by BEN KROMER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & was nervous verging on frightened when I called Don Rickles. I'd never done an interview before, and I was about to start with the Merchant of Venom. He's the guy who introduced himself to Frank Sinatra by saying, "Make yourself comfortable Frank, hit someone." He's the guy who told Ronald Reagan to stop napping through his routine. He's been in show business twice as long as I've been alive and he knows everybody. I'd prepared by watching past interviews, reading his book and watching Casino again. I had a paltry list of questions. At the pre-arranged time I dialed the phone and put my borrowed recording device up to the earpiece.
"Hi, Mr. Rickles, this is Ben Kromer from The Inlander."
"Hi, Ben. Cheer up, Ben. You sound like your wife punched you in the mouth or something."
I hate phones because they make my already deep voice even lower, and I talk slowly, resulting in me sounding like a completely bored Darth Vader, or a verbose tuba. Rickles picked up on that pretty fast. He wanted to know about the person he was talking to, and I told him I'd lived all 26 years of my life in Spokane.
"Hey, you could be one of my kids, or grandchildren. You know it's funny, Ben, I've traveled all over the world, well, practically, and I've never been to Spokane. I'm looking forward to it."
That would have been a good time for me to tell him something hilarious about Spokane. But instead I choked and went for my list of questions.
FAMOUS FRIENDS OF DON
Don Rickles tells great stories about the people he's worked with, like when he describes Robert DeNiro as impossible to work with because of his incessant mumbling. I asked him to tell me something about Casino director Martin Scorsese.
"Marty is a great guy -- when I did Casino, my big joke with him was we were doing a scene one day, and I kid around as I always do, and the cameras are following me and DeNiro around, and I said, 'Hold it, hold it, I can't work with this situation. I can't work with Scorsese. Put some telephone books down so I can see the guy for cryin' out loud. The man's head's behind the camera. I hate to work with a dwarf.' He was great though, fun guy and a terrific director as you can imagine."
Next I asked Rickles about one of his more memorable appearances on Conan O'Brien.
"I met who?" Rickles asked me.
"Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, that puppet."
"Oh, God. I think I remember that." Triumph, it turned out, worships Don Rickles, going so far as to ask the man to poop on him. I asked Don how he felt about it.
"Well, they say he's similar to me, but I never thought about it, I've never known anyone who really got the recognition I've attained ... doing what I do, and I like to think of myself as one of a kind, which I know I am."
Rickles has been through about a million interviews in his long career, and he knows exactly what he's doing. He beat me to asking about his book.
"By the way, did you read my book, Rickles' Book?"
"I did and--"
"You enjoyed it."
"I did. Anyone who reads a book called Rickles' Book is probably hoping for a bunch of stories about you and your famous friends, and that's exactly what it is, so--"
"Well, I tried to write memoirs ... [what I think are] outstanding stories about my life. I know it turned out good; it was on the bestseller list in the Times for five weeks, which I think is quite an accomplishment -- I call myself the Jewish Mark Twain."
"Reading [the book] sounds like you talking to a guy."
"That's great, Ben, that you get that that's the whole idea, and I was delighted to know that my voice got through in the book, and I owe that to David Ritz and myself. The way we did it -- it took us almost a year -- I would sit in a room and he'd put a microphone on me and we'd just talk away and then he would write on the computer what I said. But sometimes he would embellish on it to make it more like a fancy book, and I'd say 'David, this is the way I'd really say it,' and we'd do it over in my voice and that's the way it came out."
That is the way it came out, and it also comes out that Don Rickles is a happy, content, gracious family man. People -- including me -- think of comics as depressed and tragic on the inside. I asked Don what his problem is.
"Well, my father wasn't a drunk," he explained, and went on to describe his mother as a Jewish General Patton and a constant source of strength. "I don't think people are interested in that kinda stuff, scandal stuff. I just wrote things -- nothing mean-spirited, positive things that have happened to me. And I thought it came off pretty damn good."
"I hear that you pretty much go onstage and you just start riffing -- is that still the case?"
"No, it's nothing like that. I don't rip at people -- I'm not particularly fond of that word -- I exaggerate. I make fun of life and people around me and I exaggerate everything and it's never mean-spirited. And I wouldn't be headlining for 55 years if it was otherwise. So as you can well imagine it's pretty much like my book; I make fun of people and myself. That's not the whole show -- I talk about other things. It changes. My show has a beginning, middle and an ending, but every night it changes according to where I am, the audience around me and the people."
"You work the audience into the routine?"
"Oh, sure. Not the whole complete show but I do a great deal of that, sure."
"OK, because I think a lot of people are looking forward to that."
RUNNING OUT OF TIME
At this point I realized my list of questions was completely insufficient, so I guess I pretended we were on a date.
"I know you don't really do political stuff but--"
"I never get involved in political stuff. Don't ask me why, I just never got into it. My lifestyle is about me, so I..."
"That might have helped your longetivity, too."
"Well," said Rickles, "that's interesting, maybe so."
According to the recording, I actually said "longetivity." Not a real word, but interesting, as Rickles pointed out. It was the last observation I attempted. "Since you're pretty much a comedic legend, I was hoping to find out what TV shows you watch, if any, or what movies you like, comedy-wise."
"Well I'm an action-picture guy. I like shoot-'em-up stuff ... Live Free or Die Hard is good," Rickles declared.
"Yeah. I just saw that. I liked it very much."
It felt good knowing that Don Rickles and I were of one mind regarding the new Bruce Willis movie. It was also nice that he didn't make me start crying over the phone by making fun of my giggling. Rickles is an absolute master of delivering insults indiscriminately, but his victims don't hold it against him. His jibes have bite but no venom, despite his nickname. I thanked him sincerely for the interview and he thanked me back and said 'bye, and that was that.
I'd bailed after 10 minutes. Whew.
A few tickets remain for comedy legend Don Rickles' show at Northern Quest Casino, 100 N. Hayford, Road, Airway Heights, on Saturday, Aug. 4, at 8:30 pm. Tickets: $45-$55. Call 340-6700.