Why you should care

Because if you do, we’ll give you a cookie.

“What’s your name, sir?” The asker is Don Rickles, and he’s asking on the only talk show I could watch in the ’70s, after school, before I started my homework — The Mike Douglas Show. The audience member who Rickles has waved up onstage now tells the comic his first name.

Cue the Rickles eye roll and mug. The one that says, “Of all the gin joints in the world, the stupidest man in the world has to walk into mine.”

“No, sir,” Rickles says. “Your LAST name.” And the audience thrills because even though they don’t know where this is going, they know exactly where it’s going, and there are barely suppressed chuckles when the audience member states his last name. His ethnic identifier.

“Ah, GERMAN!” And, in short order, Don Rickles, a Lithuanian Jew from Queens, New York, who spoke Yiddish at home growing up, is singing, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” goose-stepping and “Sieg Heil”-ing while encouraging the hapless and now trapped audience member to join in. Yeah, Rickles is running that hot, and by the time the bit ends, Rickles and the German, red-faced both from the marching and the singing, have brought down the house. With laughter and applause. And as I turn off the TV, I wonder what the hell I have just seen.

Don Rickles

Musical guest Scatman Crothers performs with guest host Don Rickles on July 26, 1976.

Source NBC/Getty

What I had seen was vintage Rickles. Him of the endless celebrity roasts, the Rat Pack-y hanging-on with its attendant Sinatra days and Dino nights, the very real film work in Kelly’s Heroes and Scorsese’sCasino, and mostly America’s id laid bare.

To call Rickles an insult comic is almost an insult. The Merchant of Venom? Mr. Warmth? Fine. The scabrous Jack E. Leonard, the man Rickles was most accused of ripping off, was an insult comic. Rickles? He was a chronicler of our discomfort with modernity as he made fun of Italians, the Irish, Blacks, Latinos, Jews, his wife, your shirt, your inability to answer quickly enough when he called you out.

Which is precisely why a 36th-birthday present of front-row seats to see Rickles do his deal in Las Vegas, of all places, was very definitely a dream come true. See, whether it was Dean Martin or Sammy Davis Jr., for years I had maintained a preference for the self-conscious sharkskin cool of pre-hippie America. It reminded me of my Aramis cologne–wearing Uncle Teddy. My Manhattan-swilling grandmother. And it recalled nothing if not some kid’s version of sophisticated adult fun.

So booted and suited, my wife at the time and I took a table at the Desert Inn in what they called “old Las Vegas.” A table gifted to us on account of a friendship connection to the Wynns. Them of the Bellagio and The Mirage. But the Desert Inn? If you’ve seen the original Ocean’s 11, you’ve seen it. And a front-row seat. A front-row seat on what would inevitably be jibes about my friends and me robbing his room while he’s onstage, feigning getting skewered by a spear and then a quick and knowing aside to the audience, inquiring about my frame of mind after the ridicule: “Is he laughing?”

Drinks ordered and knocked back, we scanned the room and, with a slowly dawning mix of horror and excitement, we noticed that our table was as close as could be to none other than media monster Larry King himself. This meant a few things. This meant never-ending jokes about King’s seemingly never-ending and multiple marriages. (There were.) And endless jokes about the age difference between King and his “newest soon-to-be ex-wife.” (There were those too.) But something else much more significant: My negritude completely escaped notice. In 1998, no less.

But Rickles? On fire. He danced, sang, dammit; he called us names and wrung us all out so thoroughly with a tribute to the love he felt for us and wanted us to feel for each other that by the time he was done, drenched in sweat, his shirt open, and even though we knew we were being played, our cheeks were wet with tears, and our face hurt from just … sheer joy.

“Be well,” he said before disappearing stage right. Seventeen years later, on the occasion of his death, we’re inclined to say the same.

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