Highlights from One Night Only: An All-Star Tribute to Don Rickles for his 88th birthday

They came not to bury him, but to praise him by metaphorically burying him.

Which, when you’re a legendary comedian such as Don Rickles who made your bones by busting balls of the famous and infamous for more than six decades, is tribute indeed. Particularly coming on the occasion of his 88th birthday earlier this month. Rickles, much frailer this year, having just survived a health scare — aren’t they all at 88?

Several of the all-star comedians, actors and other entertainers made light of his proximity to death’s door

David Letterman, who headlined the night’s onstage procession of A-listers, said simply in introducing Rickles that he “makes life more fun. It’s been a great pleasure to know him, been a great pleasure to be here.”

Filmed at a completely redecorated Apollo Theater in Harlem — the theater’s seats removed to make way for classic banquettes as if he were in a Vegas cocktail lounge — One Night Only: An All-Star Tribute to Don Rickles premieres tonight on SPIKE TV, and rebroadcasts overnight Sunday on Comedy Central.

Regis Philbin and his wife, Joy, didn’t take the stage but did walk the red carpet beforehand. Regis used to open for Rickles. Philbin told The Comic’s Comic about Rickles’ legacy: “It’s really human nature that takes over Don Rickles. His mind is — you say anything to him, and he’ll fire it back at you! Before you have the chance to even think about it. I don’t know if there’s maybe a kid being born today that can do that. Maybe we’ll meet him before it’s over. But not right now.”

Joy Philbin added: “Also there’s one other thing I want to add. You’ve never heard Don use obscenities in his act. He is so funny, but he has never had to curse.” Regis: “He hasn’t had to use the F-word like most of these young comedians do because he doesn’t need to.”

Nathan Lane, on the red carpet: “He’s an original. Nobody was doing what he was doing. And the kind of high-wire act of improvisation, and literally not writing things. Just creating it out of thin air. Creating, obviously, a persona, a character — but the notion of going out on The Tonight Show and not planning anything, I mean in this day and age, especially, where Carson would say, you know, there was no preparation. He would just show up. And just start talking. That kind of bravery, it’s incredible. That’s why we’re here tonight.”

Robert Smigel, with Triumph the Insult Dog, on the red carpet: “I am such a fan of Rickles, that I am personally offended that I was invited here tonight. I really was. I have no business being here. The only person having less business being here is this guy (pointing down the carpet line, back at Smigel). Really, really creeps me out.”

“There is no successor. No one will take Rickles’ place. Here’s the secret to Rickles. He never let success change him. After all these years, Don never let success change him. For that, he relies on a Jamaican nurse.”

Bob Newhart, Rickles’s longest living best friend forever, sent in a sincere and subtle taped message that focused as much on his poor camerawork as anything he was saying about Rickles and their friendship.

Jimmy Kimmel

In a taped message, Kimmel said Rickles is every talk show host’s dream guest. Rickles makes multiple appearances each year on Jimmy Kimmel Live. “Can you imagine making fun of Frank Sinatra and then living to be 88?” Kimmel asked. “No one was safe from Mr. Warmth. Not Sinatra. Not the president. Not even Johnny Carson. Don poked funny little holes in all of them and he does it to everyone. Not just stars. Everyone is part of the fun. I went out to dinner with Don. As we left, he gave our busboys — who happened to be Latino — $20 each and he said, ‘Here. Send this home. Buy your mothers a house.’ Don Rickles is one of very few people you never to miss. He is not just a living legend; he is a national treasure. There will never be another Don Rickles. He’s a great actor, the greatest comedian and an even better person. Don, I love you, you are the funniest man alive. It is my honor and thrill to know you. Enjoy your special night.” The camera pulls back to reveal Rickles, by Kimmel’s side. “How was that?”

