Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Review: Rickles' Book: A Memoir

Rickles’ Book: A Memoir
Don Rickles with David Ritz
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, $24

Don Rickles looked old for his age when he started making inroads as a comedian in the mid-fifties. He was already balding in his early thirties, when Frank Sinatra nicknamed him “Bullethead,” with a warm, round face and an avuncular presence despite his reputation as the king of insult comics. That’s how he’s been seen ever since, frozen in time in his tux, holding a mic and throwing jabs at everyone in sight even as comedy and club scene changed around him.

That’s the face on the cover of Rickles’ Book, Rickles’ recently released autobiography. You can almost hear him laughing, calling someone a hockey puck. But there’s another Rickles, and he’s the reason why the Rickles we all know works.

Some expected Rickles’ Book to be a rehash of his act, a set list of broadsides and barbs. But any comic who has ever met Rickles tells the story of a kind, generous professional who goes out of his way to give the best advice he can to comedians on their way up. And that’s because Rickles had plenty of help on his way up.

Rickles’ Book is a memoir in bite-sized stories, two- and three-page chapters about family members, club owners, famous entertainers, and other random people that helped shape Rickles’ career. They are vignettes you could imagine traded between old school entertainers in an empty nightclub, hours after the last drunk has crawled home.

Rickles seems grateful for every story and every person, even the “blind driver” who once fell asleep on the job, allowing a horse-drawn wagon to carry him and another actor off of a movie set and out into traffic. For the sitcoms that didn’t work (“C.P.O. Sharkey,” anyone?) and the Ed Sullivan appearance that tanked when Sullivan tried, unsuccessfully, to mimic Rickles’ style.

If you’re looking for dirt or gossip, you won’t find it here, unless you’re unaware that Frank Sinatra had a temper or that Asta, the dog from the TV show “The Thin Man,” was a biter. In Rickles’ world, everyone has good intentions, everything is played for laughs, and no pain is lasting. Even when his father dies suddenly of a heart attack, literally dropping in the street, it’s not long before Rickles is consoled by his mother:

“Life goes on,” my mother said to me. “You’ll get through this, sonny boy. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
And imagine, I was the one worrying about mom.

But Rickles doesn’t come across as a Pollyanna. If you want dirt, there are plenty of places to find it. But Rickles has no reason to speak poorly of anyone or question the way things have unfolded for him. He writes from the perspective of a man who got everything he ever wanted. In fact, he says so in the last chapter:

Beautiful life.
Beautiful wife.
Beautiful children, Mindy and Larry.
Beautiful grandchildren, Ethan and Harrison, and son-in-law, Ed.
Beautiful career.
What more can a man ask for?

In a very real sense, Rickles the insult comic wouldn’t work if the man behind the curtain held any hint of genuine malice toward anyone. In today’s desensitized environment, Rickles might seem quaint to some. But onstage, he has let loose with attacks that would still cause trouble in a modern club. He got personal with untouchable celebrities, he picked on people in the audience who could easily snap him in half, and, most significantly, he never backed down from a racial slur. Somehow, people didn’t take it personally.

The only explanation is that Rickles’ audiences knew they were being slammed by a master, and that they knew, without seeing anything that resembled a true picture of the man in his comedy, that this man with the balding pate and dancing eyes could never in a million years mean what he said about them onstage.

If you want the Rickles you know, pick up a CD reissue of “Hello, Dummy!” or “Don Rickles Speaks.” But chances are, you’ll recognize the one from Rickles’ Book as well.

No comments: