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Beyond the Hockey Puck Shtick

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 1998

  Style Showcase

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.—Don Rickles isn't just up there doing comedy. He is fighting the good fight. Indeed, he's one of the last of the good fighters. Rickles represents a generation of entertainers that is slipping away with the century, the victim of changing tastes and styles but mostly of the merciless passage of time.

Rickles, one of the greatest (and loudest) standup (and runaround) comedians of all time, still manages to be hip beyond hip, but clearly he is an entertainer of the old school. The old school is barely standing and now, almost empty. Soon they will close the old school down for good.

Frank Sinatra, of course, is gone. George Burns made it to 100 but died soon after. Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and many another venerable trouper have all died within fairly recent years. Milton Berle just turned 90. Bob Hope is 95 and appears no longer to have the physical stamina to perform, except in brief commercials. Johnny Carson, who will be 73 on Oct. 23, retired and won't budge from his Pacific cliff in Malibu.

There are many more who could be mentioned – most gone or inactive. They were comics who could sing, singers who could dance, dancers who could do comedy. They were the all-around entertainers. What are we left with? David Letterman throwing pencils at the camera for $14 million a year.

I came to Atlantic City to see a natural wonder, or really, an unnatural wonder. Rickles, who at 72 is practically a kid compared with Berle and Hope, held forth for a manic weekend at the Xanadu Room of Trump's Taj Mahal. For 90 minutes each night, Rickles huffed, puffed, strutted, sweated, ranted and raved across the full width of a vast stage, entertaining the crowd within an inch of its life. Maybe less.

Vulgar, tasteless, sometimes cruel? That's the reputation Rickles has. But it all depends on your perspective. The Rickles brand of crudity and obnoxiousness is veritably quaint compared to the sick comedy of a TV series like "South Park" or the gross-out sophomorics of a movie like "There's Something About Mary" or the smug viciousness of radio's Don Imus. Rickles has really always been an outsider, an independent, a true maverick. He's not chic, he's not retro, he's not post-modern. He's just out there, all alone, fighting against the current no matter which way it goes.

In the last performance of his engagement Sunday night, Rickles seemed mythic, timeless, fearless – endowed by the gods with some absurd miraculous gift. It's got to be more than just some damn gene. Up there onstage, Rickles symbolized traditions that dominated America's idea of humor for most of the century, right through television of the '50s and '60s: vaudeville, burlesque, the Catskills, the Borscht Belt, the Palace Theater. The business that "there's no business like" isn't even like itself anymore.

Rickles came across as something spectral and surreal. Maybe a character out of Ionesco. Or a berserk combination of Tevye, the Three Tenors, Don Quixote and Willie Loman rolled into one, all of them railing against fate, against the great injustice of mortality itself, expending as much energy and producing as much perspiration as two heavyweights doing battle in a 15-round title fight.

Are we reading too much into the comedic genius of Don Rickles? We're trying to, yes. But too little has been read into it for too long.

Rickles is, superficially, the master of insult comedy, or what seems to be insult comedy, and for years he has been a reliably hysterical guest on TV talk shows, bombastically attacking whoever the host might be as well as members of the band, the crew, the producers, and his usual target minority groups and subcultures. His nights with Carson were gala events, big treats – like fireworks on the Fourth of July or ice cream for dessert – with Rickles hurling his last-angry-man abuse hither and thither, helter and skelter, and Carson slipping in a devastating zinger every now and then.

These were championship chess matches, choice encounters, and even when Rickles flailed, he flailed funny.

Regis Philbin, who worships Rickles, recently followed him with a camera crew to the Letterman show for a hilarious sequence later played back on "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee." Philbin's on-air explosiveness obviously owes something to Rickles, who nevertheless appears mystified by any adoration from whatever source, much less deification, and probably has no idea of how great an artist he really is. That's an endearing quality in a time of uncontrollable hype.

As Letterman once noted during a previous Rickles appearance on his CBS "Late Show," seeing Rickles' act in person is a completely different experience from his brief TV appearances, and even Letterman was willing to admit being impressed. A Rickles show is really kind of a three-act, stream-of-consciousness play, each act separated by a song along the order of "I'm really a nice guy" or "Can't we all just get along," plus, from out of nowhere, a gratuitous digression in which Rickles does an okay James Cagney impression.

Then he goes right back into his mad tantrums of defensive abuse.

