August 25, 1986 12:00 PM

Showtime (Sat., Aug. 23, 10 p.m. ET)


It’s kind of sad, really. He was a pioneer of the quick, crass insult: racist, sexist, ageist, weightist, any-ist was grist for his maul. Yet because he held everyone, including himself, in equal-opportunity scorn, Don Rickles was okay. I never wanted to like him, but he almost always made me laugh. Now something’s changed. Rickles no longer holds a monopoly on malice. Other, younger comics have advanced the art of effrontery. David Letter-man, of course, is the reigning master—except that he doesn’t insult; he only casts a jaundiced eye and a few aspersions. Letter-man, Max Headroom and half the comedians onstage today are making their careers making fun. Making fun is the comedy of the ’80s. So Rickles, their acidic ancestor, is left behind. He’s using the same big knife he’s always used, but it’s gotten blunter and duller with age. He looks down at his Vegas audience in this special and says: “It’s nice to see a black lady in front…. How?” And: “I shouldn’t make fun of the Chinese ’cause the Jews need ’em on Sunday so we have a place to eat.” We’ve heard it before. He has friends visit him onstage: Jerry Lewis, Ann Jillian, Frank Sinatra Jr.—but they don’t have anything funny to say. He travels around with a film crew visiting Merv Griffin, Dick Martin, the Dodgers, a motorcycle gang and the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV should have provided a ripe opportunity for Rickles to do what we all want to do: berate bureaucrats. But he wimps out; he doesn’t so much as bruise them. You wait for him to be outrageous, to shock you into involuntary laughter. And you keep waiting. At the end, as he sits alone in a steam room, Rickles says it himself: “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’ve run out of material.”

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