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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Don Rickles, Comedian

"I used to make fun of the audience, and little by little, it became more and more a part of my performance."

Don Rickles as a child.  

In high school, I knew I was a funny guy. For example, I was doing an important test and the teacher was watching everybody, and this young lady was sitting next to me. I looked over and looked at her paper to see what the answer was, and the teacher walked down and caught me and said, “Mr. Rickles, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m cheating!” And the whole class, as you did, laughed, and that was a typical example of how my humor started. Not jokes so much, but an attitude, and I always say even today when I perform, it’s an attitude.

I worked in all kinds of joints and I used to do impressions and tell jokes badly, and nothing was happening too much with the impressions and telling jokes, which I did lousy. And then I had what they call hecklers and people that try to shake me up. I was always talking to the audience. And I would just take life and make fun of everything and exaggerate it, never being hurtful. They used to call it intel, but it really isn’t. It’s an exaggeration about each person. I used to make fun of the audience, and little by little, it became more and more a part of my performance. I’m just a guy who stood up there and said what I thought was funny, and they responded to it. I did lousy jokes that went nowhere until I did that. I go by where the audience is ready to take me. In other words, by their response. That’s the best way I can tell it to you, dear. Every night I have a beginning, middle, and an ending, and every night it changes according to what’s in the audience for me, and that’s how it goes. I never figured out a “process.” I’m not that kind of guy. I always figured it out when people showed up and I got more money. Then I figured it out.

When I went to these tough clubs and people showed up, I knew I had something going. And so, each night when I worked, more and more people caught on to me, but it took a lot — a lot of years and a lot of rejection. But it was always off the cuff. There was no thought process. Every night, I’d see what’s in the audience, and my motivation, my inspiration is what I see in front of me. Men, women, child, a dog, a monkey, whatever. Well, no monkey. I had a kangaroo once. Whatever’s in the audience inspires me to get on a track, and I make it funny. I would just go out at the beginning by the seat of my pants, I think the expression goes, and whatever came to me on the stage, I did. But there was no planning. Now, of course, as the years went on, I planned a little bit of an opening, and a little bit of a middle with a little story, and the end a big closing, and that’s it. I have a show coming up, and I have no idea how it will go. I know certain things I will say, but the others will come off the top of my head, you know what I’m saying? I hope you do, because I don’t.