An American Prayer: On the Performance of Race & Class in a Don Rickles Comedy Routine

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After learning that Don Rickles had passed away, I spent a few hours watching videos of his comedic routines.  One of the most striking acts I found was a clip from his “Las Vegas Special” in 1975.   During this act, he does something unexpected: he brings three movie stars and an African American from the audience together on stage to perform a public prayer that, because it plays on Native American stereotypes that manages to bring a diverse group of Americans together, comes across as an American prayer.   It may be comedic and offensive, but it is, nonetheless, an attempt to create unity out of a disunity – in terms of class, race, and religion – that Rickles, through his insulting humor, brings to the surface.

Rickles begins his routine by calling up three Oscar nominated actors: Elliot Gould, James Caan, and Michael Caine.  (Only Caine, a non-American actor, received Oscars; six in fact.)  As one can expect, Rickles insults each one of them.  In doing so, he brings them down a notch.  He reduces their status as a class above the rest of Americans by way of his humor.  Caan’s clothes are cheap, Caine is English, Gould is a little slow.   But what makes this act so fascinating the inclusion of an African American audience member named Mitch Mitchells who Rickles calls up after making a joke about blacks.

What is so fascinating about including him in the act is that it shows us that Rickles, an American Jew, has some tension with African Americans.  (In the early 70s, relations between Jewish Americans and the African American community was much more strained than today.)  But he is not alone.  Most of the audience also laughs nervously when Rickles makes jokes about how big and powerful he is.  (When he tells In comparison to him, Rickles’s comes across as a schlemiel.  In the spirit of the schlemiel, he switches – on two occasions – to the mode of self-deprecation.  But he then uses this to his benefit when he drops the note that he, as a Jew, and the African-American audience member, Mitch Mitchells, have a lot in common in the sense that they are different from Gould, Caan, and Caine.  They aren’t “white.”  They are the underdogs in a WASP culture.  This sets up a tension of sorts between race and class.

But Rickels manages to suture all of the gaps between them through asking Gould, Caan, Caine, and Mitchells to perform a prayer, which is, more or less, a stereotypical improvisation of a Native American prayer.   Rickles adds a simulated “peace pipe” to the routine and makes sounds and gestures that are supposed to be signs of smoke coming from the pipe (there is an overlapping with taking a drag from it, however, which set up a ridiculous kind of sinage).   Rickles initiates the prayer and has each of the actor follow his lead. After they make their prayer, they all bow down, in unison to the ground (it comes across more as an Islamic form of prayer than a Native American form).  And this creates a kind of collective sense of submission to something higher.    But since it is all done in jest, it comes across in a way that is nuanced.

The last person to pray is Mitch Mitchells. Before he prays, Rickels gives him a few comical quips. He takes the mike away from him and gives it back. And when Mitch Mitchells imitates the smoking pipe – in a very creative manner, even more so that any of the famous actors – Rickles gives him one of his looks and makes an offhand comment.  Nonetheless, when he performs, Rickles shows the audience, in response to Mitchell’s improvised prayer, that it is the most pleasing one.  He does this before they all bow down and perform prayer.    In this moment, not only the tension between Jewish Americans and African Americans is temporarily suspended, but also the tension between the Hollywood elite and the everyman.

What is most amazing about this act is not that they are brought together through prayer, but that they are brought together through the comical performance of a prayer.  Rickles acts as the Rabbi, so to speak, and brings everyone together. But he does this through an American medium and through American stereotypes.  He uses them against themselves, emphasizing division while at the same time, brining everyone together through sharing the performance of an (improvised) American prayer.

While most people who enjoy Rickles’ humor focus on the insults, what many people might miss is how these insults are used.  In this comic routine, we can see how the insult – much like monotheistic religion – has a humbling effect.   It brings everyone down to earth and challenges their ego.  The irony is that this comic routine literally gave not only this a comic figuration but it also accomplished something astounding.  Through an improvised American prayer, it used insult to bring everyone together and share a unique act of (comically) performing a prayer which, in the end, they all share since they all bow down together.   The lesson is that if most of us in America can’t take prayer seriously, perhaps we can take it comically.  Perhaps Rickles is showing Americans that comedy can mark out our differences while, at the same times, performing our (fragile) union.    In truth, after the prayer is done, the stereotypes will likely remain but the hope in the act is that , by the end of the act, they have lost much of their power.    Perhaps that’s the best way to understand the unique power of insult that is employed by (Rabbi) Don Rickles in his improvised American prayer.

 

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