Learning From Don Rickles

How can we tell the difference between a joke and an insult? It seems like a simple separation, but in reality, the line can become very thin over time.

In the words of Jenkins, Ford and Green,

“..a joke expresses something a community is ready to hear; an insult expresses something it doesn’t want to consider”

Let’s take Don Rickles into consideration. Though he recently passed away on April 6, 2017 at the ripe ol’ age of 90, he will remain in the reign of comedy legends.

(and for the kids at home that don’t know this man by the picture below, maybe you’ll know him by his sarcastic, wise-cracking animated alter-ego, Mr. Potato Head from the Toy Story trilogy).

Known as the Equal Opportunity Offender, Rickles’ jokes were finger pointed at everyone.

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He didn’t leave anyone out, making his shows a laughing pit for everyone to enjoy. Instead of singling out one, he singled out everyone, an extremely intelligent move. It was because of this that no one found his jokes insulting to the point of controversy. Everyone could take his jokes because, well, they knew they were just jokes.

In his own words,

“I laugh at the blacks, the whites, the purples…”

I think plenty of comedians can take a note or two thousand from Mr. Rickles. Making fun of everyone brings joy to everyone. Making fun of one person or group causes controversy because of the idea of singling out that singular person or group. Don knew better than that and knew that everyone was equally available to be made fun of. It made him a legend, one that mustn’t be forgotten.

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My Top Stand Up Performances

I’m a believer that stand up comedians are not only some of the most talented people in the entertainment business, but also the most brave. To be able to go infant of hundreds, even thousands of people and attempt to make them laugh, a job that can go so south so quickly, and keep them entertained for hours, there’s a small percentage that succeed at that. Since I was a kid and insomnia kicked in during middle school, I began watching comedy specials to keep me entertained. It was there that I found my love for stand up and my curiosity in how these comedians do it so well. I wanted to be like them. I wanted their physicality, their confidence, their humor, I wanted it all. I decided I could share with you my top stand up performances.

Side Note: As all of my list posts go, this is only an opinion. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I would love to hear from you all on your favorite stand ups. Until then, come listen to me ramble. Also, these are in no particular order.

#1: Donald Glover, “Weirdo” (2012)

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Not a lot of people can say they’ve accomplished much at the age of 23, but Donald Glover was already a writer for the acclaimed comedy show, 30 Rock, proving himself to be an extremely talented young comedian. He got his first televised stand up opportunity in the form of a thirty minute Comedy Central special in 2010 at the age of 27. Showing that he could handle a stage and an audience, two years later he created, Weirdo, which in my opinion, blows away his first special. Glover holds the audience in the palm of his hands, you can see how comfortable he is on a stage. With jokes such as the Trinidadian nanny and the childhood tale of Terry in Home Depot, this hour long special leaves you wanting more from Glover, which we have seen a substantial increase in since 2012. While he’s wrapping up his career as Childish Gambino and continuing his run on his show, Atlanta, I do wish we could squeeze out one more comedy special from this triple threat.

#2: Bill Hicks, “Relentless” (1992)

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The last special to be released while he was still alive, “Relentless”, is a hilarious and thought-provoking look on how Hicks believed the country was failing at the time (God forbid he got a hold of how the country’s doing now). His commentary on drugs, pornography, the Persian Gulf War, and the dangers that have been caused by patriotism all come together to give a sense of Hicks’ intelligence as well as his sense of humor. If anyone wanted to get a sense of Hicks as a comedian, I would recommend starting with this classic.

