It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?
Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project is an unabashedly loving film about a comedy icon, as well as a celebration of old-school show business. The film shows Rickles in 2006 still out in Las Vegas, clad in a tuxedo, backed by a full band, and bantering with his conductor. He harkens back to the glamour days, when the mob ruled Vegas and all the Hollywood stars showed up to be mercilessly mocked by Mr. Warmth himself.
The film is directed with affection by the legendary John Landis, who first met Rickles while working as a runner on the set of Kelly’s Heroes. It follows Rickles through his early life and career, and devotes a nice chunk of time to his memorable appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, including the famous incident where Carson confronted Rickles for breaking his cigarette box.
Mr. Warmth also wisely features lots of interviews with Rickles himself, who still has an incredibly compelling energy. He even won an Emmy for “Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program” for appearing as himself in his own documentary, which is pretty impressive.
The best description of his comedy comes from Robin Williams, who compares him to a court jester, saying what others dare not say. Clips of Rickles at Ronald Reagan’s 1985 inauguration gala show him going after such a target. “Is this too fast Ronnie?” he says to the president as he zooms through some quips.
For better or worse, his style hasn’t changed a bit. The film makes is clear that there’s no need to be offended by his gags; he’s an equal opportunity jokester. “Being funny’s like being a pretty girl,” Chris Rock explains. “You just get away with a lot of shit.” And it’s an honor to get picked on by him. “Everyone wants to get shit on by Don Rickles,” says Sarah Silverman.
Now, in my experience, Sidney Poitier’s opinion is rarely sought in comedy documentaries, but his input here is valuable. “Don has a little boy in him,” he explains, referring to Rickles as a “rascal.” And it’s that enthusiastic, childish energy that means I feel bad criticizing a guy who has made his living as an insult comic.
But it would, I think, be generous to call the jibes from his stage show hysterical — he tells an older man to “go home and die,” informs a Japanese audience member that he spent “three years in the jungle looking for [his] father,” and asks a random guy if he’s a “queer.” It isn’t that any of it’s particularly offensive, it’s that it hasn’t been updated in decades.
He deserves some slack; he is, after all, in his 80s. But his near-contemporary (and sometimes co-headliner) Joan Rivers has managed to keep her comedy current. In part, that’s necessity – she needs to be able to make pop culture references for her gigs; there’s no reason for Rickles to know Zooey Deschanel from JWoww. But it’s also about each performer’s place in the entertainment world. Rivers is a current, influential comedian fighting to stay relevant; Rickles seems happy in his role as living legend.
And in the end, that’s probably just fine. The film makes an argument for finding what you’re good at and sticking to it. He still sells out theaters and casinos, puts on a good show for adoring crowds, and influences younger generations of comics. More importantly, unlike Rivers, you get the sense that he’s genuinely happy with his career and fulfilled in his personal life. How many comedians can say that?
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? Yes, particularly if you like old Hollywood. I was certainly oblivious to much of his acting career outside of his memorable turn as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films. The film slows down a bit as it delves into his childhood, but picks up again when Frank Sinatra enters his life.
What does it have to say about comedy? Penn Jillette describes Rickles as believing that “pleasing the audience was the most important thing in the world. Not in his life, in the world. But, he would not compromise in any way to please them.” He calls this, in a way, “the definition of art.” So, I guess, think on that for a while.
Is it funny? Your mileage may vary, depending on your penchant for insult comedy. And for once, a lot of the older clips have held up quite well.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She’s generally pretty nice.