The death this week of comic legend Don Rickles sent me searching for video clips of his performances during his prime years, from the late 1960s through the 1980s. Just watched Rickles on several of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. The insult king does not disappoint, attacking everyone, from comic legends such as Jack Benny and Milton Berle, to a future president and already California governor, Ronald Reagan.
Rickles milked ethnic stereotypes for a lot of his humor, often linking Frank Sinatra to the Italian mob, for example. Steeped in today’s politically correct climate as we all are, the tone and language used by Rickles is somewhat shocking. Here’s one cringe-worthy barb aimed at black comedian Nipsey Russell during a roast of Lucille Ball.
Ouch, right? In watching a lot of this footage, it’s clear that this type of harsh exchange was typical for Rickles during this period. And it was very acceptable for everyone to openly laugh at this style of humor. Rickles would often say that he was not racist and that his delivery of ethnic insults was a way of showing his love.
It’s certainly unfair to judge Rickles for being a product of his times But as society changed, Rickles didn’t. In 2012, for example, he notably compared President Obama to a janitor.
In comparison, I watched some “Saturday Night Live” episodes featuring Louis C.K. where he mimics a stereotypical way a black woman talks in a skit featuring Leslie Jones.
There’s another appearance by Louis C.K. on SNL’s “Black Jeopardy” skit, which again mocks black stereotypes, and gets big laughs.
The premise for the humor developed by SNL writers and Rickles is the same. They are both mocking racial stereotypes. But something is different today so that SNL skits are more palatable for a general audience. The SNL skits seem more clever and less crass, for one thing. And with SNL, black comics are delivering a lot of the punch lines, so it seems a more self-effacing type of humor rather than an attack from an outsider.