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The King of Zing, from Queens: A Don Rickles Tribute

Sunday, Jun 11, 2017

A giant, a legend… Experiencing Don, and tuning into his mind, I witnessed the evolution of his comedy. It was like listening to a great jazz musician wail. Nobody else did what he did. He made comedy into an art form. And like all geniuses, comic or otherwise, he’s irreplaceable.” —Martin Scorsese

The Mount Rushmore of stand-up comedy” —Jerry Seinfeld

He was the love of my life” —Chris Rock

A Queens kid, the late Don Rickles (1926-2017) was a comedy titan. Raised by Jewish parents in Jackson Heights—“my father was born in Russia and came here when he was three with a gun, a grenade, and a picture of Stalin in his pants” and “my mother was a very strong woman—a Jew Patton”—young Donald J. (!) went to Newtown High School in Elmhurst where he was president of both his class and the drama society, enlisted in the Navy during WWII and was stationed in the Philippines. After the war he enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and studied alongside Jason Robards, Anne Bancroft, and Grace Kelly, and moved to comedy when a mentor told him to stop chewing up the scenery but “never lose that energy.” Working strip joints up and down the Eastern seaboard—Rickles was the comic relief in between numbers while the dancers got toweled off—word slowly got around about his talents, and after close to two decades he made his way to “the big room” in Las Vegas, New York’s Copacabana, L.A.’s Slate Brothers Club, and to entertaining vacationing Hollywood glitterati in Miami Beach.

The ne plus ultra of insult comics, he was an “equal opportunity offender,” with jokes attacking everyone: black, brown, white, Asian, Hispanic, Jew, Gentile, WASP, Catholic, you name it: “Black people could do black jokes, Jews could do Jewish jokes, Italians could do Italian jokes, etc. He does them all! And gets away with it because he’s hysterical,” said comrade Steve Lawrence. No one was safe, not Presidents H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan (one wonders how our current president, and fellow Queens native, would fare), not his best friend Bob Newhart, not Sinatra, Carson, Regis, Letterman, Kimmel, his idol Milton Berle, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis, De Niro, Scorsese, or even Denzel Washington, who, in 2008, stuck around to be picked on at a Late Show appearance that has since become legendary. A veritable workhorse, he acted in close to 100 scripted TV episodes (including headlining his own, C.P.O. Sharkey) and movies (his debut was Run Silent, Run Deep opposite Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster) and was on innumerable late night shows: Letterman over 30 times, and Carson more than 100 times, 34 of which he guest hosted. This “pocket” retrospective tribute will feature his most famous film role in the WWII heist caper Kelly’s Heroes opposite Clint Eastwood, and John Landis’s definitive portrait Mr. Warmth, the Don Rickles Project. Plus—surprises at both shows! So don’t miss it, you hockey puck!

Organized by Gabriele Caroti, with Chief Curator David Schwartz and Associate Film Curator Eric Hynes.

Special thanks to John Landis, Gary Binkow and Niloo Badie (Salient Media), and Matt Roberts.