No One Was Safe From Don Rickles. Who Would Want to Be?

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Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

When I heard the news about Don Rickles, I was packing up my suitcase. I’m headed off to a gig somewhere, just as so many comics do every week, just as Don always did. I stood motionless looking at the alert on my phone. Wow. It really, finally happened. The king is dead. I stood there. I can’t say I was surprised — last time I saw him, he looked like a caterpillar eating a sweater. But still, this will be a tough one to move on from.

When our queen, Joan Rivers, passed away, I remember thinking that Don is all we have left from that superstar era. Don Rickles. Mr. Warmth. The Merchant of Venom. The last comic breathing. The Godfather of our comedic family. Nobody worked a room like Don Rickles. The Ali of stand-up. The guy was 90 and still had club dates on his calendar. Somehow I still think he’ll show up. And really, he’s not going anywhere. Don’s influence lives on in so many people, including — perhaps especially — me.

Don made the hardest thing in the world — insulting people to their faces — look effortless. Because of his warmth and his stature, he could get away with lines that nobody else could pull off. One time we were both roasting casino magnate Steve Wynn, and everyone, including me, danced around Steve’s obvious degenerative eye disease. We were basically roasting a blind guy and nobody mentioned it for an hour-and-a-half. Then Don strode to the podium. He was always the closer. When Don walked up, nonchalantly waved his hands in front of Steve’s face, and said, “I’m over here Steve. Just follow my voice,” the place erupted. You could even see tears of laughter coming from Steve’s eyes. Don treated Steve like any other poor roast victim. He was a great normalizer — he helped people laugh at themselves, which I firmly believe makes one a healthier person. I see Don as part doctor, part comic, because of his ability to heal. His insults weren’t mean-spirited. They were mean-spiritual.

Don and I were friends, but never close. In fact, he always terrified me. I blew it with him early on, when upon meeting him I immediately blurted out about my close friendship with his peer Buddy Hackett. Don loved Buddy, but he never let me forget that I was better friends with Buddy than I was with him. I was just a young comic trying to bond with Don over a mutual friend, but Don never let me live it down. I should’ve kissed the ring first, and then mentioned Buddy. Lesson learned.

When Buddy died suddenly in 2003, I was heartbroken. He really was my best friend, and I was asked to deliver his eulogy. Everybody important to Buddy was there and I wanted to make him proud. I stayed up all night writing and even had Larry Gelbart proofread it for me. I remember getting laughs. I remember people crying. But I also remember how tense I was as I folded up my notes afterwards, walked off the platform, past Buddy’s coffin, past his wife Sherry, his children, grandchildren, and a chapel full of comedic powerhouses. I sat back down in my seat, which happened to be right next to Don. As I tried to take a deep breath of relief, with tears rolling down my face, I felt Don pat my leg twice to let me know I “did good.” That made me so happy amid my sadness. Thanks, Don.

We also shared a moment at a different funeral — an epic ceremony for Milton Berle. Everybody worshiped America’s Uncle Miltie, and the place was packed. The service was very long — even Milton’s shlong got up to say a few words — and I had to pee the entire time. When the rabbi finally finished up and the crowd dispersed toward his grave, I ran for a restroom. The line was long so I snuck around back to a secret “family members only” powder room I had spotted earlier. Nobody was around so I went for it. I was probably in there for 90 seconds. When I finished I opened the door and found Don scowling at me with his hands on his hips, as if he’d been standing there for an hour. “What was there, a dais in there?” he asked. I smiled. He smiled. That’s when I knew I’d made it.

John Stamos was another mutual pal, and for his fancy 50th birthday party he asked both me and Don to roast him. I love John and wanted to do well, so I stayed up two nights straight writing a killer speech, which I read notes of in front of John’s friends and family. “Happy 50th John … You’re so good-looking that the candles on your cake offered to blow you.” I killed it in my wannabe Rat Pack–style tuxedo and passed the mic back to a dapper Bob Saget, who introduced Don. But before Don laid into the birthday boy and everybody else in the room, he creamed me for being over-prepared instead of just riffing off the cuff, like he did. It hurt, but there’s no escaping the truth. And there’s no denying the master. I sat there and took it.

He and I did many shows together, and I’ll cherish every handwritten note, holiday card, and insult he ever sent in my direction. Not too long ago we were both asked to speak at another 50th birthday — this time for our mutual pal Craig who owns a restaurant in Hollywood. When I walked in, I spotted Don and immediately walked over to kiss the ring. Before I could say a word, he reprimanded me for always dressing in a costume on the Comedy Central roasts. He said, “What’s wrong with you? Every roast — it’s like Jewish Halloween.” Again, he got me.

Don dished it out, but let the record show, he could also take it. In the ’80s, when Don played Atlantic City, my dad the caterer always went to his shows, and they ate frequently in the same steakhouse. My dad had once seen Don tell a story on TV about playing an innocent prank on Frank Sinatra in a restaurant — he pretended to be annoyed that Frank interrupted his meal, even though Don had secretly begged him to come over earlier. On a lark, my dad walked up to Don’s table and tried the same trick. On his way out, when Don walked by and said hello, my dad dropped his fork and pretended to be furious, “Don, can’t you see we’re eating?”

Well, Don either fell for it or went with it. Either way, he was a great sport and it was the greatest night of my dad’s life. Long live Don Rickles. He made so many people happy.

Jeff Ross Looks Back on Many Roasts Spent With Don Rickles