I haven’t got around to seeing Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project yet, but I certainly will. The documentary on the veteran stand-up comedian, who is now 81 years old, premiered last Sunday night on the HBO cable network and was shown at the New York Film Festival a couple of months ago.
According to reports, the movie was directed with evident affection by comedy filmmaker John Landis. (To see the Variety review click here.)
Rickles has that effect on people, and he has always been highly respected by other comedians.
Rickles is well-known for his tart-tongued improvisations in which he picks on members of the audience and celebrity guests and upbraids them for presumed character flaws and stereotyped ethnic characteristics.
He has always been awfully funny, and it’s clear that he reveals the fine line between what we may think privately and what we say out loud—and he also shows how valuable and important that line really is. Rickles also demonstrates the basic meanness of such stereotyping, while somehow coming off as thoroughly likeable himself.
That Rickles has been able get away with saying the things he says is attributable, I think, largely to audiences’ appreciation of how funny he is, their awe at the virtuosity and inventiveness of his comments, and the tacit understanding between performer and audience that he is indeed just kidding.
In fact, in my view one of the few things that marred his performances was on those occasions when he would stop and tell the audience that he was really just kidding, of course, and that we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin, etc. Brrr. However, I seem to recall that he would often undermine this immediately by launching into an even more bruising round of insults. Now, that’s what I call funny.
Rickles is an American original and may well be one of the top humorists of the second half of the twentieth century.
The evidence we have available to us is incomplete, because he has never allowed his nightclub act to be filmed, but simply on the basis of his work on television (probably hundreds of such appearances) and in movies we can confirm that he is a talented and inventive humorist indeed. He plowed a very narrow fileld, but he produced an abundant crop from it.