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Story pick: Funny and true stuff about Don Rickles

Few writing challenges are tougher than being funny on paper. Even more challenging, perhaps, is writing about someone who makes their living being funny.

What's the best recipe for success? Get out of the way. Let the funnyman roll.

An excellent example is Alex Witchel's 1996 profile of Don Rickles in the New York Times. Rickles is the granddaddy of shock comedy who could reduce Johnny Carson to a puddle of teary-eyed laughter during his frequent appearances on the Tonight Show in the 70's and 80's.

Witchel opens her profile by taking readers into a Rickles performance at the Hollywood Theater in Vegas, describing in her first sentence how he "peers into the front row" at an elderly woman and begins a rat-tat-tat rant with, "What are you doing up, Mom? Go lay down." Then he "leans down to kiss" another woman's hand and says, "What'd you have for dinner? Fish?"

But the piece isn't all riff. We learn all about Rickles's upbringing in Queens, his wife, his son, and his mother, whom he continued to live next door to even after he married at the age of 38.

"If we didn't speak for one day, she would slip a note onto the terrace saying, 'Why don't you talk to me anymore?'"

Pretty good line, right? Check out this one he hurled at Sinatra when Frank dropped in on a performance in 1957: "Make yourself at home, Frank -- hit somebody."

Not that there isn't a price to pay for all those great jokes. At one point, he describes the pain of being absent for much of his kids' childhoods because he was so often on the road. "I missed watching my kids grow up," he says. "So now when the phone rings, it's 'Where's Mom?' I'd like them to call and ask, 'Where's Dad?'"


By Paul Schwartzman  | June 28, 2010; 10:21 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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