The once-legendary Don Rickles, king of the insult comics, has passed at at age 90. I loved his mafia material — Frank Sinatra adored him but Rickles really seemed to despise the Vegas goombahs. The first time I tuned into Rickles was when he humiliated Roy Rogers during a late ’60s talk-show encounter. The channelling of petty, middle-class anger, particularly a kind of reverse self-loathing along with various social resentments, was the key to Rickles’ humor. He was the guy who stood at a podium or sat on the Tonight Show couch and said the ugly or mortifying putdowns that people might have muttered to themselves but didn’t dare express.
David Letterman kept having him on the show but Rickles was finished, of course, when political correctness caught on in the early ’90s. By today’s standards Rickles was a bad person — racist, xenophobic, selfish, cruel. Not that he was any of those things, but the fact that he channelled these views and feelings, which perhaps were in Rickles himself to some extent but were certainly out there among the general populace, is what his act was about. Whatever mean currents Rickles may have harbored deep down, they certainly lived and breathed within tens of millions who laughed at his material during the heyday.
Never forget that Rickles was a lifelong Democrat who never converted to Republican thinking, unlike some of his tuxedo-wearing contemporaries when they got older.