Don Rickles stands as one of the last members of Hollywood’s old guard. Along with names like Brooks, Cavett, and Reiner, Rickles belongs to the increasingly small club that helped shape the comedic and cultural landscapes we now enjoy. He comes from a time when one had to do more than inherit a fortune, have a leaked sex tape go viral, or drink like a fish on the Jersey Shore.
As such, I felt it extremely important to see Don Rickles perform when the opportunity presented itself, not only to pay respects before the man decides to retire, but to experience a type of performance which will most likely go extinct with him and his peers in the coming years.
When I entered Hard Rock Live’s auditorium on Thursday night, former Rickles boss and confidant Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits played over the PA to the slowly growing crowd; a full jazz orchestra’s worth of instruments and seating lay in wait on stage. The instruments belonged to Rickles’ backing band, a group of musicians that would also support opening act Nicole Henry.
Henry is a songstress in the style of the great female jazz singers of the big band era, and as such, her set was composed of several jazz standards. The vibe set by this well-oiled jazz machine suited the night perfectly, functioning as a time machine that transported a casino situated in the middle of the swamp to a strip bound casino in pre-’70s Vegas.
After Henry closed her set with Irving Berlin’s standard, “Cheek to Cheek,” Rickles, also known as “Mr. Insult,” found his way to the stage via a band-performed intro. He commenced by yelling pseudo-Spanish sounding gibberish over a latin-jazz number, and from jump street, the man delivered a night of uncontrollable laughter and shocking behavior, all while hiding behind the shield of a tuxedo and the class of a big band.
Rickles is equal-opportunity humorist, and every demographic had the right to be slagged by his light-hearted jabs and insults. Every single person in the room felt the burn at some point in the night. From stabs at the elderly both in the front row of the audience and in his band having “passed on” during the performance, to his unbridled assault on the Seminole tribe, to the ever present onslaught of jokes about his own people, Rickles’s bit required audience members to pay close attention to keep up. His insult-based humor eschewed any sense of political correctness – to the point that repeating a lot of what was said on Thursday night could paint Rickles as a racist, sexist, and homophobe. Yet, somehow, his humor worked in a way that leveled the playing field, bringing everyone together through laughter.
One such instance was when Rickles brought two large audience members on stage with him, then proceeded to lay into them. Nothing was off limits, and the packed crowd appeared to enjoy every minute, victims included. After the three men on stage acted out a ridiculous vamp as Japanese soldiers, a joke that not only dates Rickles, but hints at his time in the service during World War II, the two men returned to the audience. They were both sent bottles of fine champagne for their service.
What seperates Don Rickles from the comedians of today, who tiptoe around complex social issues, is in spite of his humor being generally classless, his presentation is classy; he is never coming from a mean-spirited place, and always makes sure to drive home the fact that he is beyond grateful to still be afforded the opportunity to perform. He is simply so funny that you can’t help but love what the man does. People like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, and now David Letterman have always shown so much affection for the man and his work, and Thursday night’s performance demonstrated why.
–By David von Bader