What Don Rickles Could Teach Don Sterling

Comedian Don Rickles speaks after receiving the Johnny Carson Award Stephen Chernin/Reuters

Read the following two quotes, and then we will discuss:

"President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over my house yesterday, but the mop broke."

"It bothers me a lot that you're associating with black people.… You're supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl…You don't have to have yourself walking with black people."

Two quotes, both uttered in the past two years by two different authors. But not that different, in some respects. The man who made the former comment, Don Rickles, is a Jewish octogenarian and longtime inhabitant of Los Angeles. The man who made the latter, Donald Sterling, is a Jewish octogenarian and long-time inhabitant of Los Angeles.

On Wednesday night Spike TV aired a two-hour tribute to Rickles, 88, taped earlier this month at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, of all places. Some of the most luminous names in comedy, among them Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman and Jon Stewart, took the stage to both roast and salute the progenitor of insult comedy, the man whom Johnny Carson famously dubbed "Mr. Warmth."

On Thursday, the same day that Sterling, 80, was declared "mentally incapacitated" by a panel of "experts" (and on whose payroll were they?), an E-Poll Market Research poll found that he is currently "the most hated man in America."

(They just haven't met me yet.)

Anyway, what does this teach us? Are these two Dons, these two men of similar age, creed and ZIP code even more similar than we'd like to believe? Or is there a lesson to be learned here about the difference between stereotypes and racism, between truth and hatred?

Throughout the decades many comedians, some of them no doubt envious of Rickles's free pass to be as politically incorrect as he wants to be, have attempted to explain how he gets away with it. This is a man who will spot an Asian, or Asian-American, in the audience and harkening back to his own days as a G.I. in World War II, quip, "Three years in the jungle looking for your uncle!"

"Some guys just have that thing," Chris Rock explains in Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, a 2007 documentary on Rickles. "It's like, being funny is like being a pretty girl. You get away with a lot of s**t. It's like he's got big t*ts."

Rickles once said, "You know, every night when I go out on stage, there's always one nagging fear in the back of my mind. I'm always afraid that somewhere out there, there is one person in the audience that I'm not going to offend!"

Dagos, Chinamen, Polacks, broads, "the blacks"—you name it. Rickles insulted everybody, but he did it with an inimitable panache. He never needed to work blue in order to be funny, nor was there ever a hint of narcissism involved. Rickles never put anyone down in order to elevate himself; he put others down, such as when he said of the morbidly obese Orson Welles, "He has been married to a number of women, all of whom are now flat" because that's what everyone was thinking.

It is naïve to believe that everyone is the same—which is different from saying it is naïve to believe that everyone is equal. It is disingenuous to ignore the fact that many stereotypes are rooted in repeated observation, not unlike scientific data (e.g., show me a BMW, and I'll more than likely show you a Caucasian behind the wheel). That does not mean that a person of a certain ethnic or cultural heritage is bound by that stereotype, only that there is often a kernel of truth behind the existence of the stereotype in the first place.

What Rickles made a half-century career out of was exaggerating the stereotype and, often in a buffoonish way, saying the one thing that most of his audience was thinking but afraid to speak out loud. It didn't matter if Rickles was giving a Latino busboy $20 and saying, "Here, buy your mother a house" or whether he was telling Frank Sinatra, as big a star in show business as there was at the time, "Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody."

And therein lies the difference between the two Dons, one who was lauded in a very public manner this week (albeit on Spike TV, a fact even some of those honoring Rickles joked about) and the other who was condemned, and in a sense exiled, even more publicly. Rickles actually used the common knowledge of stereotypes to unify people in laughter. He put a pin in the balloon of tension that most everyone has in this country on issues of race.

It should be noted that another octogenarian Jew who lives in Los Angeles, Mel Brooks, accomplished this in film even more fearlessly than Rickles ever did. If you have never seen Blazing Saddles, for example, half the film is devoted to lampooning white people's fear of African-American stereotypes (though much of that dialogue was written by Richard Pryor).

Donald Sterling, meanwhile, acted upon his bigotry to separate and segregate people. He treated individuals as if they were the stereotype that he so loathed or feared, never bothering to discover who these people were, never really caring what the differences between Magic Johnson and Jerry West were.

Don Rickles spoke his "bigoted" comments on the stages of Las Vegas or on nationally televised roasts. Because that was the joke. Donald Sterling mostly confined his to secretly recorded conversations, putting on a different face publicly. Rickles insulted everyone; Sterling only demeaned and abused minorities.

During Wednesday night's airing of the Rickles tribute, it was left to comedian Tracy Morgan, an African-American, to provide the essential epitaph to Rickles's career. It was a line that at the surface seemed even more ironic than the sobriquet Mr. Warmth, though upon closer inspection neither are ironic at all.

"I love you," Morgan told Rickles, "because you never discriminate."