Don Rickles: Farewell, Mr. Warmth

Dear Islanders,

Don Rickles, despite the insults, there was a lot to love. 

The comedian Don Rickles died last week. He was a man of many contradictions. In some ways, Rickles was hard to love, a little too harsh for my taste. But at the same time there was something very love-able about him. His very image evoked nostalgia, but not for things we quite miss, just things we feel vaguely sentimental about, like retro talk shows and gauzy night club lounges.   

His contemporaries were the likes of Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Jerry Lewis--legends from a bygone era. But he spent much of his time with much younger celebrities, like David Letterman, Howard Stern, and Norm McDonald. He was even conflicted about his role in comedy. He’s known as the ultimate insult comic, but he hated the term and from most accounts he was incredibly kind in his personal life—he was happily married for many decades and best friends with the erudite Bob Newhart of all people. 

How could I defend a man who relied on such a set of a distasteful racial and sexual stereotypes to make a living? 

His act itself was a great contradiction—abuse and invective culminating in affection and warmth. I can’t defend everything he said, but Don Rickles was not a man who spoke out of hate or fear. He never attacked or bullied the weak or disabled (nor did he use foul language). Indeed, his jokes showed the great error in believing our differences separated us. Instead he used our perceived differences to unite us through laughter. 

Rickles was an equal opportunity jokester. No one was safe from his wit. And his jokes were made with the full knowledge of their silly ignorance.  Exaggerations about race, class, religion, showed the folly of such exaggerations. He once famously attacked a Muslim man implying that the man came to his show to kill Rickles (a Jew). Did Rickles really believe the Muslim man wanted to kill him? Hardly, that man had been to many of this shows. If such a thing was true, Rickles could never had made a joke about it under such circumstances. Rickles comments instead showed how absurd it is  to apply broad generalities to individuals, and the  audience laughed at the absurdity. 

Last week we had some racist materials hit Grand Island

I tried to keep it quiet. I did not want to give the person involved the show he so obviously sought. But once it was picked up by the local media, I felt it necessary to respond. When it rises to the surface, you must respond to such terrible rhetoric to avoid it every becoming normal. 

Some defended the fliers as non-offensive. I will not go into this in depth here, but the fliers were very offensive. Images, used by hate groups since the Nazis, covered each flier. And the message is a repackaging of a hateful propaganda long associated with the Aryan Brotherhood and other misguided groups. But that’s not America. And that’s not Grand Island. The folks who did this are not from here. And the communities they targeted are more diverse than they expected. 

Thank you to the good citizens who cleaned up that trash. America at its best is a country of inclusion not exclusion. We believe in individual and not tribal identities. And we believe we are not perfect, we are the greatest nation on earth, because we are nation made up of the might and wisdom of all of earth’s many and diverse peoples. Or as our de facto motto states, “Out of Many, One,” E Pluribus Unum.  

"Five Came Back" is a great book.

I’m reading a book called “Five Came Back: The Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” by Mark Harris. Right now, there is a documentary on Netflix (narrated and featuring some of Stephen Spielberg and others) by the same name. Both are excellent. The book describes how five famous directors used their talents to empower and motivate the American fight against fascism and racism in Europe and Asia ruling World War II. 

The part I found most moving is about Frank Capra. Frank Capra made movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” As much as anyone, he helped encapsulate though art the very American ideal of striving for goodness. But Capra himself was the subject of racial bigotry for his Italian-American descent at home. I’m so proud of Capra, and all the good people who fought in that war and came home to help change America. They saw something so evil in Germany and Japan—pure racist hatred; the idea that we are not brothers but competing tribes—and they combatted it. And when they came home, they were changed, and America also changed for the better. Along with Capra, Rickles served in that war too. 

In the words of Don Rickles: 

“I am no rabbi, priest or reverend. You know this. I stand here and speak of all faiths, creeds and colors. And why not? Really, why not? Because in my experience in the Navy, when things were rough, nobody bothered or cared to ask. Color, church, synagogue, who cared? Frightened to death, we stood together on the bow of the ship and said, please - and that is the truth - please, when our time is up, we will all be on one team. 

So why do we need bigotry and nonsense? Let's enjoy while almighty God gives us time. Will Rogers once said, I never picked on a little guy, only big people. May I say to this entire audience, on a hectic night, you are pretty big. And I do thank each and every one of you.”

With Best Regards,


P.S. We are working on some ideas for the roundabout. This week (weather pending) we will post a sign. That sign is modeled after the signs at the high school and other schools—blue with a bridge on top and Art Deco lettering. We picked that design to create uniformity. Sure, we could pick from a million ideas, but it seems to work and it was created by a Grand Island artist

But this is just a temporary model. We wanted to get feedback. It’s wood, and it looks like. Again, it’s a test. So, tell us what you think. Also, we will be putting up “Right to Farm” signs so too. After all, this is a “Right to Farm” community. And we need to celebrate it!