Don Rickles will prove that he can still deliver a sharply worded put down at age 87 when he receives a tribute from an all-star array of younger — but not that young — comedians as part of Spike TV’s annual “One Night Only” series.
The once-per-year 90-minute special honors comedy legends and is a perennial hit for the male-oriented Spike TV cable network. The show’s first installment, a tribute to Eddie Murphy, remains the highest-rated show in Spike TV history.
But Don Rickles dates back to an earlier age of stand-up comedy, when Catskill resorts served as a proving ground for generations of mostly Jewish comics whose routines often consisted of one-liners about free-spending wives, overbearing mothers-in-law and other such tropes.
When Rickles came along, however, he found that he got bigger laughs with his stinging comebacks to his inevitable hecklers than he did with his standard material. Soon he didn’t wait for the hecklers, and built his whole act around insulting members of his audience, greeting women in the crowd with lines like, “Oh my God, look at you. Anyone else hurt in the accident?” and saying of his friend and fan Frank Sinatra: “When you enter a room, you have to kiss his ring. I don’t mind, but he has it in his back pocket.”
To Don Rickles, whose routine earned him the affectionately ironic nickname “Mr. Warmth,” everyone he met was a “dummy” or a “hockey puck.” But he was always clear that the put-downs were for entertainment purposes only, and the essence of his humor was that the acerbic persona was all an act.
“If I were to insult people and mean it,” Rickles once said, “that wouldn’t be funny.”
The Spike TV Don Rickles tribute is set to air on May 28, but the taping takes place May 6 at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Spike has already lined up David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart and other high profile comics, as well as actor Robert DeNiro, to pay homage to Don Rickles at the event.
It is perhaps a tribute to the remarkable and lasting appeal of Don Rickles that not only is he receiving a tribute on a youth-oriented TV network, but that the generation of comedians who worship Don Rickles is itself already aging. Letterman is 67, Seinfeld is 59 and Stewart is a relatively youthful 51.