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Josh Reviews Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project

Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project is a 2007 documentary film, focusing on comedian Don Rickles.  I’d wanted to see this film ever since it came out, but for one reason or another I’d never gotten around to it.  It’s a great irony to me that I finally watched this film last month, less than a week before Mr. Rickles passed away.

The film, directed by the great John Landis, is a wonderful portrait of an incredible comedian and artist.  Mr. Rickles is, of course, known as perhaps the greatest “insult” comic of all time, a comedian whose act is largely reliant on poking fun, mercilessly, at his audience.  Mr. Rickles’ material could easily be considered offensive or politically incorrect, but the enigma of Mr. Rickles was how people were not generally offended — how, in fact, people seemed to love being cut down by him!  Mr. Landis’ film looks back at Mr. Rickles’ life and work, giving us generous footage of the talented Mr. Rickles in action as well as a wealth of stories from those who knew him (and/or were made fun of by him at one point or another).

Mr. Landis himself pops up at the very beginning of the film, but then he steps back and allows his footage to do the talking.  As the film reconstructs the story of Don Rickles’ career in film, TV, and on stage, we see a wonderful array of archival material showing us Mr. Rickles’ work from across the decades.  These clips are often accompanied by fascinating commentary by Mr. Rickles’ co-workers.  (How great is the footage of Clint Eastwood talking about Mr. Rickles’ film work??)  In particular, I truly enjoyed the clips of Mr. Rickles on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.  It’s very endearing to see the playful bond the two men shared on-camera.

We also get to see significant footage from Mr. Rickles’ Las Vegas act from the mid-aughts when the film was being put together.  (I don’t believe Mr. Rickles had ever before allowed his stage show to be recorded.)  It’s incredible to see the way the elderly Mr. Rickles would burst into life the moment he stepped on stage.

The film is packed with famous faces, and it’s a lot of fun hearing from the likes of Bob Newhart, Sidney Poitier, Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Penn Jillette, Roger Corman, Richard Lewis, Larry King, Chris Rock, the Smothers Brothers, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and many, many more.  I also love that the film also cuts back to Mr. Rickles himself to give his (usually dismissive) response to their commentary.  It’s good for a film about a very funny man to be put together with its own sense of humor and style, and Mr. Landis succeeds at this admirably.

If there’s a critique I have of the film, it’s that it doesn’t probe too deeply into the potentially problematic nature of Mr. Rickles’ insult and stereotype-driven act, nor does it explore just how it is that Mr. Rickles could possibly get away with such an act in the modern era.  Several famous people tell us it’s OK and they didn’t mind, but the film doesn’t really explore why that is.  Now, I understand that nothing is less funny than attempting to analyze why something is funny.  But still, this seems like a central aspect of Mr. Rickles’ act and persona that the film doesn’t explore on anything more than a superficial level.  It feels like something of a missed opportunity.

Personally, I have conflicting views about Mr. Rickles’ comedy.  Watching those Tonight Show clips, I can do little but bow my head in the presence of a comedy genius.  On the other hand, the lazy stereotypes that made up much of the clips we saw of his Vegas act didn’t much interest me.

But whatever you think of Don Rickles’ style of humor, this film is a fascinating glimpse at the life and work of one of our comedy giants.  If you’re a fan of comedy, then Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project is definitely worth your time.  I’m sad that I finally saw it so soon before Mr. Rickles’ passing.  The comedy universe is smaller today than it was last month when he was still alive.

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