NEW YORK | Don Rickles engages in what might be called Comedy S and M. He insults audience members (whether famous or unknown, each a hockey puck in his eyes) and they laugh and beg for more.
It’s a manic, lacerating style Rickles has commanded for a half-century-plus.
Now he’s being feted by Spike TV with a 90-minute special, “One Night Only: An All-Star Comedy Tribute.” A black-tie affair taped earlier this month at Harlem’s storied Apollo Theater, it airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. EDT, packed with love and a healthy dose of bile.
“We wanted to honor your memory, Don, so here we are,” says Martin Scorsese, firing a zinger at the spirited but frail-looking Rickles seated stage-side — “though if I’d been directing this, I don’t think I would have gone for the open casket.”
Amy Poehler and Tina Fey deliver their own saucy slam at Rickles’ advanced age.
Fey: “It’s almost like he’s here with us. You can feel his spirit in this room tonight.”
Poehler: “Tina! He IS here.”
Fey (casting a startled look in Rickles’ direction): “I thought that was somebody’s purse.”
Other stars on hand include Jerry Seinfeld, Robert De Niro, Regis Philbin, Tracy Morgan, Brian Williams and Jon Stewart.
David Letterman fondly remembers first meeting Rickles “at a Scientology mixer.”
A worshipful Johnny Depp claims Rickles drove him into therapy. He explains that, on their first encounter, he was unprepared for what a nice man Rickles really is. The insults Depp kept expecting never came, “which meant to me at the time that he clearly hated me.”
To his fans, insult-craving is a big part of Rickles’ charm. He inspires you to imagine what he’d say about YOU if you were lucky enough to land in his comic cross hairs. You identify with Rickles’ “victims,” laugh at them — and want to be one, too.
For those a little fuzzy on Rickles’ tongue-lashing past, the program includes clips of him filleting such luminaries as Johnny Carson, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra, the Rev. Billy Graham and President Ronald Reagan.
There are also filmed tributes from Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, Jimmy Kimmel and, hilariously, Rickles’ longtime pal Bob Newhart.
Then, when the time comes for Rickles to speak, he doesn’t hold back.
“I’m so thrilled as I look around the room that I’m the biggest name here,” he begins. But before he’s done, he’s gotten downright sentimental.
“It was a kind, beautiful tribute, a great night,” Rickles said by phone a few days later, then went on to account for his trademark insult style: “It was in my personality, my attitude, ever since I was a kid.”
But if he was a natural-born weisenheimer, he always took care to “never be hurtful, never below-the-belt.”
Some witnesses might dispute that, but most within earshot of Rickles’ tirades get the joke — especially those who recognize that this fiery little man is, underneath, an old softie.
But does Rickles ever worry that someone might mistake the “Merchant of Venom” for his real personality?
“A couple of days ago I’m 88,” said Rickles, whereupon he treated his interviewer with a jab of Rickles sarcasm (“Thanks for the gift, by the way”) before continuing, “and when you’re 88, you got no time to worry.
“Not everyone’s gonna love ya,” he said gently. “But when you get a majority on your side, you’ve got a chance.”
Spike’s Rickles tribute demonstrates he has multitudes on his side, and reminds the viewer why.