Comedian Gilbert Gottfried never had the honor to meet or be insulted by Don Rickles (“It’s one of the things I regret,” he says), but he still nevertheless felt a kinship to the late comic. Both Gottfried and Rickles developed reputations for fearlessness – for making jokes that toe the line of taste and even cross it to get a good belly laugh. Here, Gottfried explains why Rickles was one of the best.
Don Rickles was never politically correct, and he would never apologize for any of it. He was totally unapologetic about his comedy. So I admired that and looked at him as a hero in that way. And as someone, like myself, who’s done so many roasts – I really admired Rickles at the roasts. There are so many things he said at those over the years that made me laugh. I remember one Rickles quote where he said whenever he goes onstage, he has a nagging fear that he’s not going to offend anybody [laughs].
I never thought he crossed the line. He made a joke at the American Film Institute’s tribute to Shirley MacLaine – “I don’t want to insult President Obama. He’s a friend of mine. He was over at the house last night, but then his mop broke” [Laughs] – and they cut it out of the broadcast, because nowadays that’s way too racist. And yet, I couldn’t help but thinking, Obama himself probably would have laughed at that. And I heard one time Don Rickles was sitting in a restaurant and Morgan Freeman walked by, and Rickles yelled out, “Hey Morgan, get back to the kitchen.” [Laughs] I don’t know if Morgan laughed at that, but he probably laughed. And everybody else was scared to say anything around Frank Sinatra, and he was constantly insulting Sinatra and Sinatra would laugh.
When I think of Rickles, I remember one time there was some event honoring Clint Eastwood, and Rickles went over to Eastwood’s wife and said, “Cheer up, honey. You’ll be coming into a lot of money soon.” [Laughs] And Charles Bronson was in the audience, and he goes, “Charlie, make yourself at home. Shoot somebody.” [Laughs]
I was at home when I found out today that he had died. A friend of mine, who is an equal Don Rickles fanatic called me, and he told me. Rickles wasn’t a young man, but it was still shocking that he died. ‘Til the very end, he was still sharp when he’d go out on TV or perform anywhere.
He’s one of those people who remained great. Even when, physically, he looked very weak, he was still totally sharp and totally funny. He wasn’t one of those performers that people applauded because they were still alive; he was one of those people he applauded and laughed because he was just so funny all the time.
His legacy to me will always be that he didn’t care who he insulted, he didn’t care who he offended. If it got a laugh, it was great.