In the classic 1966 Esquire piece Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Sinatra and his crew visit The Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas to see “a baldheaded little comedian named Don Rickles, who is probably more caustic than any comic in the country. His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one – it is too offensive to be offensive.” On Monday night, at a Friars Club gala presenting Rickles with a lifetime achievement award, Louis CK echoed that idea. “He takes things people are afraid of and he just fastballs right to it,” CK said. “‘You’re gonna die.’ ‘You’re black.’ ‘Jews are nuts.’ He just says it and you laugh before you even have the idea to be upset about it.”
After a 65-year career built on insulting everyone he met, Don Rickles is as beloved as any comedian in the world. This week, he was awarded the first ever Friars lifetime achievement award; according to Friars’ Dean Freddie Roman, “It took one very special, unique and funny man to deserve the honor—that man is Don Rickles.” If it seems odd that Rickles wasn’t given the classic Friars roast, it’s because he was already roasted by the Friars, back in 1970. “They said we’re not supposed to roast you,” Lewis Black said during the gala. “So what the fuck am I doing here? But I know the reason they told us not to roast you is because the only thing that could be more painful than us roasting you is for us to pay tribute to you. This must just be giving you the creeps.”
Like everything Rickles-related, the gala itself harkened back to a time when comedy was about champagne and nightclubs. Tickets for the black tie dinner and show – held at the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria in New York – went for $750. An impressive roll-call of celebrities turned up, from Rickles’s peers like Bob Newhart and Tony Bennett to a younger generation of admirers like Kathy Griffin, Bob Saget, and Whitney Cummings. There were heartfelt tributes from the likes of John Stamos, Tony Danza, Bob Costas, and Robert DeNiro, and pre-taped praise from Jerry Seinfeld, Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart, David Letterman and others.
The night got off to an impressively odd start with an auction for one of the Friars Club’s antique pianos. Bidding began at $10,000, and quickly and surreally escalated into a bidding war between Louis CK, John Mayer, and Boyd Tinsley of The Dave Matthews Band, who ultimately won with a bid of $70,000. “You know, the guy with the dreads is not going to pay you for that piano,” CK said as he took the stage later in the night. “You took a $70,000 bid from a guy who was just selling a joint in Washington Square Park this morning. But good luck with that.”
Each speaker showered the 87-year-old Rickles with love. “You were the first insult comic, the first irreverent comic,” Joan Rivers said. “You created an entire genre.” Black suggested that “Rickles should be a verb, meaning to ridicule exquisitely.” CK admitted that Rickles’s performance at Radio City Music Hall a few years ago was the only comedy show he’s ever paid to see, while Saget confessed that he used a fake ID to sneak into a New Jersey casino as a teenager to see Rickles. Many told stories of their first times meeting him, and more importantly, the first time they were insulted by him.
Of course, it would have been inappropriate to honor Rickles without plenty of insults. “They said this is a tribute, not a roast, which means Comedy Central didn’t pick it up,” Rivers began her set. His best friend, Newhart, got in the game as well. “This is a tribute to Don tonight. This is not a roast. So…a lot of people don’t know this, but Don is a taller than he appears on television. That’s all I’ve got.”
“I really do love you,” Jimmy Kimmel said in a pre-taped segment. “Not only are you the funniest, you are the kindest and loveliest man who resembles a ball of silly putty that I know.” Howard Stern pre-taped a bit featuring interviews with people on the streets, none of whom have ever heard of Rickles. Even DeNiro got in some good lines. “When I heard about [the people who] were going to be here, I thought, amazing. That’s a really impressive lineup for the Don Rickles memorial service. Don would have been so proud. And I wondered why it took to so long to hold a wake. I mean, I wasn’t sure exactly when you died, Don, but I was pretty sure it had to have been awhile ago.”
Rickles himself closed out the night with a 20-minute set. “So many stars are sitting here,” he began. “I realize I’m the biggest name.” His set, full of old stories and classic insults, proved that his timing, his energy, and his wit are as sharp as ever. (For a taste of current Rickles, his recent Letterman appearance is worth watching.) The Friars Club, he said, “means a lot, because it represents so many of our dear artists that are not with us anymore. And guys like me who come back here and say, ‘My God. My picture is on the wall next to Jimmy Fallon.’ Is that something? Jimmy Fallon! It’s down now.” In the end, he dedicated the show to his mother and his son Larry, who passed away in 2011. “Larry, Dad was a hit tonight, and so were his friends.”
Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider. She only attends black tie affairs from now on.