Quiet in San Fran11 May 2008
— Errata Movie Podcast —

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.

You can hear "Where's Johnny" free via Rhapsody (requires a quick install). Famed rock critic Robert Christgau called it "the ultimate exposé of a subject you thought didn't need it."

(And while you're at it, here is the group's authorized, rock-n-roll variation of "Who's On First," which requires Real Player. It's a hoot. Via

Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
March 19, 2008, 10:12 AM

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."

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