Jerry Seinfeld

“On the Mount Rushmore of stand-up comedy, there are four faces, in my opinion: Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Don Rickles. Don has been my friend for 20 years, and my hero in this business since the first time I ever saw him in the early ’60s. The first time Don and I were ever in the same room together was in a casino in Las Vegas. I went to see his show. I was in the audience, and he had a guy who would find out what celebrities were there. I was just starting in stand-up. He didn’t really know me. The guy asked me what my name was. They took a note up onstage, so Don introduced me to the audience as George Stanbury. I went, ‘Thank you.’ So why are we honoring a man who has spent 55 years insulting all of us? That’s like tracking down the guy who beat you up in fifth grade recess and saying, ‘Hey! That was a great punch.’ We honor Don because it takes a genius to pull off what he does. Pitting himself against his audience, he’s performing an act that on any night, could result in catastrophe. It’s no wonder he chose the Spanish matador theme as his song. Years ago, I was in Mexico, actually, I was at a bullfight, and I heard that music. I thought Don was going to come out and do 20 minutes. He wasn’t. It was a bullfight. Onstage, his is not an act in any traditional sense. There’s no material that remains unchanged, night after night. It’s just him, a mic, and his innate ability to know who he can have fun with in his audience. My favorite thing that Don does is whenever he speaks with somebody that’s ringside. And for some reason, there always seems to be a lot of Mexicans, Hindus, Chinese guys — I don’t know how they get there, I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence that those guys are always seated ringside. But he will always begin with them by saying, ‘What is your heritage, sir?’…

“…He performs in the moment creating unique comedy masterpieces with each new and different crowd. He really has to be funnier than most other comedians because he doesn’t have pre-set lines or sections that he knows are guaranteed to kill. What he does takes the three Ts — talent, timing and testicles. And here’s the thing about testicles: They really are a crucial part of the joke reproductive system. And there are people out there who think because I mention balls, I’m being sexist. But we’re honoring Don Rickles! Tonight! So all that goes out the window! I might even call Tina and Amy broads before the night is over. And I may wait 24-36 hours to apologize. But Don really makes it look easy. And tonight, we’re not just honoring Don for being the best at what he does, but for being the first to do it on such a large and varied scale. He left his mark on TV sitcoms, movies, records, talk shows and the live stage…”

“…For this member of the World War II ‘Greatest Generation,’ I think we can all remember fondly, Don describing his service in the South Pacific when he finds an Asian guy in the audience and says, ‘Three years in the jungle trying to find your uncle.’ He is also one of the few remaining connections to that Greatest Generation of stand-up comics. Guys that started in the Catskills, moved to nightclubs, Vegas, and now works in theaters across the country. Which is the kind of thing you say about a comic who has no credits at all, by the way. ‘Oh, he works in theaters all across the country.’ He headlines in Indian casinos — Indian casinos, because Native Americans were thinking, you know, we really haven’t taken enough shots. To be insulted by Don is a badge of honor. One shared by commonfolk as well as a few very lucky Commanders-in-Chief. Perhaps the most memorable of the many times he performed for a president was when Don took the stage for Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural in January 1985. The White House had asked Frank Sinatra to perform. Frank insisted he would only do it if Don was also booked….Sinatra got his way, and thank God, because we got to witness one of the great moments of Don’s career. Here it is.”

Jon Stewart

Stewart poked fun at the fact that the tribute ripped out all of the Apollo’s history, and replaced the blacks with Jews, gentrifying Harlem. “This theater has such history. It’s such a beautiful theater, and thank God Spike fucked it all up by taking the seats out! That’s always best to honor a place by redesigning it.”

“Here’s the most amazing thing about Don Rickles: His inherent decency. He is such a good and decent man, and comedy — for younger comedians, we admired the way that he battled the audience. He stood up for us. Comedy is gladiatorial and Don was the first guy to get up there and go, ‘No. I’m up here. I’m going to fight you hand-to-hand.’ And he gave us hope. And humor is indelibly within him. It’s all he is. I’m going to tell you a story. This is just Don. Don doesn’t even realize this, he’s so effortless. He was doing my friend Jimmy’s show, Jimmy Kimmel. And after the show he was leaving. And you see Don when he’s walking he’s paying attention to where he’s going, and he’s walking very slowly. And there’s a segment producer on Jimmy’s show, a bearded guy, long beard. And he had to run up to get Don to sign the form, and Don was just walking, and the guy’s rushing up behind him and Don, he never looks up, he’s just got his eyes to the ground, and as the guy passes, without even looking up, Don says, ‘Pleasant evening, Rabbi.’ He is comedy. He is what we all aspire to be. A man who has done what he has loved, for 55 years, and made us love him for doing it, and made us love him even more for knowing who he is as a man. So I’m honored to be here tonight to honor you.”

