The death of Don Rickles last week brought back a flood of memories for me. My father loved seeing him in Las Vegas before Rickles really hit it big, when he was playing in the lounge at the Sahara Hotel. I saw him several times with my dad. Indeed, I saw him several times one night with my dad. Visiting family over Christmas in December 1969, I think, one night we went to see each of Rickles’s three shows: at 10:00 p.m., midnight and 2:00 a.m.
I don’t think Rickles ever made a self-deprecating joke. His humor was pure aggression. He held himself out as an equal opportunity offender, as the New York Times obit had it. If you tried to conjure a comic to counter the reigning ethos of political correctness, Rickles might be the guy.
All the stars playing the Strip came to be insulted by Rickles in the lounge at the Sahara. I remember seeing Joan Rivers (with Edgar) and a young Richard Pryor at his shows. Ed Sullivan wasn’t performing in town, but he showed up one night (with Sylvia) to get the Rickles treatment too.
Reading Brent Baker’s brief tribute to Rickles at NewsBusters, I learned something that Steve Hayward glossed over in the second volume of his Age of Reagan. Rickles played President Reagan’s second inaugural gala on January 19, 1985 (video below). Baker quotes Rickles identifying the honor of this performance as “the highlight of my life[.]”
Rickles apparently earned his place at the inaugural gala with an insult of the kind that President Reagan appreciated. The joke dated back to Reagan’s days as governor of California. Rickles roasted Reagan in 1974: “You are a politician. Black, white, Jew, gentile, we’re all working for one cause: to figure out how you became governor.” Now that is funny.
UPDATE: I meant to link to Steven Malanga’s perceptive tribute to Rickles at City Journal: “Mr. No Apologies.” Please check it out.