Before I get all schmaltzy, Don Rickles was a giant of comedy. This is a turning point for comedy and not a terribly good one. It's important we preserve this man's legacy before political correctness forces the burning of all his material.

Rickles was not an insult comic like the old borscht belt guys. You had a few guys before him who were insulting joke-tellers - Fat Jack E. Leonard most notably - other guys who were condescending and observational like Joey Bishop. But nobody was the improvisational genius that was Rickles. As Chris Rock said, Rickles has "that thing." No set was ever the same as the last.

That kind of improvisation and extemporaneous "riffing" doesn't lend itself well to recurring bits, and recurring routines are the thing comedy albums are built on. Look at Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld or George Carlin, they did routines about specific subjects (Noah's Ark, Superman, Dirty Words.) Guys like Rodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngman did jokes about particular subjects (my wife, my boss, my kid, etc). Rickles didn't tell stories or jokes. He just destroyed. Then he moved on to whatever else he wanted to riff on.

Yet Rickles issued two comedy albums on Warner Brothers Records. The first is the decidedly superior of the two because it's unfettered Rickles at his brash best.

Hello Dummy! is a straight recording of Don's set in Vegas. The tracks have no names. When it came time to re-release the album on CD in the 1990s, Warners remastered it as one long continuous track! Either you're all in or you're out.

His second album, Don Rickles Speaks! is a bit of a contrivance. Recorded in the studio in front of a small audience and "hosted" by Laugh-In's Gary Owens, it's a muted affair. Owens and people from the audience ask Don's opinion on subjects. Rickles is best when everyone else gets out of the way or consents to be steamrolled. It has funny moments but it's all too polite, and sounds forced.

By comparison, there are plenty of videos of Rickles. All of his movies are available from Casino to Beach Blanket Bingo. This collection from Time-Life has all 37 episodes of his mid-70s NBC sitcom, CPO Sharkey and rare comedy specials. Get it!

Finally, to get the essence of Don Rickles, his act and his influence, only the documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project comes close. I could list every important star but you'd call me a serial name-dropper.

See it on Netflix.

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