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This week we lost a comedy giant, the one and only Don Rickles. He was a legend and his face would be on the Mount Rushmore of stand-up comedy with Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby before we found out about his extracurricular activities. And he was only 90-years-old. Another great artist dies young.
But in all seriousness, one of the most impressive (and badass) aspects of Don’s career is that he performed stand-up until the day he died. 90 and still sharp as ever doing multiple shows a week. Hitting the stage night after night with as much wit and energy as day one. That’s unprecedented.
But let’s peel back the curtain and look at the big picture, because to fully appreciate Rickles, you have to try to comprehend the staggering impact that he had on shaping modern comedy.
Rickles was known as the king of insult comedy. Back in the day, decades before Comedy Central hit the airwaves, roasts became popularized by the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts — a hugely successful variety show where comedians and entertainers would gather together and roast a particular star, much like they still do today. Some of the burn victims were Lucille Ball, Hugh Hefner, Muhammad Ali, Betty White, Frank Sinatra, Truman Capote, Mr. T and even Ronald Reagan.
People watching these roasts — both in person and in their living rooms — were all only there for one reason: Don Rickles. He was the anchor of these roasts, the glue that kept them together, and the man who dominated the television screen. He’s the one who kept them popular, and kept the beautiful art of insult comedy alive and healthy. When he approached the podium, it was an event. It was like watching Babe Ruth walk up to the plate or watching Tyson enter the ring with a quiet intensity. He always brought the house down. He was the king.
Now, Comedy Central has celebrity roasts every year. As a matter of fact, the popularity of insult comedy has exploded in these past few years. The world famous Comedy Store in Hollywood started having Roast Battles. It quickly became one of the best and most popular comedy shows in LA. The trend spread and now there’s Roast Battles in every major city with a comedy scene in the country. It’s even become a televised tournament on Comedy Central.
And without Don Rickles carrying the torch for insult comedy, we wouldn’t have Jeff Ross, Andrew Dice Clay, Lisa Lampenelli, hell, or even Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. One could even argue that our current president is more of an insult comic than a politician, but that’s a different conversation.
The bizarre thing about Rickles is, for such a comedy icon, he never released any specials. One of the only ways to see his full — usually completely improvised — act was to see one of his legendary Vegas shows. His closest thing was his live album “Hello Dummy.” It’s just one 30 minute improvised set, but it’s his magnum opus and an essential comedy album. I recommend finding it and listening if you wanna laugh your ass off. There’s also a phenomenal documentary about him on Netflix called “Mr. Warmth.”
Part of Don Rickles’ genius was that he managed to be a rude prick and still be warm and likable. It was like watching your drunk grandpa make fun of your chubby cousin at a Christmas party. And to be insulted by him was considered an honor. Seth Meyers once said “there’s nothing better than being burned by Don Rickles.” And I’d be a massive assbag if I failed to mention that he was also Mr. Potato Head, which automatically pushes him into sainthood.
So between the legion of foulmouthed comics he inspired and the fact that roasts are still huge in the comedy world, Don Rickles was the guy who made it cool to be mean. And TFM commenters still continue this beautiful tradition every day..
Image via Youtube