On his previous Melody Fair visit in the early 1970s, I had interviewed Don Rickles. He'd given me an hour of his precious time in his trailer, just before he went on.
I asked some questions he wasn't used to. For some reason, they made the greatest of all insult comics — an unstoppable tank of a man if ever there was one — nervous. That was Rickles in his prime. When he died Thursday of kidney failure at 90, he was a frail, fragile ghost of his once frighteningly robust self.
On Rickles' next visit to the Melody Fair Summer Tent Theater after the interview, proprietor Lew Fisher — who had engineered that rare hourlong interview — retaliated for my cheek by putting me in the front row.
That was Lew's plan. No way, I pleaded to the woman at the box office who had given me the tickets. "I've seen Rickles' act," I told her. If you're in the front row, you become part of it. Mincemeat, in other words. He would pass by an unattractive woman and say, "Boy, are you ugly." Somehow, the "joke" was that it was true but that she didn't mind because for one night she had been part of Rickles' act. I saw him do that. I also saw him grab the hand of a woman in the front row and make a big show of giving it a chivalrous kiss, only to tell her that she had obviously eaten at the "fish place" before the show. (The late, lamented Gandy's on Niagara Falls Boulevard.)
God only knows what would have been left of me had I endured a Rickles appearance taking notes in the front row. I would probably be speaking to you now from a rubbish pile in North Tonawanda. My cowardice won out. They moved me. Some other sucker got my front-row tickets.
When Rickles was once asked what it was about him that people could possibly find so lovable, he answered, "My humor."
Incredibly, he was right. That is what we loved about him. He was a heroic nightclub soldier in the Grand Showbiz Army of the Truth. He was the guy who endeared himself forever to Frank Sinatra by noticing a tipsy Sinatra sneaking into Rickles' late-night lounge act from his own Miami gig in the "Big Room" and saying, "Come on in, Frank. Make yourself at home. Go ahead and hit somebody."
We hated it, frankly, when, at the end of his act, he'd sing that godawful disclaimer — a maudlin song whose opening line was "I'm a nice guy."
Of course he was. We knew that.
All over showbiz, people loved Rickles, but his fellow comedians especially loved him to pieces. There's no question that over late-night vodka, a fellow comic confiding some personal difficulty would have found the real Rickles to be every bit the "Mr. Warmth" that Johnny Carson used to call him sarcastically.
But so what? Nice guys are a dime a dozen.
Rickles was unique. He was the greatest insult comic of them all. And in being all of that, he was even greater in the comedian's art.
The original insult comic, Jack E. Leonard, was all old lines manipulated to suit occasions. He would tell a heckler, for instance, "Why don't you put your glasses on backwards and walk into yourself?"
Rickles was something else. He was personal. Made up on the spot. He turned what we now call "hate speech" into a joke. It was World War II comedy — the awful things soldiers and sailors said to make each other laugh under the worst circumstances i.e. they might be dead the next day.
The beauty of Rickles is that when he improvised and went freeform, he was stunning. The line between Rickles at his best and Robin Williams starting out wasn't that large. Without Rickles, there would have been no Williams. Or Richard Pryor, either. (Rickles' own idol was Milton Berle.)
Rickles and Williams each prowled the stage in the same caged-panther way. In their prime, they were hugely kinetic acts.
Why wouldn't comics love Rickles? He would be there for them at all their roasts doing some of the best lines of the night. He'd call them "hockey pucks" when he was tired and couldn't think of anything good. If he was in rare form, he would slap words together they would never forget.
The last member of my immediate family to take part in a Rickles event was my daughter a couple of years ago. She had written a script that he was delivering as part of a team making an "extra" to be included on a DVD of vintage TV comedy.
The ultra-kinetic bull couldn't move anymore. He just sat in one place and sprayed everyone around him with spritz. A slightly overweight guy on the shoot became "the chubby Jew from Brooklyn."
He, of course, loved Rickles. So did my daughter.
Rickles was exempt from everyone else's rules. That's because he made us all realize just how hilarious and ridiculous naked hostility really is.
Joan Rivers meant what she said: Rickles was pure show business. He was a great American figure.
It was a great privilege to have figured out questions that made him a little nervous — and to have evaded the annihilating retaliation that would surely have come.
He knew how much I, like everyone else, loved his act.
Don Rickles. One of the bravest, funniest, and sweetest guys that ever performed. A dear pal that we will all sorely miss.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) April 6, 2017
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