Don Rickles: Why Legendary Comic's Jabs Are Funny, Not Offensive

Comedian Don Rickles, pictured in 1975. (Image credit: Everett Collection)

Famed stand-up comedian and actor Don Rickles, who died April 6 at age 90, cultivated a curmudgeonly persona for decades and was celebrated for his caustic cracks.

Known as the "insult comic," his pointed put-downs spared no one, not even celebrities many other comedians would consider off-limits. Before he became famous, Rickles was onstage at a Miami Beach club in the 1950s, when superstar Frank Sinatra entered the room. Rickles called out to him from the stage, "Make yourself comfortable, Frank. Hit somebody," the Los Angeles Times reported.

Somehow, Rickles successfully parlayed his barbed insults into jokes — garnering guffaws even from the notoriously grumpy Sinatra, according to the LA Times — and launched a career that spanned more than half a century. But what made his insults seem funny, rather than merely, well, insulting? [Smile Secrets: 5 Things Your Grin Says About You]

The success of Rickles' insult comedy may be explained by a humor theory called benign violation, which describes when a social norm is overturned, but in a way that is nonthreatening, according to science comedian Brian Malow.

"When those two things happen at the same time, then it's funny," Malow told Live Science.

"If Don Rickles insults you, that's a violation. But at the same time, there's the artifice of being in a comedy venue," Malow added. "You know he doesn't mean it, he's playing with you — and that's the benign part. So it's funny, even though he just called you a name."

Science backs this up, with researchers finding that benign violations of social norms "tend to elicit laughter and amusement" and suggest that negative emotions can be accompanied by humor, according to a study published in June 2010 in the journal Psychological Science.

A kernel of truth

Insults get under our skin because they typically point out something obvious — and usually unflattering — and because they hold a kernel of truth, Ken Yeager, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Live Science. In the hands of a skilled comedian, insults illuminate our flaws in a clever way. An insult can sting, but a well-crafted one can also make us wish that we'd thought of the joke first, Yeager said.

"It forces you to think," he said. "It makes you reassess the situation, and it makes you reassess yourself."

Rickles' delivery was an important part of what made his insults work, Yeager added. He would deliver his jibes with a deadpan expression, and then break a smile at the very end. And that smile was important, because it let the audience know that it was OK to laugh, Yeager said.

As a stand-up comedian appearing in front of a live audience, Rickles was likely paying close attention to the social cues in the room, reading the emotional "temperature" in the crowd and gauging how to perform insulting jokes about people so that those on the receiving end would respond gracefully, Yeager said. [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]

And his insults often came in layers, softening up an audience and making them more receptive to being the target of insulting jokes — by insulting others first.

At a Friars Club celebrity roast in the 1970s, Rickles said, "I haven't said so many tuxedos since the Osmond brothers had their annual prom," CBS News reported in an obituary for the comedian.

"That's a great way to deliver an insult," Yeager said. "Initially, you think you're laughing at him insulting someone else. Then you realize, a couple of minutes later, 'Oh no, he's insulting me at the same time.'"

Defying expectations

In general, comedy is about expectations — setting them up, and then defying them, Malow said. Insults are generally unexpected because people in polite society usually don't put down complete strangers. And the surprise at hearing the unthinkable uttered out loud in a stand-up routine makes us laugh, he said.

"The deadpan delivery — that's the violation, the rude part. But then he flashes the smile that says, 'You know I don't mean it!'" Malow added.

But not every comic can make insult comedy funny. Rickles might have been known as "The Merchant of Venom," but there was far more subtlety and skill in his routines than there was outright meanness, which likely explains his enduring appeal, Yeager told Live Science.

"I think it's a very special individual that has the right ability to read people and the right verbal technique to be able to pull that off," Yeager said. "I think maybe he was one in a million."

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.