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Don Rickles, the personification of insult comedy, dies at 90

Over the course of a wide-ranging career, Rickles became a master at teaching the audience to mock itself.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Legendary insult comic Don Rickles has died at the age of 90.

Variety reports that the standup comedian, whose claims to fame include numerous feisty late-night TV appearances and acting in films ranging from Toy Story to Casino, died at his Los Angeles home from kidney failure Thursday morning.

Ironically nicknamed “Mr. Warmth,” Rickles epitomized the comedic tactic of jovially insulting people to their faces. In many ways, over a career that began in the late 1940s and lasted until his death, Rickles personified America’s growing postwar cynicism and increasing turn toward ironic entertainment.

Rickles’s calling card was the direct insult

Rickles was the original insult comic — the standup who makes a sport of heckling the audience for a change.

But this trick didn’t come naturally. Rickles actually struggled in the entertainment industry for nearly a decade — first as a dramatic actor, and then as a nightclub comic, a role that would remain a lifelong gig — before finding his stride.

Born in 1926 to a Yiddish-speaking Jewish family in Queens, Rickles served in the Navy during World War II before graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at the age of 22. After failing to find work as a dramatic actor and suffering what he called “rejection, rejection, rejection,” Rickles moved into comedy, where he endured years of heckling from nightclub audiences. It wasn’t until he started heckling back — referring to unruly audience members as “hockey pucks” — that his career began to ascend.

One of Rickles’s most famous insults was also the one that initially boosted his career. In 1957, Frank Sinatra walked into a Los Angeles nightclub where Rickles was performing. “Make yourself at home, Frank — hit somebody,” Rickles snarked, referencing the performer’s known penchant for violence.

Instead of being offended, Sinatra became one of Rickles’s best friends, and Rickles’s reputation as a master of the insult was born.

Rickles would go on to make his mark in the entertainment world in a number of other ways. He was a longtime performer in Las Vegas, beginning in the ’60s alongside his friend Sinatra and other Rat Pack members. He also starred in the cult TV hit CPO Sharkey, a sitcom recalling his days in the Navy, and began appearing in films as early as 1958.

He made perhaps his biggest mark on the film world starring in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 mobster masterpiece Casino, where he played the loyal right-hand man to Robert DeNiro’s casino owner.

“For me,” Scorsese told the New York Times in 1996, “Don Rickles is one of the great comedians”:

There's something truly artful about his delivery -- many other comedians who practice insult humor are either way too broad or they hide behind a character, but Rickles keeps this balance between levity and relentlessness. And it's all improvised, which is really the hardest thing to do, and he makes it look like the easiest, most graceful thing in the world.'

Rickles’s approach to the comic insult was head on — for better and worse

Throughout a career that included popular appearances on Late Night With David Letterman and The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, Rickles was direct about the role insults played in his work. This was evident perhaps most of all in his chosen intro music: the famous matador anthem “La Virgen de la Macarena.” In a 2006 interview, Rickles outlined the song’s connection to his work.

“I always pictured myself as the New York kid that stood in front of the audience and went, ‘El Toro,’“ he said, “which I do say, fighting the audience, so to speak.”

But that combative approach wasn’t always welcome. In his later years, Rickles’s humor occasionally sparked controversy, particularly in 2012, when he made a racist joke about President Barack Obama while performing at a tribute for actress Shirley MacLaine.

“I shouldn’t make fun of the blacks,” Rickles stated while onstage. “President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.” As chronicled in the 2007 documentary Mr. Warmth, Rickles’s comedy was frequently based on racist, homophobic, and ethnic stereotypes — some of which were layered with irony. Speaking to Esquire in 2007, Rickles described an appearance on The Tonight Show in which he told Carson to pan the audience:

One time I did Carson and I made a joke about a black guy in the audience, and Carson stopped me and said, "Show me a black guy." The camera panned the audience, and there was no black guy. And I said to Johnny, "Did they laugh?" The answer was yes. And that's all that matters.

But if the laughter was uncomfortable, Rickles — whose offstage personality was affably sweet — seemed aware of that as well.

“I always rib people, but nobody ever gives me a hard time,” he went on to say. “I don't know why. Maybe they're afraid of what I might say. There's probably a lesson in that somewhere, but I don't know what it is.”

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