David Letterman

“I left Indiana in 1975 and I moved to Los Angeles, and I wanted to be in comedy,” Letterman said. “I think a lot of people did this, and when you go out there, you don’t have any money, you don’t have any friends really, that you know. You have no place to go. You have no plan. For three months or so, I lived in one of Jay Leno’s cars. That was good. (audience laughs) And then in 1976, I had the good fortune of meeting Don Rickles. And, oh my God, my life changed. It was at a Scientology mixer (audience laughs), and that’s how the Mitt Romney campaign came apart — there was a waiter Tweeting about Mitt telling stories about the 47 percent. Don and I became good friends. And he’s been on my program, oh geez, 25 times. I want to tell you something, ladies and gentlemen. He’s been on the show 25 times as a guest. That’s the most times a guest has been on our show named Don. He always — Don has a way with words. He coins these phrases, and often they’re meaningless. Not often. Always they’re meaningless. And I’ve borrowed this from Don, and God bless you, thank you very much, is ‘I wouldn’t give your troubles to a monkey on a rock!'”

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler

Poehler joked that she and Tina must count as “one woman” to fill the quota, so it’s not just men toasting Rickles. “Yeah, thanks for sending one car for the both of us,” Fey said.

Poehler: “Don’s work ethic is unparalleled. At 88 years old, he’s still doing stand-up across the country, which begs the question: Why? Are you out of money? Is that why you’re always doing casinos? Is it a gambling problem? Are you in that wheelchair because thugs beat your knees? Blink if you need help.”

Fey: “I remember watching Don as a little kid in the ’70s and thinking, wow, that guy is old!”

Poehler: “Don is the real deal. He had his own variety show and his own sitcom. He called both of them The Don Rickles Show. That’s the kind of creative genius we’re dealing with.”

Fey: “And what an honor — what an honor! — this must be for you to have your birthday celebrated on SPIKE TV. Just knowing that this will air between Tattoo Nightmares and The Hunt for Bigfoot. It’s what your mother dreamed of in the shtetl.”

And later, Fey added: “But the great thing about Don is that his jokes appeal to everyone — Polacks, Chinamen, the coloreds, broads…” She and Poehler exchange glances and shake their heads. Fey continues: “No? We’re not allowed to say that anymore? Why is he still saying that?” Poehler: “He should probably stop saying that.”

Poehler joked that every time Rickles sees her, he asks her if her divorce is final yet. Fey added that her cousin at 19 received her first break opening for Rickles at Foxwoods as a singer.

Tracy Morgan

Morgan took the stage with a bouquet of flowers for Rickles, paying him back for when Rickles sent flowers to Morgan’s hospital bed when he had a kidney ailment.

Johnny Depp

Not sure why Depp was there, exactly, but completely sure that Depp was the only one to pay exactly zero attention to whatever was in the TelePrompter. “I don’t know why I deserve to be here,” Depp said. This is a highly edited and shortened clip!

Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro

Scorsese and DeNiro, on the other hand, kept to the script! Which included the fun fact that the last time the pair worked on a movie together was Casino, the movie that also featured Rickles. “Yeah, Don, on behalf of Leo DiCaprio, thanks a lot!”

Here’s Rickles getting back at the old boys. Let’s let Rickles have the last word. Roll it!

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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10 thoughts on “Highlights from One Night Only: An All-Star Tribute to Don Rickles for his 88th birthday

  1. what was the name of the song that played during the end of the show when the credits were running?


  2. Does anyone know why Jay Leno wasn’t on this tribute show – Rickles was on his show many times over the years – just like Lettermans and Kimmels?????

  3. I am trying to find out what the name of the song on the credits was as well. Great song …..help me find it.
    Thanks, CGH

  4. The song was “La Virgen de la Macarena.” Don Rickles said he chose it because he felt like a matador when he faced his audience.

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