For decades, I would contemplate with my wife, Adrianne Tolsch, whom I met at Catch a Rising Star in 1980 when she was MCing “Audition Night” and I was auditioner No. 6, the one thing that made some stand-up comics hit so big for so long, even though there were many comedians who were deeply funny whom no one would ever hear of. Like, uh, us.
Of course, there were the variables everyone acknowledges: likeability, point of view, physical-ethnic niche, luck, being Tina Louise’s hairdresser (Sandra Bernhard) or a bartender at the Improv (Kevin Nealon). All valid. But one day, only a couple of years ago, we finally figured it out: When all the sweat dries, the one variable that makes for a hugely successful stand-up is commitment to the material. Even if that material is a mile wide and an inch deep. Let me rephrase that: Even if that material is a mile wide and an inch deep and delivered by Dane Cook.
The day we figured it out was sometime in April 2014, when I was working on a special called “One Night Only: Don Rickles” for Spike. No comic has ever embodied the notion of commitment to the material more than Rickles, who died Thursday at 90. Out of the mouth of anyone else — anyone else — his lines would be at best alarming asides; at worst, the ravings of your unfiltered, intolerant bald neighbor: “Is that the wife? [Turns away] Jesus … [Turns back] What happened, fire?”
In the middle of the great 2007 HBO documentary about him, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, Rickles is onstage when his longtime valet, an elegant-looking older black man, approaches him. Rickles turns, fake-panics, and says, “Trouble with the luggage?” You laugh, you forgive yourself, and then you wait for the next bit of nonsense. Who else could score with that?
I got to know Don from his many appearances on David Letterman’s shows, on which I worked for more than 24 years. I watched from the floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater one night a few months after the documentary came out, when Denzel Washington begged Dave to let him stay for Rickles’s guest segment. Don, then 80, shuffled out, hugged arguably the biggest movie star in the world, kissed him, said a few lines to Dave with his back to arguably the biggest movie star in the world, then pointed back to arguably the biggest movie star in the world and said, “Why is he sitting here? Does he have to clean up?” Denzel covered his face with his hands, laughing and shaking, happy to have received another honor to join his two Oscars: the Rickles zing.
When I was trying to put together something for Dave to say on that 2014 Spike special, I went over all of Rickles’s guest shots at CBS, and I was struck by how the lines made absolutely no sense comedically, until you added his voice — his singular voice. Below, I’ve culled some remarks from most of those appearances. We can all agree there’s nothing less funny than someone telling you why something is funny, so, mangia:
(NOTE: I’ve arranged the lines out of chronological order in an attempt to build a coherent set, which probably should be a misdemeanor.)
2013: [Opening line the second after he sits down] “Good to be on a show that’s not catching on.”
2001: [To Paul Shaffer] “Paul, I talked to him. The money’s gonna be the same …”
2013: [After Paul laughs, “Ahhhh”] “Sounds like a Jew pirate”
2009: [To CBS Orchestra member Tom “Bones” Malone] Why are you in the blue jacket? Do you have a problem?
2009: [To drummer Anton Fig after a rim shot/cymbal crash] “That went out in 1927 when Jack Carter was rolling.”
2003: [After Dave returned from being out for a month with shingles] “You know I love you, but I don’t want to sit in a restaurant and hear, ‘Where’s the fork?’”
2001: “I had dinner with Johnny Carson one night at the beach. He’s the same. He sat there with notes.”
2002: “I had dinner with Johnny. Your name came up for a second. ‘You know, Dave …’ “Great. Pass the butter.”
1999: [After somebody in the audience yelled] “You oughta go to immigration, get your papers stamped and find out what’s going on.”
2008: [After Dave asked about his wife, Barbara] “I’m married for 43 years. If you’re Jewish, you circle the bed and get an estimate.”
2002: [Same question, six years before] “The wife’s laying in bed with the jewelry, signaling ships.”
2010: [On when he was single and went out with a girl with a space between her teeth] “I don’t know if I shtuped her, or made tea.”
2010: [To Dave] “These are little asides, just to keep me going, because you’re no help.”
2009: [On working in Las Vegas] “When I started, there were a lot of guys in Vegas, [old emphysematic wise-guy voice] ‘Hey, Frank, what do you want to do later?’ And these were guys that went to college. They all sat around, smelling their guns.”
2012: [Las Vegas] “Mob guys sitting ringside with their mouth open so they can catch the bullet.”
1999: “Without the Mexicans in Vegas, I gotta make my own bed.”
2008: [On performing in the Labor Day telethon in Vegas] “When Jerry Lewis hits the high notes, all the kids get up and walk home.”
2000: [After the audience “oohs” at a line] “Gang, when you hear the bell, go to history.”
2003: [Same scenario] “Hey, folks, everything I say here I did up in the dressing room and I laughed my ass off.”
2013: [To audience about Dave] “When the show’s over, he puts on his baseball cap, gets into his underwear, and hides under a bus …”
1997: [To Dave] “When you get a chance, glance at the notes.”
2007: [To Dave after he stammers a question] “Did you ever think about putting a stick on your can and going to a baseball game as one of those dolls?”
[After Dave asks if he still goes to Dodgers games] “That have a lot of foreign players on the Dodgers. You give them a cookie, they go away …”
1999: [About being friends with Regis Philbin] “How many choruses of ‘Danny Boy’ can you take?”
2002: [On Regis’s morning show] “Regis brings out a big guest from a soap … Charlie Dickman.”
2011: [After he crosses himself] “You know when Jews do that, it means the highway’s closed …”
1999: [After Dave asked Don if he would, using a common Rickles throwaway, “Drop his pants and fire a rocket.”] “I can’t because the big giant is resting.”
2002: [After same question three years later] “I don’t do that anymore because Spider is ill.”
2013: [On World War II to Dave] “During the war, you were in Indiana with your father saying, ‘The rake is broken, dad.’”
2001: [On dinner with Dave] “We went to a lovely restaurant. We were seven levels below the restaurant. If Hitler had wanted to stay alive, this is where he would have gone. When the waiter ordered, he said, ‘A burger! … a burger! … a burger! … a burger!…’”
I also had the privilege of going out to dinner with Don, Dave, and anywhere from 2 to 20 other people after tapings at CBS. They all followed the same format: Don making a toast to let everyone know it was time to stop talking. Don unwinding his “A” stories about Frank Sinatra mistaking a thunderstorm for photographers taking pictures of him, or his mother begging the gangster Crazy Joey Gallo and his hoods, “Boys, boys, put the guns on the table” before he talked to her son. And in between, he would make fun of Dave for not talking, or Regis (if he found out where we were eating) for interrupting. A couple of hours later, Don would make a second toast to let everyone know he had reached his vodka quota and it was time for Barbara to take him back to the hotel.
The last dinner, a year before the Spike special, was the most memorable, and not just because it was the last one: Rickles, Barbara, Dave, me, Adrianne (who beat Don to heaven by four months), Regis and Joy Philbin, and Rickles’s two longtime cornermen, Paul Shefrin and Tony O. Near the end of the meal, Rickles was talking about working at an Indian casino. Regis could no longer stand his own silence, so he said, “Don, when you work the Indian casinos, do you just go nuts?” Rickles replied, “No, I read a fucking poem.” Only time I ever heard him curse. And you know what? He committed to that, too.