Remember the old Dean Martin celebrity roasts that ran for 10 years on NBC starting 40 years ago, where Martin skewered the top names of the day like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Jimmy Stewart, Phyllis Diller, Jack Klugman and even Ronald Reagan? When it came to roasting Martin himself, it was Don Rickles who did the honors.
Cut to 2014, specifically Spike TV on Wednesday night, May 28. It is the inestimable Rickles’ turn to be the man of the hour in “One Night Only: An All-Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles," in which the top names in comedy laud the man who made his fame and fortune insulting others of every race and creed.
And oh, what a night it was. Taped May 6 at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem before a black-tie audience, the 88-year-old comedian was honored by a parade of talent, starting with a video tribute from his best friend Bob Newhart.
But what happens when you get Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Tracy Morgan, Brian Williams, Johnny Depp and tag teams of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey and Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese in a room together is off-the-charts laughter, aimed squarely at Rickles, who appeared to be having the time of his life.
Interspersed throughout were boisterous bits from “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” on which Rickles guested more than 100 times, clips from his 1970 movie with Clint Eastwood, “Kelly’s Heroes,” and Scorsese’s 1995 “Casino” -- and in what Rickles considers the highlight of his career, his performance at President Reagan’s second inaugural ball in 1985.
The story goes that Frank Sinatra had been asked to perform there but agreed only if Rickles could also take the stage. Sinatra had been an early and vocal supporter of the comedian, going back to the 1950s, and for decades Rickles used their friendship as “protection,” and fodder for his act. So much so that he came under fire for it during the taping of “One Night Only.”
“I’ve got news for you, Don,” Letterman intoned. “Frank’s dead.”
With nicknames like “Bullet-head,” coined by Sinatra, “Mr. Venom” and “Mr. Warmth,” bestowed upon him by Carson, Rickles brought out the best from his fellow comedians -- until Fey and Poehler came out on the Apollo stage and broke up the boys club.
Portraying themselves as a last-minute addition to the lineup -- and it could be true, as they were not listed in the advertised bill for the evening -- they pretended not to know who Rickles was or why they were really there. Until Poehler broke down and confessed how kind Rickles had been to her and supportive in the early days of her career.
The camaraderie and the comedy made the show a cross between a traditional roast (as sister network Comedy Central does so well) and a dignified lifetime achievement award, spanning emotions ranging from admiration and gratitude to, well, degradation.
And as the evening reached its climax, when Rickles got his say after all that had said about him and his nearly 60-year-long career, fittingly, he had the last laugh.
(“One Night Only: An All-Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles" aired May 28, 2014, on Spike TV at 9/8 Central for 90 minutes. If you missed it you can catch video clips from the special here on Spike's website.)