The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
The tradition of the standup-helmed sitcom goes back a long ways, and for good reason: it often works. From Newhart to Seinfeld, from Welcome Back Kotter to Everybody Loves Raymond, the idea of taking a person who is very good at performing and being funny and building a show around them is the kind of decision that takes little to no thought. However, this doesn’t work for everybody. For every massive hit staring a standup there are dozens that are cancelled halfway through its first season. And for some reason, insult comedian and comedic icon Don Rickles hasn’t had much luck in this arena.
His biggest hit as the star of a TV show came in 1976 when he starred as the titular character on C.P.O. Sharkey, in which he played an officer in the US Navy, but that only lasted for two seasons. Most recently in 1993 there was Daddy Dearest, which lasted 13 episodes. In 1968 there was a variety show called The Don Rickles Show that was very quickly cancelled. Then there was the focus of today’s article: another iteration of The Don Rickles Show, this time a straight-forward sitcom on CBS, which first aired on January 21, 1972, and would not live to see 1973.
The 1973 Don Rickles Show began with a shot of the audience, sitting in the bleachers, watching Don Rickles do warm up as he talks about what they’re going to see this evening. “They’re calling it the Don Rickles show. Know why? If anything goes wrong, I get the blame.” The audience laughs at the joke, and I see them laugh at the joke, but to my ear, the laughs still sound like a classic sitcom laugh track. Whether this means the laughs were sweetened, or that’s just what laughs on TV recorded in the 1970s sounds like, I’m not certain. He talks about the actress Louise Sorrel who plays his wife Barbara, who continues the tradition of the young, attractive, female character who is married to the older, not classically good-looking male character. Then a staff member calls from off stage, “We’re ready, Don!” at which point Don drops his microphone and walks away, marking the last funny moment one will encounter while watching The Don Rickles Show.
The show serves as a strange mishmash of sitcom tropes and, to my eyes, tries very hard to mimic the style of The Dick Van Dyke Show but is unable to make the audience care about either his home life or work life. The main conflict of the first episode stems from red tape: Don Robinson (Rickles’ character) receives a letter from the Army Draft Board that he’s being drafted to fight in the war, despite his age (Rickles was 46 at the time). His wife becomes worried, but Don insists he’ll take care of it on Monday when the office opens up.
Before he does that, however, he stops into his office where he works at an advertising firm. It is here that we meet a cast of crazy characters that I honestly can’t recognize when they appear later in the episode. Don becomes worried when he learns his younger coworker offers to take over his largest account while he gets things sorted out at the draft board, because he worries that the young man will be promoted ahead of him. However, this is the last we see of this plot line.
At the draft board, we are introduced to an older, crazier man by the name of Mr. Pomeroy, who can’t help Don at all without his birth certificate, despite the fact that he clearly looks old enough to have fought in World War II (Don actually did serve in the Navy in the forties). Unfortunately, because the clerk at the Draft Board got drafted, he vindictively hid all of the records, which means Don is going to need to come in for his physical. But the Army official tells him not to worry; “They’ll probably find something wrong with you, you’ll get it fixed up, and you’ll thank us.” When Rickles insists he’s not coming in, he’s told he’ll be arrested if he doesn’t, and Don does the biggest comical take towards the camera I’ve ever seen.
After a commercial break, the narrative shifts. Don has already has had his physical and we are shown his trials in flashback, as he dictates a letter to be sent to the Secretary of Defense. While at his physical we see a number of young teenagers, also drafted, make fun of Don, and steal his suit, as well as his misadventures with a psychiatrist who comes to believe Don is insane as he listens to his story about an angry man who stole his records and threw them in the pond. When he tries to leave, two Military Police officers stop him and Don threatens to completely lose his temper unless they move out of his way. Back in the present, Don continues to dictate his letter. “Secretary, they did not move. They also forcibly detained me in a room along with another young man who added to my harassment by asking me out to dinner.” The scene ends with Don noticing that he has been given his coworker’s old carpet and begins to dictate a different angry letter to his boss about him discriminating against veterans. The scene ends with what I believe to be an ad-libbed line in which Don turns on the secretary, telling her to get a haircut and “get rid of that Harpo Marx trick or treat wig.” The actress genuinely breaks at this moment.
So why doesn’t it work? The answer can be found right there in that that little moment above. When one goes to see Don Rickles perform in Las Vegas, one does not go to see him as the stoic old man who the world beats up, and he attempts to keep his cool. In fact, people watch him perform for the exact opposite reason: they want to see him dish it out, make fun of everyone for any reason, whether it be politically correct or not. This show seems to forget the core essence of Rickles, and instead elects to plug him into a standard sitcom formula that could be accomplished with any performer. There are precisely those two moments listed above in which Don is able to be himself, and the seven seconds that they occupy in the show do not bring enough good-will in the audience to carry the rest of the show.
Ultimately the audiences of 1972 agreed with my assessment and the show was cancelled after ten episodes. In spite of this failure and the later attempts to utilize Rickles as a sitcom lead, no one has been able to find the proper way to capture his performance and transfer it to television. However, luckily for us, at the age of 86, audiences are still able to go out and see Don perform on stage as he tours from casino to casino this many years later. Sometimes personalities are just too big for the small screen.