Oswalt is a comedian, writer and actor; his most recent stand-up special, Annihilation, is on Netflix.
The butt of every Don Rickles insult — whether it was initially aimed at a “black,” a “Polack,” a “Jew,” a “gypsy,” a “Puerto Rican,” “Scotsman,” “Italian,” “elderly,” “gay” or “Martian” — was Rickles himself.
A lot of the words I listed between those hyphens are “problematic” or “insensitive.” They’re crude, and belong to an era where things were easy for a small slice of a small slice of the American public. The casual racism tossed off as punchlines and the exclusion disguised as insight can be wince-inducing. Especially when viewed through our clearer, more focused 2017 eyes. Not that the ugliness is forever behind us. A lot of that ugliness has been re-tooled into a faux, desperate “punk rock” stance by the same small slice of the small slice who feel their world and privileges are shrinking.
Don Rickles, who died on Thursday at age 90, was above and beyond it all — all of it, the incorrectness of yesterday as well as today’s hand-wringing about it. Gay Talese, writing about frequent Rickles target Frank Sinatra for Esquire magazine, said of Don, “His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it’s too offensive to be offensive.” The saddest victims of racism, sexism and ignorance are, ultimately, the people who have to live the limited, blinkered lives of a bigot. Don understood that, but knew that simply stating it would get him ignored. But if he became a fire alarm-mouthed demon of bad taste? Now he could do some damage.
Don wasn’t making fun of “the blacks” — he was making fun of the sweaty lout who would place African Americans in such a childish category. Whether or not his audience was “laughing for the right reasons” wasn’t his concern. If the audience was too stupid to see that Don was making fun of racism by personifying the most desperate aspects of racism? Then they were part of the joke, too. His attacking of celebrities like Sinatra, and Ronald Reagan and Johnny Carson or whomever else hover into his acidic view? It wasn’t to bring them down. It was to make fun of his own jealousy and self-loathing.
“Some people say funny things — but I say things funny.” Sometimes the things Don said weren’t even jokes — they weren’t even nonsense. They were bursts of half worked-out id that he was spitting out in front of audiences who weren’t craving authenticity. He was his own target, and even if he landed in the outer rings of the bullseye it still made a thud. I’ve seen him live three times and met him twice. The last time I saw him was when John Lasseter got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Don grimaced and addressed Lasseter and the other celebrities in the crowd: “I’m the biggest name here.”
It was hilarious. And it was true. Rude, but true.
I love you, Don. I can’t believe I’m getting the last word in here.
Correction: The original version of this story misquoted Don Rickles. At John Lasseter’s Hollywood Walk of Fame induction, he said “I’m the biggest name here,” not “I’m the biggest star here. This is pathetic.”