OPINION: Don Rickles and the gasp of political correctness

July 1, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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"I shouldn't make fun of the blacks … President Obama is a friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke." Don Rickles

By Joe Gandelman

The black-tie elite at the American Film Institute's tribute to Shirley MacLaine audibly gasped when Don 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."

Some of the show biz elite actually seemed momentarily shocked by that line, delivered by a 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 fiancee "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 7 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.

  • Swiss cheese has holes in it
  • Hot dogs don't contain dog
  • 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.

Joe Gandelman is a columnist syndicated by Cagle cartoons.

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