Thursday, February 7, 2008

Don Rickles Interview

The King Of Zing
A nearly lethal conversation with Don Rickles
Hartford Advocate, Dec. 28, 2007

Don Rickles has been Don Rickles for a long time. He was a satellite member of the Rat Pack and a personal friend of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson and Bob Newhart. His act is a stream of harsh, hilarious observational humor about members of the audience. The man has 60 years worth of awesome one-liners in his front pocket.

In our phone conversation, I felt like I was at a Don Rickles show and the only person in the audience. I lost control of the interview early and often.

The 81-year-old comedy veteran is on something of a career roll at the moment. His autobiography Rickles: The Book was released to success and acclaim in the spring of 2007. Mr. Warmth, a documentary about Rickles directed by John Landis, the director of comedy classics Animal House and Trading Places, was broadcast on HBO in December, also to glowing reviews.

As the documentary illustrates, Rickles is beloved, both as a cultural figure and as a man. Offstage, he's sentimental, kind and shockingly loyal to the people close to him (for example, his publicist, whom I dealt with, is the son of his former publicist). A coterie of disparate celebrities and friends ranging from comedians like Joan Rivers and Chris Rock to directors Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese praise Rickles personally and professionally in Mr Warmth.

Don Rickles: Sorry to keep you waiting. I had my phone on "do not disturb." That should tell you how important this call is to me.

Advocate: Well, I uhh —

R: — I'm kidding, I'm kidding.

A: That's what you do, right? At least I know I got the right guy. I saw the documentary Mr. Warmth over the weekend. How do you think that ended up?

R: I thought it was great. I never had such great reviews in my career. I've had good reviews, but these were, on the majority, outstanding. Really outstanding.

A: All these people in the movie were filmed basically heaping praise on you. That must have been pretty gratifying.

R: Well, sure It was better than saying I was a son of a bitch and that they don't like this guy. Who would want that? If I said "Adam, I'm not crazy about you," would you let that in the paper? They're all friends and people that wanted to do it. I was very pleased that they came out and said such nice things about me.

A: People think of you as a hard-hitting performer. You're the most famous insult comedian in the world. They call you Mr. Warmth, which is supposed to be ironic, but it kind of seems like you're really a warm guy, and you're well-liked.

R: Well thank you. You know, it's a persona you take on. You take on this image and you're this raving guy. I got stuck with the word insult. And I tell anybody who's speaking with me that I don't like the word. Insult means someone who is mean, and I've never been mean or mean spirited.
But as for being an insult comic, well, that's the title I was given. What I do is exaggeration. I make fun of people, at life, of myself and my surroundings. I don't really tell a joke, I react to situations. The whole thing is just looking at somebody and showing all our weaknesses and exaggerat[ing] them, and that's how it becomes funny.

A: How did the movie come about? Did John Landis contact you?

R: Well, my son, Larry, — he's a terrific kid and a great producer -- said "Dad, it's about time." I had never had my act filmed before in my entire career. John Landis is a good friend. I met him when I did Kelly's Heroes. Landis, who, as you know, went on to be a very successful director, was an assistant director on that picture. He got wind of the documentary project and said, "Gee, Don, I'd love to be part of this."

A: Did you find the filming to be intrusive or unpleasant?

R: No, not really. They hit all the high points of my life, which was what I wanted, you know.

A: Have you noticed your influence on other comedians?

R: There are a couple of women and men who people say are performing in my style. If they're successful, I say more power to them. But my style is my personality. It's always been that way. Being a wiseguy and having fun. It's always been [that] way for me, when I was in high school, and in the Navy. It's not something I rehearse.
Everything I do on stage, I made up in saloons and stuff. I started doing it in front of people, and that became my performance. I never had writers — except for television shows — I've never had guys sit me down and say this is what you've got to do. It's my personality that makes me one of a kind, and I believe that.

A: You say you're not really a joke teller.

R: No, I'm not. I gather from your interview that you've never seen me.

A: No, I haven't seen you perform live yet. I'm looking forward to seeing you when you play in January.
R: Well, when you do see me, you'll get the idea from when you see me that it's all off the top of my head. A lot of it is a beginning, middle and the end. But it's different every night. I have a lot of jokes in my back pocket I've said over the years.

A: In the documentary, someone says they used to round up people you could make fun of before your shows and put them in the front row.

R: That was years and years ago when I worked out of the lounge of the Sahara hotel, following the great Louis Prima. I used to do three shows a night in front of a lot of people who were out of it, you know. It was tough going. This guy, Johnny Joseph, who just passed away, he was the MaƮtre d' at the Sahara.
He used to say "Hey, I got a skinny guy, I got a fat lady that's not too pretty," and they'd put them right in the front. That no longer exists. That was in the old days when you didn't have anyone, and you needed some props.

A: The legend about you meeting Frank Sinatra is that he wandered into a bar while you were performing.

R: He wasn't wandering. He wasn't out in the desert with Moses. Well the story is his mother was friends with my mother — it's in my book. Did you read my book?

A: I skimmed through it.
R: Don't skim through it. For crying out loud. How old are you? You better go to your goddamn room, put the covers over your head and read the book.
Jeez, I'm embarrassed. You're interviewing me like a personal friend and you haven't even read the goddamned book.

A: Shit, man. Come on.

R: Yeah, shit man. You better start reading it when I hang up. When I meet you in person, I'm going to quiz you and if you fail, you're in deep trouble. The book will tell you a bunch of stuff, so that you won't have to go back to your notes while you're talkin' to me.

A: OK, OK. Well, let's get back to Frank Sinatra —

R: — Well, his mother and my mother arranged it so that he would come in and see my show. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on the man. I said "Frank, make yourself at home and hit somebody." All the wise guys who were with him laughed, and Frank was on the floor laughing. We became great friends after that. We toured for the last two years of his life.

A: That's when you performed in front of the Reagans, right?

R: Oh, yeah. That was the highlight of my career. Here I am a Jewish kid from the neighborhood, doing my kind of humor. All of a sudden, Frank Sinatra said you're going to be on the show. Reagan's cabinet said that was fine, and I got up there and ripped into him big time.

A: And you also performed for the Queen of England around that time, right?

R: No, I performed in front of Princess Margaret. The Queen of England was bombed in the Palace and couldn't make it.

A: Really?

R: No, it's a joke, you dumbbell! Yeah, the Queen was drunk. Oh, boy Adam, I got to meet you in person. I've got to slap you around a little. You probably don't even know what time it is.

A: You're on the West Coast, right? All right, well, I'm anticipating that you're gonna yell at me for this next question, but why exactly do you call people hockey pucks?

R: Adam, I swear to God, I have no idea. It started out in the early days of my career when I was right out of the service. I worked what were called strip tease joints — a girl came out pretty much dressed compared to today's standards — and did a little dance number. We had all kinds of goofballs in these joints, and I said, "Hey pal, don't be a hockey puck." That's all I can remember. I got hockey pucks up to my you know what.

A: Do people send them to you?

R: No, they come over and play hockey at my house. You, you. You're really starting to get to me, Adam.

A: I'm sorry, Mr. Rickles.

R: I'm kidding, I'm kidding.