When I pay for entertainment, I pay for who the person is, not who they were. You can have the blind loyalists who genuflected for the Wizards’ version of Michael Jeffrey or Griffey Jr.’s second round with the Mariners. Middling results and flashes of what once-was do not qualify as reasons enough to get me to pop for a ticket.
Same goes for singers. No amount of geriatric duck-walking and forgotten lyrics could get me to a Chuck Berry Concert. No amount of whispers dressed up as singing could get me to see Bob Dylan. However, such tributary absence fails to apply to Don Rickles.
In the sense of physical well-being, a few miles per hour have been shaved off Rickles’ fastball. He slouches, shuffles instead of walks, and has a slight tremor in one of his hands. He recently cancelled three shows in the Midwest due to a leg infection, but he’s 87. While any slight illness or disorder for people over 80 forces those around them to lose sight of reality and wish to encase the afflicted octogenarian in bubble wrap and scale-back their sodium intake, Rickles hasn’t lost his edge, evidenced by his appearance on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” For Chrissakes he’s 87. After years on stage in a Vegas Lounge it’s amazing he hasn’t developed cirrhosis of the liver by-proxy or that his body hasn’t needed to be fumigated to remove the stench and stain of second-hand smoke. Plus, it’s not that people go to a Rickles’ show to watch him pirouette or Crip Walk, though both would provide some form of entertainment.
But to be honest, the cancellations sounded an alarm. I panicked. Somehow, someway, by hook or by crook, through rounds of prayer and cash donations to Miss Cleo, I need to find a way to will several more years of existence out of Rickles. His mortality means the end of an era, where among the din of ice dropped into glasses and a venue smoggy enough to rival bars in Milwaukee prior to the no-smoking ban, tuxedo-clad celebrities filled an entire dais and roasted one another. He’s the last of the group that hits the trifecta of alive, coherent, and relevant if you don’t count Bob Newhart and Tony Bennett. I don’t. They seemed more comfortable on the periphery of the action, outside of the ruckus and craziness that were the seats closest to center-stage.
Not Rickles. Idle chit-chat and banal conversation came to a halt when he approached the microphone. His unflinching honesty pairs with the heat-seeking intensity he inhibits when he cow-tips the most sacred of deities, luminaries and big names (including Orson Welles, who Rickles once quipped should have Goodyear written on his face so he could be ridden over the beach). It’s the venom with a smile that makes him appealing. If I really wanted to pay tribute to him, I’d buy three copies of “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” and hunt around for seasons of “CPO Sharkey,” instead of hoping for another round of appearances in the Midwest.
Sure, he’s performed in front of four presidents, told Sinatra to make himself at home and hit somebody, broke Carson’s cigarette box, and asked Billy Graham to fix a tingling sensation in his hand at Ronald Regan’s inaugural ball, but a chance to see Rickles is one-part historically significant and two-parts entertaining. He still maintains a stage presence that’s earned him nicknames like “Mr. Warmth” and “The Merchant of Venom.” Who gives a shit if he moves a little slow? He’s always been old to me. I can’t picture him with a full head of hair. Actually I don’t think anyone besides those wearing short-pants during World War 2 would remember that.
The show is in the now. The accolades are in the past.