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 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.

Foreign Demons

Addiction is something that comedians aren’t strangers to. We all can think of one, two, fifty comedians that have struggled with addiction through out their lives. With those who fought and defeated their demons, others lost. John Belushi, Chris Farley, Mitch Hedberg, the list is nearly endless. While we see many comedians that lose their lives to personal vices, what about the ones that die not because of their vices, but because of someone else’s?

When I think about this topic, the two names that come to mind are Phil Hartman and Sam Kinison, two very notable names in the world of comedy.

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Phil Hartman, well known for his days on Saturday Night LivePee Wee’s Playhouse, News Radio, and The Simpsons, was no stranger to vices.

He himself struggled with drug addiction for some time, but he got clean with the support of his wife, Brynn. Brynn was also an addict and thought that the two of them could work together to get sober for their two children. While Phil followed the clean path, Brynn continued to use and her mental state only got worse. On the night of May 28, 1998, Brynn shot Phil in the head as he slept. After calling a friend and confessing what she had done, the same friend drove over and saw the body himself. As the police were notified, Brynn laid down next to her husband and turned the gun on herself. The police escorted the couple’s two children from the home and the couple were pronounced dead on arrival.

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Being that I was exactly four months old at the time of his murder, I went to a source that I know was affected greatly by his loss, my mother.

“I remember that I was absolutely devastated… I couldn’t move away from the tv and I was horrified that his wife would have killed him while the kids were in the house.. the emotional impact was great because I think you were just a baby and I was really upset for his kids… I loved Phil from News Radio… I think when comedians die, it’s always sad but for him to have been killed in that way it was even worse..”

My mother is the reason I grew up loving Phil Hartman and his encyclopedia of impressions. It’s a shame for him and it’s a shame for his children that had to grow up in the press because of a horrific event that should have never taken place.

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Sam Kinison was recognized for his screaming outbursts on stage and his outrageous material, including wishing his ex wife would die.

Sam was also known to merge the world of comedy with rock and roll, having reckless shows filled with loud bikers and blaring music. With this title came a surplus of drugs and alcohol. Though many predicted Sam’s early demise, they never expected it to happen the way it did. In fact, Sam was beginning to clean up his act and was sober at the time of his death. On April 10, 1992, Sam was driving to a show with his wife of just six days when a truck with two drunk teenagers, the driver being 17 year-old Troy Pierson, slammed head on into Sam’s car. His wife survived, but Sam stumbled out of the car and collapsed on the road. His brother who was driving behind him, ran out to tend to Sam. When he got to Sam’s body, Sam was speaking to someone that wasn’t there. His brother recalls, “…he suddenly said to no one in particular, ‘I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.’ LaBove later said, ‘it was as if he was having a conversation, talking to someone else, some unseen person.’ Then there was a pause as if Kinison was listening to the other person speak. Then he asked ‘But why?’ and after another pause LaBove heard him clearly say: ‘Okay, okay, okay.’ LaBove said, ‘The last ‘okay’ was so soft and at peace … Whatever voice was talking to him gave him the right answer and he just relaxed with it.'”

When such talent is taken away for no reason, it’s a disaster. The world is deprived of laughter because of another’s vices. Had it not been for Brynn Hartman and Troy Pierson, Phil Hartman and Sam Kinison could still be here making us laugh today. Robbed of their lives, it’s important to remember to cherish life. It’s one of the most cliche phrases in the book, but in reality, it’s a vital lesson. These men were taken far too quickly from their lives. Yes, life can bear a lot of demons, be it yours or someone else’s, but before you know it, the world can go black. In the end, life can be taken away with one pull of the trigger or one wrong turn on the road.

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.