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Remembering the insult comedian

In these desperate times, when the news each day serves up yet another large load of outrages, I look for refuge. YouTube offers one.

It’s a great time-waster. You stumble over the most interesting things. Most of us are well past its cat videos, but it’s easy to be drawn to its instant nostalgia and offbeat takes. That’s how I came across “Dinner with Don.”

Don Rickles, that is. In the last months of his life, he shared the table at various restaurants in and around Hollywood with entertainers and comedians, among them Jimmy Kimmel and Amy Poehler and Zach Galifianakis and Snoop Dogg. The 13 episodes, produced, appropriately, by AARP Studios, each last less than 10 minutes and consist of reminiscences and reflections mostly conducted by Rickles’ guests. They are paying homage to a man who honed a unique kind of comedy over more than 50 years. Sarah Silverman says at the end of her restaurant turn that it was “totally worth the overpriced spaghetti.” It’s as if Rickles is present at his own memorial service. It’s better than that — he gets to add to and correct the stories and tributes. Amy Poehler asks him when he met Robert DeNiro (a guest on another episode) and he answers, “At a whispering contest.”

In the videos Rickles is as fragile as tissue paper. He leans forward at the table as if his head is too heavy and he speaks mostly as if he were the winner at that whispering contest. But he hasn’t lost any of his mental agility, trading wise cracks and witticisms with his guest. He’s still the insult comic.

As I watched each episode I reflected on all the insults that are flung about now in tweets and the daily news media. We live at a time when people are separated by venomous hostility. Back when he was working Las Vegas and nightclubs, people paid money to hear Don Rickles say rude, sometimes outrageous, things to them — the kinds of nasty remarks you might have wanted to say but were too polite or timid to utter. It was an honor to be the target of a Rickles insult.

His insults weren’t hurtful. Martin Scorsese, another guest, put it well. A Rickles insult has “the ring of truth but a lot of affection to it.”

That’s what we need right now — a way to express our visceral reaction that has a redeeming humility. Don Rickles did insult comedy. What we have now is just insult and no comedy. It’s a lashing out in an attempt to inflict harm.

When someone is the recipient of that lashing out, how she or he responds is a measure of that person’s strength of character and sense of humor. General Jim Mattis, the recent victim of a Trump insult, handled it well. “I’m not just an overrated general,” he said. “I’m the most overrated general. I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals.” Not too long ago, Trump had called Streep “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood.”

All of Don Rickles’ table partners know him for the person he really was — a kind, thoughtful and generous person who, in various ways, helped them in their professional and private lives. His acerbic brand of humor constantly reminded them not to take themselves too seriously.

It’s ironic that I find refuge from the daily barrage of insults in the insults launched by Mr. Warmth, as Johnny Carson called him. But it was always clear that the joke was as much on him as it was on anyone he singled out.

Don Rickles died in April 2017, one month shy of his 91st birthday. We need a Don Rickles now. And I know a certain occupant in the White House whom that latter-day Don Rickles could start with.

Dennis Read lives in Ashland.

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