A conversation about jokes, dames, and Frank with the late comedy genius.
There have been many things said about Don Rickles, but his comedic essence was summed up most perfectly by Sarah Silverman.“Everyone wants to get shit on by Don Rickles,” she said.
It’s true. Watch any video of Rickles in action—slinging insults at Howard Stern, or Johnny Carson on the old Tonight Show, or countless famous people on countless Dean Martin Roasts, or on stage on Las Vegas (where he still performs regularly to this day)—and you’ll see audiences, famous and otherwise, howling with appreciative laughter. Being mocked by Rickles is our equivalent of being knighted by the Queen in the U.K. You’re a fool if you take it too seriously, but it’s still an honor.
For half a century, Rickles—who recently celebrated his 90th birthday—has been America’s favorite curmudgeon, the cranky old bastard who doesn’t have the patience for anybody, and even when he’s being a little bit racist—he’s been known to say things like, “If you’re not Chinese, you should get your eyes checked”—you still want to root for him. “Being funny is like being a pretty girl,” Chris Rock has said of Rickles. “You get away with a lot of shit.”
But the best and funniest stories about Don Rickles aren’t about his act. They’re the stories that happened off the clock, when Rickles was just having fun with (or at the expense of) his friends. Like the time, many years ago, when he brought a woman to dinner at the Sands casino in Las Vegas, and she noticed Frank Sinatra at a nearby table.
“Do you know him?” his star struck date asked. Rickles slipped over to Sinatra and asked for a favor. Could he come by their table and say hello, help him impress his date? “For you, I’ll do it,” Sinatra told him.
A few minutes later, Sinatra walked over to their table. “Don, how the hell are you?” he asked.
“Not now, Frank,” Rickles shot back with an annoyed grunt. “Can’t you see I’m with somebody?”
I called Rickles at his home in California, expecting the worst. To my absolute delight, that’s exactly what I got.
Don Rickles: What? What is it you want from me?
Eric Spitznagel: Just to hear your sweet voice, Mr. Rickles.
Yeah, okay. Have we ever met before? Who is this? What magazine is this for again?
Men’s what? Men’s Health?
You obviously have the wrong number.
(Rickles hangs up. We immediately call back.)
You’re sure you want to do this?
If you ask me how many push-ups I do, I’m hanging up again.
We want to talk about comedy! Do you remember the first time you got a laugh?
Are you kidding me? That was 90 years ago. Why do you think I’d remember that? I’m not that kind of guy. I can’t remember something that happened 90 years ago.
You got your first laugh when you were born?
What? No, I didn’t say that.
You just turned 90. If you got your first laugh 90 years ago, that’d be around the time you were being born.
I don’t know anything about that.
You weren’t coming out of your mom making wisecracks?
Maybe, I don’t know. Talk to the doctor. I don’t think I was a funny fetus. It’s possible. I was a funny at school. I remember this one time, I was taking a test, and it was a really important test. I was leaning over to the girl sitting at the desk next to me, looking at her answers. The teacher saw me, and he walked over and said, “Mr. Rickles, what are you doing?” I looked up at him and said, “I’m cheating!”
The whole class laughed, just like you’re laughing. Even the teacher enjoyed it. He just nodded and said, “Okay then,” and kept on walking.
Is that when you knew, “Yep, this is it, this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life?”
No. I was a kid. How the hell would I know what I wanted to do with my life?
Well, you got that reinforcement. Your peers laughed. The teacher didn’t punish you. Being funny didn’t feel like magic?
But funny didn’t mean anything. It was just my personality. It was just the way I looked at the world. And it didn’t always help me. When I was in the Navy, I was the funny one, and it never helped me. I told my jokes, and my commanders just said, “Whatever, keep firing.”
What about in social situations? Were you always the one getting the girl?
The opposite. We’d go out, a bunch of Navy guys looking for girls, and the girls all ignored me. I ended up being the driver. I think girls were afraid of me.
I think they thought I was going to make fun of them.
Well, sometimes. But it was harmless. Just a crack here or there.
Can you blame them for being afraid? We can’t think of anything more horrifying than being naked in front of Don Rickles.
Well don’t worry, it’s never happening for you.
We always hear that women just want a guy with a sense of humor, but for you that wasn’t the case?
Being funny, it was never a move for me. It wasn’t something I was doing to impress anybody. It was just my personality. I was shy, so I cracked the jokes. And it drove the women away. I was 38 years old before I got married. I’ve been married to Barbara now, god bless her, for 52 years.
When you first met her, did she think you were funny?
Not at all. I met Barbara when she was the secretary for my picture agent.
My agent. For the pictures. What are you, deaf?
Oh, oh, okay. We didn’t understand “pictures.” You mean movies.
Yes, movies. Jesus. Try to keep up.
She worked for your agent for the talking picture shows?