We would get to see him on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but it had to be a special occasion because the Tonight Show was past our bedtime. Maybe on a family trip with the whole family in a single motel room. Don Rickles. The Dean of Mean. Johnny Carson was the perfect foil. Woe to the unsuspecting guest sitting on the stage because Don Rickles in the spotlight could cause a lot of collateral damage.
A few years ago, a friend found out that Rickles was coming to the Hollywood Casino in Hammond and he insisted we dress up. Hit the casino Rat Pack style in black tie. So about a dozen of us made the trip. Rest assured, we were the only people in the casino or at the show in formal wear. Rickles was over 80 and the set was short, but he killed. He would drop his mic and pretend that the strain of picking it up was more than an old man could handle so his beleaguered piano player would walk over a pick it up for him. Every time.
His humor was not for everyone. Sensitive souls would recoil at some of his material. And even his fans might have moments were they thought he went too far. But he was an equal opportunity insult comic whose favorite target might have been himself. I do know of one night when he got as good as he gave.
Some decades ago, a college friend of mine named Rick went to Vegas and decided to catch Don Rickles. He made a considered donation to the man in charge to be seated right in front just so he could be in the line of fire. Sure enough, Don picked him out and asked him his name. Rick told him.
Rickles starts in on him, “A nice Jewish boy? Where you from?”
“Iowa,” Rick says. Don Rickles rolls his eyes. Crowd howls. Rickles starts to tighten the noose. He ramps up the incredulous.
“Are there any Jews in Iowa?”
And Rick says, “Not tonight.”
Chalk one up for the kid.