Sometimes when a famous person ‘shuffles off this mortal coil’ it can be of interest—and worth noting—but not personally upsetting to most of us. It was Shakespeare who coined the ‘mortal coil’ expression—and he was certainly admired—but his passing doesn’t hit most people that hard. It happened, after all, several years before most of us were born. My uncle, for example, didn’t shed a tear. On the other hand, he’s never gotten over the passing of Francis Bacon.
But a man I never knew personally (although I did once get to meet him) died the other day. It hit me like someone in my own family had checked out—especially odd since Don Rickles was like no one in my actual family. He didn’t remind me of my dad, a favorite cousin or a funny uncle (although he did look a lot like one of my aunts).
The story goes that when he was beginning his standup comedy career his act was that of a standard joke teller and impressionist. But when dealing with the inevitable heckler (are there professional hecklers?) Rickles began to discover that he got bigger laughs lambasting audience wiseguys than he did doing his actual show. Before he knew it, he had ditched the regular jokes and impressions and became the ultimate insult comic.
One of his great putdowns was calling someone a ‘hockey puck.’ Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a hockey puck. You can’t have a good NHL game without one. But ‘hockey puck’ just sounds funny—and vaguely dirty. Calling someone a ‘baseball’ or a ‘frisbee’ just doesn’t have the same crackle. (Although badminton fans could make a strong case for ‘shuttlecock.’)
But the words he chose—and the way he said them—was part of Rickle’s magic. It wasn’t about jokes for Rickles—it was about attitude and energy. And he had both in great supply. It seemed to me that being called a ‘hockey puck’ by Don Rickles would be an honorific better than a Nobel prize.
While my teenage friends were buying rock music records, I spent my limited funds on comedy albums. I bought them all—from Jonathan Winters to Bob Newhart; George Carlin to Cheech and Chong. But it was a Rickle’s recording, “Hello, Dummy!”, that I treasured most. That album—taken from a live Rickle’s standup performance—is now nearly 50 years old. I played it so much, I had to buy it a second time—I’d literally worn the grooves out.
The old album was trotted out the other day for a fresh listen. Then I remembered that my record player was packed away in a storage unit along with the landline phones, VCR’s and palm pilot.
Luckily, the entire album is on You Tube these days.
It’s, as they say, politically incorrect. It’s at times highly offensive—and crazily inappropriate. But darned if it still doesn’t make me laugh. Somehow, because it’s Rickles—as a character—saying those awful things, it seems OK. Maybe it’s because he was edgy to the point of absurdity. Rickles was, after all, a comedian—no one took his remarks seriously. It was not as if he were running for office.
He continued performing his stage act almost to the moment he died at age 90—the notion of retiring was never under consideration. So in 2013, when I heard that he was going to appear at the Snoqualmie Casino (Rickles loved venues like that)—my son (also a big fan) and I intentionally lined up front row seats—enhancing the chances he would single us out for a withering insult. We even finagled backstage passes so we could meet the man in person—and get personally trashed by him.
About an hour before the show, a guy in a tuxedo waved my son and me over and we were led to an area behind the stage. We looked at each other and smiled expectantly. It was like we were about to meet the pope—if the pope was about to make an appearance at a gambling joint and tear us apart verbally.
We walked around the corner waiting to be ambushed—and suddenly there he was: The Merchant of Venom. He was wearing a robe and was seated in a chair—and looked nearly as tiny as “Mr. Potato Head”, the character he provided the voice for in all the Toy Story movies.
“Hi ya, fellas. Good to see ya!” said Rickles in a sincere and most pleasant greeting. Disappointingly pleasant. We all made small talk for a minute or two, with Rickles displaying nothing but pure charm.
My son and I waited for something more, like “You’re father and son, huh? I can see the resemblance. Too bad.” But he offered nothing remotely Ricklesian—and the guy in the tuxedo started to usher us away.
Then, just as we were exiting—and nearly out of ear shot—Rickles called after us one last time. “Thanks for showing up,” he said. “You hockey pucks!”
A wave of joy washed over.