Five-foot-six and drawn entirely with lopsided circles, DON RICKLES (born 1926) has the head of a turtle and the heart of the Grim Reaper. That’s the story anyway, and he’s spent nearly seven decades cementing that reputation onstage. They say he’s a sweetheart offstage — a mensch and a mama’s boy, married nearly 50 years to the same long-suffering woman — but I don’t love him because he’s so great at loving his family. I love him because he’s so great at hating everyone else.
Rickles’ is a high-wire kind of funny. Most of it doesn’t translate very well on paper, where it just reads as mean. And it is mean. But it’s not an angry mean, nor is it funny because it’s mean. It’s funny because it’s delivered with needle-sharp timing, with shrugs and sighs and side-glances and eye rolls that make it all float. Yes, his jokes are bigoted and sexist and homophobic, but that misses the point. As Chris Rock put it, “Oh, it’s very offensive, but not if you’re into comedy.” Context matters.
That’s a hard one to learn. Barely a week passes without some public idiot eating his own shoe leather because he doesn’t understand that simple fact. Context matters, as do intent and timing and delivery. Sometimes all it takes is a headshake to turn a manifestly racist one-liner into comedy gold. It’s just gotta be a damn good headshake.
HUMORISTS at HILOBROW: Michael O’Donoghue | Jemaine Clement | Andy Kaufman | Danny Kaye | George Ade | Jimmy Durante | Jack Benny | Aziz Ansari | Don Rickles | Godfrey Cambridge | Eric Idle | David Cross | Stewart Lee | Samuel Beckett | Jerry Lewis | Joanna Lumley | Jerome K. Jerome | Phil Silvers | Edward Lear | Tony Hancock | George Carlin | Stephen Colbert | Tina Fey | Keith Allen | Russell Brand | Michael Cera | Stan Laurel | Ricky Gervais | Gilda Radner | Larry David | Chris Pontius | Dave Chappelle | Jimmy Finlayson | Paul Reubens | Peter Sellers | Buster Keaton | Flann O’Brien | Lenny Bruce | Sacha Baron Cohen | Steve Coogan | PG Wodehouse | A.J. Liebling | Curly Howard | Fran Lebowitz | Charlie Kaufman | Stephen Merchant | Richard Pryor | James Thurber | Bill Hicks | ALSO: Comedy and the Death of God
On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Gary Snyder, Roberto Rossellini, Edmund Wilson, Tristan Jones, Thomas Pynchon.
READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).