Don Rickles passed away yesterday at the age of ninety. The famous comedian first started his act in the 1950s and quickly became known for being “the world’s greatest insult comic,” gleefully making fun of every person under the sun, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or status.
Rickles even made fun of the famous Frank Sinatra, who liked Rickles and his act so much that Rickles became an honorary member of Sinatra’s entourage, which is when Rickles’ comedy career began to take off. He appeared in movies and many TV sitcoms, everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Munsters to Gilligan’s Island. The millennial generation met Rickles when he voiced the hilarious and cynical Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies, and I loved his character so much that I dressed up as Mr. Potato Head one Halloween.
Rickles won numerous awards was friends with everyone from President Reagan to Johnny Carson, but what’s most notable about him is how kind and warm-hearted he was, despite being such a caustic comedian. The mournful tweets and tributes from celebrities that have rolled in since his death attest to this, including ones from Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers, and Jimmy Kimmel, who said in his tearful tribute that Rickles died “too young” and that “there will never be another Don Rickles; he’s probably the greatest talk show guest of all time.”
Rickles was known as one of the kindest people on Earth and would even poke fun at himself in his insulting acts. “I make fun of the world,” Rickles said. “You know that. And if you know how to handle that and you treat people – and you make fun of yourself, hey, it’s not offensive.”
“He was called ‘The Merchant of Venom,’” actor Bob Newhart said in a statement. “But in truth, he was one of the kindest, caring and most sensitive human beings we have ever known. We are devastated and our world will never be the same.”
In a tribute article to Rickles, Penn Jillette wrote, “Don Rickles did the most dangerous and naked act possible. He was an insult comic. He said mean things . . . And the only way to get through doing an act like that is to be pure love. You have to be kinder than someone who plays it safe . . . I don’t have to tell you how sweet, kind and full of love he was. And I don’t have to tell you that there wasn’t a trace of hate in his heart. I don’t have to tell you any of that—we all knew that with every transgressive joke he told. More than anyone else, Don’s career was based on love.”
How many insult comedians today would you say are “full of love”? I can’t think of a single person who would match Rickles on that level. With comedians like Amy Schumer using social media to publicly humiliate a fan who took a picture of her (even though he deleted the photo when asked, she supported her fans who attacked him online with racist slurs and death threats) and Chelsea Handler who insulted the entire country of Serbia, it’s no wonder that everyone is mourning for a kind and talented comedian like Rickles.
Director Martin Scorsese said it best: “[Rickles] made comedy into an art form. And like all geniuses, comic or otherwise, he’s irreplaceable.”