Before Comedy Central's celebrity roasts, before American Idol's Simon Cowell, before Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, one man abused people on TV and in clubs like no other — as one emcee introduced him, "the sultan of insults, the merchant of venom, the pussy cat with claws, Mr. Don Rickles!"
Rickles died of kidney failure Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.
He wouldn't be able to get away with it in quite the same way today, but from the 1950s on, Rickles had a simple, successful recipe. Be merciless and spare no one: "That's all Jews do, sit in their underwear, belch, and watch TV," he told one audience. "The Irish guys are staggering around, the colored guys are going, 'Glory, glory hallelujah,' the Mexicans, 'I'm going to the toilet, I don't care what the colored guys do.' And the queers are going, 'Let's go to the park and have a love-out.'"
"Oh, it's very offensive, but not if you're into comedy," comedian Chris Rock said in the 2007 documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. Rickles didn't use four-letter words — back then that would've been more transgressive than racial and ethnic stereotypes. For personal invective, he called people dummies and hockey pucks.
And when people heckled him in clubs, he shot right back: "Where you from, tiny? Alabama — that's trouble boy, that's trouble. What's your first name? Rufus? Usually from the South they have those flukey names like Booker T. Abraham, Isaac Aloysius Whiteman, Kiss My Sink Alabama Harry."