At this point in history, certain people take Don Rickles very seriously.
“Every time I see him I feel like the luckiest person on earth,” a friend said to me as I took the seat next to her in the carpeted concert hall at Snoqualmie Casino last night. She’s the type who finds poetry in the humblest creative endeavor, so an 86-year-old entertainer’s desire and ability to execute 90 minutes of comedy to a packed room of schlubby casino-goers might be her gold standard.
For good reason: Don Rickles is a representative from a different world, visiting the here and now on a mission of benevolent ridicule, reminding us how goddam lucky we are to be alive.
The world he comes from—and, judging from last night, still exists in—is the post-World War II, Rat Packing, ethnically obsessed America that dwelled at the precipice of a great cultural awakening. Rickles remains the town crier of integrated America, calling out our differences to emphasize our similarities. Or as he put it, “The main thing is to know what the hell we are. To understand. All people are people.”
Celebrity was different in Rickles’ heyday. It was more rarified, insulated, hallowed. More elite inner sanctum, less crowd-sourced free-for-all. Throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Rickles insulted celebrity to its face at every possible turn. In doing so, he bestowed demigods like Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan with a humanity they couldn’t achieve on their own. For that he was embraced equally by celebrity and civilian. He wasn’t of their world but neither was he of ours. He was an intrepid, possibly insane go-between in the traditional jester/joker/trickster mold. He was smart and self-deprecating and impervious to trends and his timing was impeccable.
Then and now, Rickles poked at race with the same ramrod sense of denigrating humor as he did celebrity. In his day, ideas of ethnicity were first being deconstructed in mainstream America, the validity of otherness first given credence through Civil Rights and Women’s Lib. Today’s globalized, post-racial landscape ostensibly blurs distinctions between race; like an iPod on shuffle, we're meant to derive identity collectively, in the present, rather than through identificaiton with some outdated connection with the past. But we’re still reluctant to dive deeply into our differences, even as a vessel for unification, for fear of offending. Rickles is not afraid. In both capacities—celebrity deflator, racial instigator—his role was crucial, and he played it with impeccable timing and remorseless wit.
Both were at maybe 70% last night. Backed by a 12-piece, tuxedo-clad orchestra, he shuffled around the stage stooped and slow, talked and sang and humiliated members of the audience, people he mocked as Mexicans or Chinese or Japs or Jews or Polacks or fags. His racial humor was certainly dated and entirely necessary: "I make fun of everybody. That's America." He told stories about Frank Sinatra, Bob Newhart, his wife of 48 years and the Seattle Mariners, whose coaching staff was in attendance. He inadvertently repeated bits and recognized it each time (“I said that before, didn’t I. That's how much I love myself.”) He referred to his penis with the name “Spider.” He brought up two men from the audience to enact a muddled bit about World War II, then sent them bottles of Champagne. He was ham-fisted with jokes as often as he was subtle. He dropped the mike for punctuation at least a dozen times, then summoned the bandleader to pick it up for him. This was all discomforting and genuinely hilarious.
For a few segments he was sincere in his affection for his mother, his friends and the audience. He simultaneously defied lovability and embodied it; a sort of comedic alchemy. He knew that even if you love to hate him—and a fair portion of the audience rushed to the exit before his encore—at least you’re loving something, and "love is pure gold." He seemed aware that—and I might be projecting here, but such is the hope that Rickles inspires—the risk we run in a post-everything world is diminished identity. That less self-awareness means less empathy. So he ended with a song. It went, “Life's not worth a damn/’Til you can say, Hey world, I am what I am.”