I didn't bother to watch John Landis' made-for-HBO documentary about Don Rickles, which (strangely) premiered at the New York Film Festival, but I was curious about the way several news articles and a few reviews seemed delighted to discover that Rickles is actually a gentle soul with a rough exterior. ("What becomes clear in Landis' film is that Rickles is really a softie, a guy who loves humanity and life," said David Wiegand in the San Francisco Chronicle. "The guy they still call Mr. Warmth really is, and that's apparently the worst-kept secret in show business." And Marc Weingarten wrote in the New York Times, "Perhaps the most revealing insight to be gleaned from Mr. Warmth is the fact that for a man that has made a living spewing good-natured venom, Mr. Rickles is remarkably well adjusted.")
These are strange reactions because Rickles' soft side isn't a secret that's been revealed by the film; it's a decades-old part of his act, a part of the carefully crafted image that is Don Rickles. It may be genuine, too — I don't know — but his two personalities helpfully play on the natural appeal of peeking behind a performer's persona. I'm curious about this sort of thing because it's useful not only for making a crude facade more palatable but also for poking holes in an opponent's; witness the recent dust-up over comments made by Barack Obama's pastor, as if they're a window into Obama's secret hatred of America, or, more subtly, a glimpse of the calculating politician within.
My favorite piece of commentary on Rickles is also a commentary on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and it's a great example of satire, mostly because I'm not entirely sure how it works.
Before they were better known as Spinal Tap (or Lenny & Squiggy), Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, David Lander, and Richard Beebe performed original comedy skits on a Pasadena radio station as The Credibility Gap. "Where's Johnny" is their 1973 audio recreation of the Tonight Show, a parody so precise that it's hard to locate the edge of the knife, even as it begins to turn. Maybe it's in the unusually frank subject matter, but I think it's actually in the compression. When you boil an entire show down to just 14 minutes, the innuendo, chauvinism, homophobia, and Rickles' odd duality bubble to the top.
That's a great line: "a parody so precise that it's hard to locate the edge of the knife, even as it begins to turn."