If you’re not already enamored of slur-slinging performer Don Rickles, 81 years old and still the reigning champion of stand-up comedy as audience-bashing, the new biographical documentary “Mr. Warmth” won’t likely melt your heart.
Humor is always subjective; in the case of Rickles’s absurdly, uncompromisingly hostile comedy, the pleasure is practically indescribable if not inexcusable. Take him or leave him. As the tux-clad octogenarian puts it himself, barking from a Vegas stage: “This is what you’re gonna get, lady. If you’re waiting for Billy Graham to come in and make your kid walk again, forget about it.”
Subtitled “The Don Rickles Project,” “Mr. Warmth”— airing this month on HBO (beginning Sunday night) — managed to tickle the eggheads on the selection committee of the rarefied New York Film Festival, where director John Landis (“Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers”) playfully insulted his own audience members last month and offered an exacting defense of his subject. “They always call [Rickles] a stand-up [comedian],” Landis said. “But the truth is, he’s a performance artist.”
Sure enough, the Rickles “project” on any given night is to measure the distance between entertainment and abuse, humor and horror, love and hate — usually no greater than that between the performing artist and his nearest victim. “Look at the front row — I’m working the State Home here,” snarls Rickles from the stage in “Mr. Warmth.” “Go home and die!”
How does he get away with it?
In addition to offering classic Rickles footage from Dean Martin roasts, vintage “Tonight Show” appearances and President Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 (“Is this too fast, Ronnie?”), “Mr. Warmth” attempts to answer the question of how its subject gets away with jokes that prey mercilessly on the audience’s race, class, gender and whatever else. But, give or take African-American comic Chris Rock’s admiring testimony (“Being funny is like being a pretty girl — you just get away with a lot … [and] he can do no wrong…”), the appeal of Mr. Warmth remains highly mysterious even as it’s unmistakable to some of us.
I’ll tell ya this: If I was Rickles’s manager, I’d make sure his dressing room requirements were met — out of fondness as much as fear.
“Mr. Warmth” isn’t titled merely for ironic effect. Landis’s film reveals that Rickles remained devoted to his dear old mother and the rest of his family, and that he had an unmistakable soft spot for those in his inner circle — even those he regularly berates onstage. Just as the film pays tribute to the subject’s softer side, gentle piano music cues Rickles’s onstage shift from visceral rage into poignant nostalgia — complete with reminiscences of dear, departed friends like “Johnny” and “Frank” (that’s Carson and Sinatra to us). Like Martin Scorsese’s “Casino,” in which Rickles had a small role, “Mr. Warmth” tips its hat to a demolished way of life — Vegas power having transferred from the Mob to the even scarier thugs of corporations. Still, Rickles seems nowhere near ready to play that big room in the sky. Matter of fact, he’s scheduled to appear Dec. 30 and 31 at the Mystic Lake Showroom for performances whose tickets start at a mere $50.
What’s the matter Sonny, you can’t afford a C-note to bring your date to see one of the great American artists of the 20th century? What kind of miserable degenerate are you?