My Talk Show Life: Living forever in Late Night

Columns, Television, Top story

April has been a hard month for talk show fans.

Hot on the heels of my last post about consistently entertaining talk show guests, Don Rickles passed away. The quickest of YouTube clip searches reveals that Rickles was a guest on every talk show of my generation, firstly and famously on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, followed by notable interviews with hosts Dick Cavett, Larry King, Joan Rivers, Tom Snyder, Charlie Rose, Regis & Kelly, and the ladies of The View, just to list the less obvious examples. Leno, Letterman, Conan, and Kimmel practically sainted Rickles as talk show guest royalty, and the honor was definitely deserved. Thanks to YouTube, you can spend days watching Rickles’ appearances on talk shows over the past six decades. I know, because I have.

Articles remembering Rickles and his career will recount his past, so I needn’t spend too much time on that here. Basically, Don was a World War II Navy runt turned audience-bashing nightclub comedian whose career sky-rocketed when his mother guided Frank Sinatra across his path. From there, appearances on The Tonight Show made Rickles a household name, and though he struggled to find success with a television show of his own, he became one of the most beloved casino acts in American history.

Rickles’ sardonic quick-wittedness earned him the moniker Mr. Warmth, and he became the first true “insult comedian.” He’d be the first to denounce that title, claiming his quips were mere exaggerations — as if he were ironically insulted by the categorization. Nevertheless, Rickles knew who he was and embraced his role, to the delight of accolades like Letterman and Kimmel — hence, his frequent appearances on their shows.

What does a week’s worth of consuming these interviews reveal? Honestly? Rickles traded in the ridiculous. His go-to insults included, “Then I gave so-and-so a cookie and he went away,” and, “What, you want me to drop my pants and fire a rocket?” These statements are truly absurd, proving Rickles was less about the words and more about the delivery. He said so in more serious interviews with Larry King and Charlie Rose — he was selling an attitude. Arguably, that same nothing-is-sacred mantra is what fuels social media trolling today.

Don Rickles
Don Rickles

Yes, Don Rickles may have been the first troll. If that’s true, he not only pioneered the attitude, but also the etiquette. His generation was frank, but classy. Rickles would administer the wound, but immediately treat it so you’d emerge in better health than before. Laughter is the best medicine, especially when the attacker is your pharmacist. Perhaps this is why Rickles denounced the “insult comic” distinction. He knew his job really wasn’t to insult his audience. It was to entertain them.

That’s the lesson I’ve gleaned from a week’s worth of Rickles binging. By making everyone, including and often especially himself, fair game, he taught us what equality really is. If we all deserve respect, we must understand that the inverse is also true: no one is above life’s absurdities, either. Tracy Morgan once put it best. Despite Rickles’ reputation for making fun of gender, race, and religion, he never discriminated. So, when late night talk shows were America’s proverbial fire to gather ’round, it makes sense that he was often there. He told the tales that brought tribes together.

Dorothy Mengering
Dorothy Mengering

Unfortunately, in the world of late night, Rickles wasn’t this month’s only casualty. Dave Letterman’s mother passed away, as well. Dorothy Mengering often appeared on Dave’s The Late Show around the holidays, and Dave would often try to “guess the pie.” She was sometimes the foil of Letterman’s sarcasm, but by including her on the show Dave championed his mother as the ultimate source for his wit and charm. She may have seemed dim-witted by smiling through all that irreverence, but what stood the test of time was her support for her son. Like Rickles, she knew the words were harmless if the intent was pure, and by boasting that attitude, Dorothy was as much the entertainer as her son. She will be missed.

And, if some fluke of SEO brings David Letterman himself or his people to this article, please know that your fans sympathize and send their condolences for these two huge losses. Know that your sharing their talents on your show has guaranteed their positive impact on generations to come. I hope there’s consolation in knowing that the sides of themselves Don and Dorothy shared on television will live forever.

Of course, Rickles would probably say, “So, what, I should get a cookie?” Then, yes, Dave’s mom would bake it.

Episodes of Phoenix Tonight are now available on YouTube.

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