On April 6, the iconic comedian Don Rickels died from kidney failure at age 90 in his Los Angeles home. Rickles’ longtime friend John Stamos remembers the stand-up legend and his acid wit:
Don was an insult comic, but he really didn’t like seeing people doing his thing. He kind of hated how everything nowadays turned into a roast. He didn’t like a lot of comedians. I adored him more as a man than a comic, and I think that’s how we became dear friends. He knew me because his daughter watched General Hospital. He called me out at one of his concerts in Vegas. I went backstage with my mom — I was dating Paula Abdul at the time — and I said hi to him and Sinatra.
We connected again one night in a Greek restaurant and became friends. I could always call him, and just his voice could make me happy. Of course, it was the duality of his voice saying, “What do you want, Stamos?!” He also could never get the concept of me not sitting by the phone waiting for his call. If I didn’t answer, he’d leave a message: “Where are you? You in Istanbul with all the beachcombers?” When we’d talk, he’d start out by saying, “What are you doing today, Stamos? You’re going nowhere!”
It was our private conversations when he was relieved not to be “Don Rickles,” that really accelerated our friendship. When I went through a divorce, he helped me get through it. Don knew my mother and when my mother passed away, he helped me through that. His son died, and we talked a lot about it.
He had a Rolodex in his head and very easy access to it. He’d watch all the awards shows and read People magazine. So if Tom Selleck walked into a restaurant, Don would do 15 minutes on Tom Selleck. And he loved the younger stars. He was just as enamored by somebody like Ryan Gosling as we all are. And I’d get jealous. I mean, I’ve been around for 20 years and then Ryan Gosling comes along and Don stops in his tracks?
Near the end, it was hard for him to be Don. During the last three of four times I was with him, the moments that he turned into “Don Rickles” were getting less and less. I remember last Thanksgiving, he was in a wheelchair and you’d think he was asleep. And then someone said something. Something would switch his switch and he’d go for 15 minutes, like he was 50-years-old again. We were all dying from laughter. And then he’d turn it off. His mind was just as sharp but his body was gone. It was really frustrating for him.
With his type of comedy, it was much more common to sling that stuff which is kind of on the edge. We’d sometimes talk after a show and his wife Barbara would say, “You know, Don, I don’t think you should say that word onstage,” whatever offensive word it might be. And he’d go, “I didn’t say it, did I, John?” I’d tell him, “You said it about five times Don.” He’d say, “Well, it’s a funny word.” He was an incredible, smart man, one of the smartest men I’ve ever met, but he couldn’t get that deep in this one area. Whether he didn’t want to or he didn’t find it as controversial, he just didn’t really intellectualize about this.
He wasn’t PC. And there were times, with the climate these days, where he’d say something to a waiter and I’d have to go apologize. But if anyone had a pass, it was Don. Comics will die if they’re not funny. But he wasn’t going to change himself — and he wasn’t going to die. The world already feels a lot less funny without him.