#3: Eddie Murphy, “Delirious” (1983)

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Good god, who can unsee that skintight red leather? Remember back at Donald Glover where I mentioned his success at age 23? Welp, Murphy had his most successful stand up at the tender age of 22. Having to be clean cut for his job on Saturday Night Live, he had no problem cutting loose on stage, using “fuck” a total of 230 times and “shit” 171 times. Controversy also struck after for Murphy’s opening joke, using slurs to talk about gay men. However, in 1996, Murphy released a one page apology for his actions, claiming, “I deeply regret any pain all this has caused.” Watching this special amazes me due to his age. I can’t even imagine performing a sold out show in a little over a year. The amount of success this man held at such a young age shows there’s potential in people to be able to find it themselves at any time. Props to Murphy for causing me to go short of breath at the Aunt Bunny falling down the stairs bit. I’m also wondering if the person who owned that camera still has the pictures of Eddie’s crotch.

#4: Sam Kinison, “Breaking the Rules” (1987)

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An ex-preacher with a temper more explosive than TNT, Sam Kinison proved himself in his first HBO special. His early bits such as his love life with women and the oddness behind the crucification of Jesus Christ caused me to break out in laughter when I first watched it during a class in school years ago. His enormous stage presence worked so well, even shocking Robin Williams. His iconic long coat and matching hat created an image that almost contrasts to his loud mouthed “oh oh OOOOOOOOOH!” gorilla screams. Kinison was a personified speedball on stage and so far, I haven’t seen anyone that can match a presence like Sam.

#5: Richard Pryor, “Live in Concert” (1979)

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This is every aspiring comedian’s bible. Richard Pryor, one of the most well known and beloved comedians of all time, in one of the most well known stand up specials of all time, it’s the bread and butter of comedy. Pryor manages to get a diverse crowd laughing maniacally at the topics of race, sex, family, all while adding in Patti LaBelle as an opener. Pryor showed the world what being a comic on stage meant. His demeanor, his physicality, his strong voice, the confidence he held, created a step by step look at what success on stage is. To this day, comedian’s site Pryor’s “Live in Concert” as a classic, a favorite, and an important piece of comedic talent.

My Movie Comedy Influences As A Child

I didn’t simply wake up one morning and find a love for comedy, as I’m sure none of us did. It took VHS tape after VHS tape and countless viewings as a kid to form the love I have for it today. Now, I’m aware parents today would never let their children watch some of the movies I watched as a toddler, but my mom is cool….she also was studying to get her teaching degree and was in another room in the house. SO that being said, these are (in no particular order) the comedy movie influences I had as a child.

#1: Tommy Boy (1995)

Ok remember how I just said these are in no particular order? That was a lie because if anything influenced me as a kid, this was it. I was three years old and my aunt gave me and my brother a VHS copy of this movie and from that moment on, the movie was playing everyday. I had never followed a movie so thoroughly, for christ’s sake, I was three. This movie taught me a great deal of sarcasm, slapstick, as well as tug at my heartstrings at certain moments. It also taught me to keep my mouth shut sometimes, as I got in serious trouble for threatening a fellow preschooler with “wailing on him”. Oops.

This was the foundation for my love of Chris Farley and there’s no other movie that influenced my love of comedy quite as much as this one.

#2: Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

I know, I know, I’ve professed my love of Robin Williams plenty of times on this site before but….come ooooon! I can’t talk about childhood influences without him. As a kid who had divorced parents for the duration of my life, this movie held a special place in my heart for teaching me that it was ok. It taught kids that having separated parents didn’t mean you didn’t have a family. It showed the hardships of divorce and the nastiness of court hearings and custody battles, while also making audiences laugh away at a father’s determination to go as far as impersonating a British nanny in order to see his children.

To this day, I can’t watch it without crying.

#3: Young Frankenstein (1974)

I’m convinced this movie aged me by forty years after watching it so many times. Gene Wilder captivated me with his descent into madness, but it was Marty Feldman’s performance as Igor that had me acting out scenes to my mother. It gave me a sense of goofiness and a touch of insanity to my joke telling.

This is my favorite Mel Brooks movie and if the world worked my way, everybody would have seen this by the time they turn thirteen. There’s never been a parody movie like it since and in my opinion, none could top it.

