By Kevin Coughlin
Let’s start by saying that Thursday’s Rickles & Regis Laughfest at the Mayo Performing Arts Center was just that.
Regis Philbin made a case for Don Rickles as the funniest comic of his era.
While there is plenty of competition for that title, TV clips of Rickles–a spitting cobra of insults dubbed the Merchant of Venom–had the Morristown audience roaring, all these decades later.
His appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Saturday Night Live, Dean Martin celebrity roasts and Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ball, among other shows, are classics.
Our only disappointment from the nearly two-hour retrospective was that Rickles, at 90, is pretty much as Philbin described him earlier during our impromptu interview at SmartWorld Coffee.
Ever meet a hero and discover he’s a jerk? This was the opposite. Don Rickles, once mockingly called “Mr. Warmth” by Johnny Carson, is starting to deserve the nickname. The tornado of invective is mellowing.
Well, sort of.
When Philbin scanned the audience to acknowledge a nonagenerian birthday girl, Rickles helpfully suggested: “The 96-year-old is on a gurney.”
All in all, Rickles reflected, he was “a little kinder” than Groucho Marx. (And maybe, Attila the Hun.)
Yet Rickles insisted he never meant any harm.
“Over the years, the Good Lord has been good to me, in the sense that people caught on. There was no hatred in my soul, and what I do is absolutely a joke, unless you live under a rock. I take the attitude of laughing about ourselves,” Rickles said.
“And so sure, not everybody walks out and says, ‘He was great.’ That’s not true. I’m sure people say, ‘I don’t find his humor funny, I don’t like to be insulted.’ Hey, it’s not an insult. It’s a put-on about all of us. And I can’t please everybody. But I try!”
Don Rickles, a nice guy? Perhaps there is hope for world peace.
The evening’s only other “disappointment” came when Philbin, 85, gave the impression he’s not interested in returning to Live! with Kelly. Michael Strahan’s messy departure has left a vacancy next to Kelly Ripa. A spectator asked Philbin where he’s been.
“I’ve been at home with my wife…. do you miss me?” responded the Guinness World Record holder for Most Hours on Camera, to enthusiastic applause.
“I spent 28 years there [on Live!], after 25 years in Hollywood and I just had enough of it, so I left, to hang around with [Rickles] once in awhile and that’s all my life.”
Not a bad life, for these two old pals. Rickles said today’s comics often ask his opinion of their work. “And I say, ‘Come to me when you’re 90, and we’ll see how well you did.'”
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