After the death of comedian Don Rickles Thursday, hordes of his fellow comics and actors remembered the legend as both the quickest in the room and warmest in the industry. “Roastmaster General” Jeff Ross has known Rickles for years, viewing each jab that Rickles bestowed upon him as another badge of honor.
Ross spoke to Rolling Stone from a plane en route to a gig in Detroit. “It could be a lonely night for me, but I feel like Don is with all comedians today on the road, slugging it out,” he says. The comedian remembers Rickles’ fearlessness, influence and massive legacy.
Don Rickles knew how much he meant to other comedians. The first time I was actually in his presence was the mid-1990s and he was accepting a lifetime achievement award at the American Comedy Awards. My buddy Adam Ferrara was getting an award and I was his plus one. He said, “This might be our only chance to meet Don Rickles.” I wasn’t the roast guy yet. We’re in the back tables and cut through the whole crowd. The show hasn’t started yet. And Don, out of the corner of his eye, sees two young comics in rented tuxedos headed right for him. [Laughs] Adam puts his hand out, “Mr. Rickles, so nice to meet you.” And just before he can get the sentence out, Don looks at him and goes, “Alright, kid. Don’t make a thing.” [Laughs] He was just brutally funny.
I met him at a Friar’s Club event in 2000 and he could get away with stuff that none of us could get away with when he roasted [casino magnate] Steve Wynn. [Wynn] has a terrible, sad degenerative eye disease and nobody could make fun of that or even talk about it. But Don went up at the end and went right for it. He would just wave his hand in front of Steve Wynn’s eyes, “Steve, I’m over here. I’m over here. Follow my voice, Steve. Follow my voice.” You could see the tears of laughter come out of Steve Wynn’s eyes. It was really beautiful. Don wrote me a note afterwards [thanking me].
He was America’s doctor. He helped us laugh at ourselves. To me, that’s therapy. That’s healing. And he was as much a doctor as he was a comedian. He really brought people together. He brought couples together. He brought races together. And he was a healer. Above all, it was spiritual; not just for the comics but for his fans.
If you ever took someone to see him for the first time, you saw their jaw drop for the first few minutes, and then they slowly go into his world; his mind. And everything that he said was okay and made you feel good. How many comedians performed into their 90th birthday? It’s really an inspiration.
It’s quite inspiring. Here I am on my way to a gig. This is a look into the future for a lot of us comedians. If Don could keep swinging at 90, it gives me hope. And he had a family that loved him and fans that adored him and still selling out; Still staying on the late-night shows and staying relevant. I would love to be a Don Rickles some day.
“People say a comic can cross the line. I feel like Don defined it.”
He always had a good joke for me. If I brought a date to meet him at one of his shows, he would ask her if she had cataracts because something’s wrong with her eyes. He’d teased me about dressing up and always wearing a different costume for each roast. He’d say, “How come every roast is like Jewish Halloween for you?” Which I really loved. I really delighted in that.
I was always terrified of him. It was like meeting the Pope. The Pope of humor. He’s the grandmaster, the Mt. Roastmore, the Black Belt in Busting Balls, The Sultan of Insultin’.
He was fearless. I thought I had carte blanche to say whatever I wanted. I had a roasting reputation, but I couldn’t. He could. I still aspire to have that sort of credibility and sharpness without hurting feelings. He would poke the skin without breaking it. And he really defined the line. People say a comic can cross the line. I feel like Don defined it.
But it wasn’t even the jokes. It was the moments. When you quote Rickles, you don’t just quote the words. You quote the moment; the context. Where he was. What was happening? Who was he looking at? It was so much about context for Don. That’s so much of what I learned from watching him is that timing really is everything. You need to have the wit and the words and the wisdom and the speed, but most importantly, you really need to know your audience. And he did. And eventually, they knew him, too. And that’s why he was still selling out.
“He was a scientist when it came to people’s personalities and vulnerabilities.”
He was a scientist when it came to people’s personalities and vulnerabilities. He really could pinpoint it. It was almost surgical. It might look random to the audience, but from the comedian’s perspective, I don’t know if anybody will ever work a room the way he did.
I had to speak at Buddy Hackett’s funeral in 2003. I was devastated. Buddy was my best friend. Don was always a little jealous of that. I made my speech. I was a nervous wreck. Every comic and major celebrity was there for Buddy and Don happened to be sitting next to me. As I sat back down, he didn’t say a word. He looked at me, and he just gave me a double tap on the leg like, “Good job, kid.” That’s all I needed in that moment. I was really heartbroken about our mutual pal. Buddy was like a brother to me, so Don knew how to make you feel better.
There are so many things that will define his legacy. It’s the way he worked a room. The life of the party. The best speechmaker, best toast maker, best roastmaster. He broke through comedy. He brought insult humor and ethnic humor to the forefront of show business. He helped us laugh at ourselves. Comedians either crap out and die at 40 or they go to 90. And he did that. Just to see that he still has dates on the books. I’m sitting here on a plane going to a gig. It could be a lonely night for me, but I feel like Don is with all comedians today on the road, slugging it out.
Don had the strongest single voice. He lasted the longest. He was so remembered not just for his act, but for his personality. His act was his personality. And he was always on. He would always break the tension and sadness. He lifted me up. He lifted everybody up. He lifted us up by knocking us down. He knocked us down and lifted us up. It’s interchangeable. It’s indescribable. It was science. It was magic. It was hilarious.
Long live the king.
As told to Jason Newman