It all appears to be springing spontaneously from his bald, Khrushchev-like head, even though most of it is, of course, scripted and honed and polished. Rickles is a great ad-libber, great enough to grab a couple of people out of the audience and bring them onstage to participate in a nonsensical routine and know it's going to work, which it did Sunday night. The two men enlisted waited backstage with their dates after the show for the bottles of champagne Rickles promised them. They were delivered by an assistant and the guys seemed to go home happy.

Rickles still does jokes about ethnic groups – virtually all ethnic groups. He even uses the otherwise verboten slang word for "Polish person," as well as "queers" for homosexuals, probably not knowing the word is fashionable again in some parts of the gay subculture. He mocks Italians, African Americans, Irish Catholics, the Japanese, Germans and, of course, Jews like himself and his wife – who, he says in his act, drowned in the family pool because she was wearing so much jewelry.

Everyone sees through the ruse and is supposed to. There's no venom in the darts. In fact the act is a celebration of diversity, of the melting-pot mentality at the heart of the American dream as Rickles and his generation dreamed it. In a sentimental moment, Rickles prays for the day "when all the bigots will have vanished from the Earth." He knows he's not going to live to see it. Who will?

However coarse and rough they get, his jokes lack the rabble-rousing meanness of the new comedy and the new comedians. He doesn't, for instance, make fun of Janet Reno on the basis of her appearance, the way virtually all young comics do now. This is a time of easy targets and cruel ridicule. Rickles almost seems benign and sweet by comparison. He refreshingly eschews the topical and made only one reference to Viagra during his entire show.

Rickles bluntly and shamelessly tells the audience he needs its love, whereas it's typical for rock stars or comics today to tell the audience, in effect, to go to hell. Few performers even dress up anymore. It's all changed, obviously, and while there's probably little point in whining about that, attention must be paid to a man like Rickles, who typifies a genre and an epoch, not to mention a metier. Rickles in his Pagliacci turn on a giant stage seems much more complex and poignant than the loudmouthed guy who guests on the talk shows.

It's not just a generation of entertainers Rickles seems to represent, it's a generation, period – the one that lived through the Depression and fought World War II and set off the baby boom. It's Ronald Reagan's generation, even if Reagan himself didn't fight in the war. When Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton, politics completely aside, it seemed a painfully decisive milestone. The old generation had officially surrendered its authority. None of its members was ever likely to be elected president again. Dole's ghastly persona notwithstanding, it made me feel terribly sad. Something was gone forever. I wept my father's tears.

Will the 75th anniversary of D-day be celebrated with much fuss? Or just quietly noted by a few real old-timers? Will we continue to remember Pearl Harbor? Who will be the first youthful soul, sometime after midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, to use derisively the phrase "Oh, that is so 20th century"?

Backstage after Sunday night's show, freshly showered and powdered and looking as harmlessly adorable as the proverbial baby's butt, Rickles sat exhausted on a sofa, exuding the aura of a man who'd just come out of some devastating dizzy spell. His attractive wife, Barbara, brunt of innumerable onstage jokes, clearly a charming and gracious person, stood smilingly nearby.

"I'm going up to Montreal to be inducted into Canada's Comedy Hall of Fame," Rickles says, ticking off future plans. "I can't get into this country's. So I make a joke of it and say maybe I'll get into Bulgaria's." He deserves more respect, but then, he's a professional disrespecter.

The only sad thing about the night was the median age of the audience, which appeared to be 65 at the least, many of them infirm, some too tired to applaud. A few came in wheelchairs, others with walkers. The showroom was pretty tacky, too; you had to line up for drinks outside the auditorium and carry them in yourself. They were served in flimsy plastic cups.

A few young people were scattered through the crowd, though, and they seemed to be taking Rickles less for granted than the oldsters did. They knew when his act was over they had seen something freakishly rare and in some strange way important – and, in both physical and mental terms, something astonishing.

Don Rickles doesn't need to be in a hall of fame. Don Rickles is a hall of fame. Shame on me for waiting so many years to see him "live" and in person. He's not a historical figure or a tourist attraction, but he has achieved a cultural status beyond that of just an aging comic who refuses to retire. And he seems completely oblivious to the fact.

At his age, having performed all these years – in movies and TV sitcoms as well as nightclubs – you have to wonder why Rickles keeps going. Then you see him do his act and you hope he'll never stop. One shudders at the thought of not having Don Rickles to kick us around anymore.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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