Excepting, perhaps, some NHL goalies, we’re blanking on anyone other than Don Rickles who’d employ “hockey puck” as an all-purpose dis, so intertwined are the man and the put-down in pop-culture vernacular … and Strip history.
Etched in entertainment lore as “Mr. Warmth”—or our favorite endearment, “The Merchant of Venom”—the 86-year-old insult comic was heralded atop a recent press release for headlining in Vegas for “a record-smashing 54th year straight year” after inking a deal to appear for two weekends (April 13-14, Sept. 28-29) at the Orleans. (Queried about whose record Rickles shattered, a publicist responded: “his own.” Since we don’t have the abacus on which he began counting his showbiz years, we’ll take it on faith.)
What lessons should we draw from a legend likely to be performing when Justin Bieber becomes a Hair Club for Men spokesman? Primarily this: Know what you’re good at and keep doing it. Simple advice we often overlook in our professional power climbing, contorting ourselves into what we’re not to fit higher positions, rather than living contentedly in our own comfort zones, and in our own skin.
Kudos are also due Rickles for walking a comedic high wire for decades that most of his peers don’t. Heading toward age 90 with a mental acuity that still serves him well, he remains more than a comic, but a tuxedoed performance artist. Choosing “targets” he can bounce off of, Rickles knows the crowd isn’t merely his audience, but his instrument, and he plays them like a harp.
Yet Rickles also reflects a depressing truth: While his skewering style was unique and even dangerous when he became America’s Ridiculer in Chief in the ’50s and ’60s, today he slings harmless zingers in an era of often breathtaking nastiness that far exceeds his put-on assaults. Coarsened by online posters with bile to spare, explicit entertainment that justifies depicting cruelty by calling it “realism,” polarizing politicos and rabid, extremist media figures, we’re a culture coated in ugliness.
Comparatively, Rickles is a pussycat and, being an equal-opportunity audience-blaster, his barb-fest has always been an ironic act of unity, albeit one dipped in acid. Insulting everyone is, in effect, insulting no one, since a genuine insult gives one person superiority over another, at least in the mind of the mocker. Plus, unlike with his comedic progeny, the funny but physically intimidating Brad Garrett—whose shtick sometimes plays like bullying couched in one-liners—getting picked on by the bald, gnome-like Rickles is akin to being dissed by the kid passed over for kickball. No harm, no foul.
Experiencing Rickles onstage is an exercise in catharsis, a safe way to diffuse frustration, while today’s other anger outlets ratchet up vitriol in a country already boiling over. Given this era of foaming fanaticism and escalating outrage, Don Rickles just might be more necessary than ever.
STRIP POSTSCRIPT: Over at the Venetian’s Rock of Ages you’ll find the Strip’s best show prop—a Jack Daniel’s billboard for the Bourbon Room club depicted in the musical, reading: “I did WHAT with my sister?” That’s what’s called making the audience feel like family.