air Force proctologist. Why did your voice, which was so hot in nightclubs, fail to translate to series TV?
I was too strong. Too strong. I was like that as a student at the American Academy, too, but the smart directors always said, “Don’t lose that, Don—that vitality and that energy.”

Among the previous generation’s comics, who were your idols?
My idol when I was a kid was Milton Berle because he was a master. And Bob Hope. I’ll just tell you one thing that will give you an idea, and I won’t say any more. I did The Bob Hope Show. In those days you did rehearsal first. And I come down the stairs to be introduced by Bob Hope. I say, “Hello, Bob.” And he says, “Is that the way you’re going to do it?” I said, “Yeah, Bob.” I went, “What the fuck? This guy is crazy.” We went into the writers’ room—Harry Crane and those guys with the hats and cigars—and they’re all sitting around, and Hope said, “Do it for them.” I go, “Hi, Bob.” And they all went, “You’re right, Bob. It’s wrong the way he does it.” Berle did the same thing. They wanted to let me know they were the kings. I was the new guy on the street. Not anymore. What I have now is a little bit of The Godfather when I go to affairs and stuff. I’ve got the cane, and I sit down, and a lot of these young comedians—and older ones—and actors come over, and it’s like paying their respects to, you know, the Godfather.

I think your show business longevity deserves that kind of respect.
Well, whatever. Who am I to say?

Paul Brownfield’s last article for Los Angeles was about apartment rental battles in the February issue.