#4: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Another movie that aged me by forty years and left the kids in my classroom scratching their heads as I quoted it religiously. This movie is set in stone ridiculous. It’s a movie that can be quoted relentlessly and for good reason. Watching it now, it’s understandable to see a child watching this and laughing uncontrollably.

The gore of the Black Knight, the killer rabbit, Patsy being the pack mule of the group, this movie is always a refreshing and laugh-filled watch. It will never go out of style.

#5: The Mask (1994)

I’m surprised I didn’t ruin this VHS tape with how often I rewatched it. This was the movie that introduced me to the whirlwind that is Jim Carrey, and I remember being enthralled with this man’s physicality on screen. He is a ball of energy for an hour and forty minutes and you better believe I learned from him. Not to mention that great Cuban Pete musical number.

Those were some of my childhood movie influences into the world of comedy, but what about yours? I feel like nostalgia has always been a major component in the way we view media today, so I’d love to hear from you all about what movies influenced you and brought you into the world of comedy.

Gone Too Soon?

Every comic has the fear of growing old, going stale, losing their audience and ruining their reputation. But what happens when a comic doesn’t get the right amount of time to grow old and mature their material? What if some material never needed to be matured? Mature, wise as hell, and only thirty two when he passed away, Bill Hicks to this day remains one of comedies most talented icons.

While Bill Hicks is credited as one of the greatest comedians of all time, he never achieved the level of success that he had wanted. In fact, in the coming months before his untimely death in 1993, Bill had gone on Late Night with David Letterman and performed what Hicks claimed was one of his best performances ever. However, Letterman disagreed and thought that audiences and the network would find it too offensive, which is crazy when you see the show yourself.

Hicks’ comedy could be described as…well, not comedy at all. He talked about his feelings behind politics and the world, while merely stating facts, and you know what? It worked. He spoke against politicians and right wing conservatives. He spoke against those opposed to marijuana, abortion, and all other sensitive topics. His famous phrase,

“It’s just a ride” 

is still one of the greatest pieces of life advice I ever heard.

In 1993, Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Understanding that he didn’t have a lot of time, he still continued to work, doing interviews and performances while undergoing extreme pain and weakness. He passed away on February 26, 1994.

The question that comes to mind for me is, what would have happened had Bill still been alive today? For one, he’d have a HELL of a lot to say about this country. However, I can’t help but wonder if he would have gotten better or worse? I can’t imagine him being funnier. He was and still is one of the funniest people to have ever walked this Earth in my opinion. I don’t know if I’d want to witness him being booed off of stages or having to lower ticket prices at shows. Part of me thinks he left at the right time, leaving behind him a plethora of stand up that always leaves me wanting more.

Now, for the people who weren’t aware of Bill’s existence until now: Hi, where the hell have you been? I don’t want Bill’s name to disappear into thin air. I feel he didn’t get the recognition he deserved as a comedian and I want to make sure as many people can know about him as possible. Here’s the link to his website

Share his videos, share his material, but most importantly, share his voice. His voice is one of truth and promise. The last thing I want is for the world to forget about William Melvin Hicks.

“He Seemed So Happy.”

I was sixteen when Robin Williams killed himself. I had spent the hot summer day in August swimming with my friends, followed by getting food at a friends’ family restaurant. It was there that the waitress, Linda, ran up to our table and asked us,

“Did you guys hear about Robin Williams?? He killed himself!”

I denied it immediately. There was no way that Robin Williams, one of the main faces in comedy for me and so many others, had done this. I looked it up, and low and behold, it was the truth. The time following the news is blurry for me. I fell into a slump, binge watched all of his movies, and bawled my eyes out to them. How could a man that seemed so happy even fathom with having the thought of ending his own life?

This is where many of us learned that happiness can easily be faked.

As his career began to take off, his drug addiction got out of control. In a recent HBO documentary, Come Inside My Mind, he discusses how there are days he would stay up all night, then go to work and he couldn’t remember any of his lines and his anger would increase over time as the bags under his eyes became more prominent.

