Penn Jillette first saw Don Rickles perform in 1975. He expected a phoned-in performance, but saw an old pro with raw power
He says Rickles could be a transgressive insult comedian because he showed he was the kindest man on earth
Editor’s Note: Penn Jillette, a writer, television host and frequent guest on a wide range of shows, is half of the Emmy Award-winning magic act duo Penn & Teller. His most recent book is “Presto.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
I first saw Don Rickles live in 1975 at the Latin Casino outside of Philadelphia. I was a punk. I cared about The Ramones and Iggy Pop, but I worked in comedy, so I was going to see a Vegas comic: Rickles.
I expected to see a kind of cynical, laid back, phone-it-in, old pro performance. What I saw was more energy and power than I would see a few years later from the Sex Pistols. I was sitting way off to one side of the audience so I could see Don go into the wings. And he was punching the air and sweating. Hey ho, let’s go. It was raw power. Don didn’t know how to phone it in.
I got to know Don and hang with him a bit. He was in my movie “The Aristocrats,” and I saw him backstage at his show and at ours. I didn’t get to know him as well as I wanted to, but that’s life, I suppose.
Don Rickles did the most dangerous and naked act possible. He was an insult comic. He said mean things. He said them about individuals and about groups of people. It’s transgressive and it’s dangerous. And the only way to get through doing an act like that is to be pure love. You have to be kinder than someone who plays it safe.
After every mean-sounding punch line, everyone in the audience would look into his heart. And if anyone in that audience saw anything other than pure kindness, the act would be over. Don had to open up his heart and have it examined by everyone.
To do that insult act, Don had to be the kindest person alive and be tested on that with every joke – and he passed that test all the time.
Yes, I knew Don, but I don’t have to tell you how sweet, kind and full of love he was. And I don’t have to tell you that there wasn’t a trace of hate in his heart. I don’t have to tell you any of that – we all knew that with every transgressive joke he told. More than anyone else, Don’s career was based on love.
We all loved him right back, and will always love him. “Mr. Warmth” was a joke, and meant to be ironic, but it wasn’t. He really was that warm, loving and kind.
We’ll all miss you, you bald hockey puck!