Don Rickles and the Gasp of Political Correctness (UPDATED)
The instinct to be politically correct was on display again. This time a comedian’s insulting joke led to audible gasps in a Hollywood elite audience and then, finally, to laughs.
What was this shocking incident about? It was — if you have a pacemaker make sure this won’t short circuit it— about Don Rickles making an insult joke about President Barack Obama that wasn’t PC.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the black-tie elite at the American Film Institute’s tribute to Shirley MacLaine audibly gasp when Rickles delivered this line: “I shouldn’t make fun of the blacks…President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.”
Yes, some of the show biz elite actually seemed momentarily shocked by that line delivered by Rickles, the comedian famous for lines such as: “Who picks your clothes – Stevie Wonder?” The same Rickles who Frank Sinatra helped into the big-time after Rickles shouted out to him while doing a club gig: “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody!”
The same comedian who has worked steadily for more than 60 years — long admired by top comics and top entertainers of several generations. The same Rickles who has been a comedy headliner, richly rewarded by Vegas and other famous venues for many years.
The same Rickles who when interviewed by then-Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz in 2007 said this to Kurtz after the reporter told the comedian about his Mexican fiance: “On Yom Kippur, we’ll give her a taco and send her home early.” He later explained to Kurtz: “It’s not really an insult. It’s just an exaggeration. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been headlining for 50-odd years.”
The same Rickles who’d a send longtime late night king Johnny Carson into fits of laughter when he’d have him on his show. The same Rickles so famous for his brand of comedy that he was the subject of John Landis’ critically acclaimed 2007 HBO documentary: “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.”
What’s going on here?
You mean a room packed with show business powerhouses somehow genuinely didn’t know that Don Rickles did jokes with punch lines that were often not P.C.? His joke was so shocking that it merited a gasp? Puh-leaze!
Political correctness has been around for a while. Wikipedia defines it as “a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and, as purported by the term, doing so to an excessive extent.” But like everything else in America it has become a highly polarizing concept.
One conservative critic calls it “political Marxism.” There are times when political correctness is definitely valid — and times when excessive pro or con reactions to it seems like tiresome personal or political posturing.
In comedy, a member of an ethnic group can generally joke about his or her own group without being accused of being outdated in perceptions, a racist or being biased. It’s when the joke is made about another group that the P.C. police gasp or go into attack mode.
For instance, I’m Jewish, so I could use this old joke: “I tried to sell a Jewish game show to NBC. It was called The Price is Too Much.” But moldy jokes that go beyond my group could be risky: “I have a cousin who’s a Japanese Jew. Every December 7th he attacks Pearl Schwartz.”
Reaction to Rickles’ joke became a news story, sparking this response from Rickles’ camp to The Politico: “It was a joke as were the other comments Don made that night. Anyone who knows him knows he’s not a racist.”
For those who seemed shocked that comedy institution Rickles could deliver an insult joke that isn’t (GASP!) politically correct, here are three more shocking statements.
(1) Swiss cheese has holes in it, (2) Hot dogs don’t contain dog, and, (3) Verbal and written P.C. reaction sometimes says more about the person raising his or her eyebrow than what the supposedly offending person actually said.
Copyright 2012 Joe Gandelman. This weekly column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate
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Viewers of TV Land will not be able to watch insult comic Don Rickles compare President Barack Obama to a janitor at the recent American Film Institute tribute to Shirley MacLaine when the network broadcasts its shortened version of the evening’s festivities at 9 p.m. ET/PT on June 24. “It’s not going to make it on the air — that’s all I’ll say about it,” says a spokesperson for the cable channel, which presented Rickles with its Legend Award in 2009.
TV Land’s edited AFI program will run 90 minutes. The black-tie evening, which lasted four hours, took place June 7 at Sony Pictures Studios. Rickles’ material also included jabs at Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and MacLaine, though none went viral like the 86-year-old’s comment about the current commander-in-chief. “President Obama is a personal friend of mine,” said Rickles. “He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.”
Was it racist … or just Rickles? Dennis Haysbert, himself skewered by the comic for appearing in Allstate Insurance ads, carefully tells THR, “I thought what Don said about me was very funny.” (Rickles has appeared with him on The Unit.)
But, observes Tamara Rawitt, who attended the AFI event and co-created and produced In Living Color, of the POTUS slam: “What was kind of magical was watching a room of deeply discreet A-listers secretly get off on watching someone getting a day pass to rant and rave. You need two AARP cards to get away with stuff like that.”