According to Robin’s widow, he struggled nearly his entire life with drugs, but was clean for at least six years prior to his death. Not only drugs, she says he did struggle with depression for most of his life, but also claimed that depression did not kill him. In her own words, “Depression was one of let’s call it 50 symptoms, and it was a small one.”

Robin was also misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He instead was battling Lewy Body Dementia, which in certain areas can have symptoms more severe than Alzheimer’s. Lewy Body Dementia occurs when protein deposits affect brain chemicals, making things like memory and behavior change over time. He struggled to learn his lines for roles and was extremely paranoid. He felt himself deteriorating before his own eyes.

This was a man that made a gorilla laugh.

The man that sent another man to the ER because he was laughing so hard, he got a hernia.

It wakes you up and forces us to realize that happiness on the outside isn’t happiness on the inside. Robin left behind him a legacy as one of comedy’s brightest and most talented faces. Movie after movie, classic after classic, Robin Williams has had a place in my heart since I would rewatch the VHS tapes of Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Jack as a kid, a place that can never be replaced.

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(Me at sixteen on Halloween night…No one knew who I was.)

Comedy has a way of involving the complicated battles that people can go through every day. Robin was just better at hiding it.

The Hidden Truth

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We all know what comedians do, right? They make us laugh. It’s been a universal gift to be able to get a crowd of people choking on their breath and gasping for air. With a world full of laughter, it brings the question: why are almost all comedians depressed? A path of destruction has awaited numerous comedians, including my favorites. From John Belushi’s fatal speedball to Richard Pryor’s infamous suicide attempt, comedians display a side to them that no one in a comedy club wishes to see.

The answer is plain and simple: comedy stems from tragedy. Why do people want to make others laugh? It gives them a sense of joy and pride. Have you ever had a joke nail at a party around a group of people? Remember the sense of happiness it brought you to see everyone around you laughing at what you said? It’s exactly like that. If you’ve experienced that, you also know that the high doesn’t last forever. That’s the sad truth.

Many comedians come from broken homes and grow up in harsh environments. They’ve experienced extreme measures of sadness, therefore, they want to numb any sadness that audiences are having through their jokes. Take for example, a comedy legend like Richard Pryor. I’m not going to go into the extreme details of his life because that’s for another time, but Pryor’s childhood was filled with events that would traumatize any kid forced to experience them. Therefore, he used jokes to block out the memories of his past. This is a character referred to as, The Sad Clown.

When I was young, I learned very quickly that humor gave me attention and happiness. Growing up with a shy personality, an older brother that got all of the attention in the family, and a later diagnosed case of depression, I knew I had to find something to stand out, and it turned out to be comedy. If I could get everyone at the dinner table to laugh, I knew I’d make a lasting impression. I watched countless hours of SNL and I began staying up late and watching Pryor specials and learning how to talk like a comedian, how to learn the language and onstage presence that mesmerized me. School was my area to test out on not just friends, but teachers as well. I found I was interested more in making the teachers laugh than my friends laugh. Teachers were out of my range, they were older, but I knew the culture that they knew, and I used it to my advantage. It gave me happiness, unlike anything had ever given me. The thing I noticed afterwards was exactly what I described earlier, the high was temporary. So much so that I would spend a day at school making my classmates laugh, then the rest of the night I’d be huddled in my room as soon as I got home.

While I know some readers may not be happy with me sharing my opinion, my say is my say. My opinion will never change, comedy stems from tragedy and you can look at any comic living or dead and find tragedy in their lives. Comedy has a hidden truth to it, and it’s one that I and many others can relate to. Laughter distracts from pain, and as long as we’re making others feel happiness, the truth remains hidden.

 

Picture Credit: http://www.theblackguywhotips.com/2018/01/07/1591-spanking-the-sad-clown/

Article: https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/01/health/sad-clown-standup-comedy-mental-health/index.html