Ronald Reagan was known for his great sense of humor, so when Don Rickles roasted him, the actor turned politician couldn’t stop laughing.
Don Rickles had the pleasure of roasting Ronald Reagan twice, and both performances are now legendary. The first time was in 1973 as Reagan entered his seventh year as the governor of California. Dean Martin was hosting a celebrity roast and invited the governor to be the subject, and Rickles had much to talk about since Reagan had also been a famous actor.
What made roasting Reagan such a joy was his unique sense of humor and the fact that he wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself. It was later reported that Rickles was perhaps the most aggressive of the performers that night, but that was his charm. He didn’t give anyone a free pass on the insults, including Reagan. Even though, according to Rickles, it was the first time he met then-Governor Reagan, the man who was known as “Mr. Warmth” didn’t care.
No matter, though, Ronald Reagan absolutely loved the showing. More importantly, he was dying laughing at almost all of the jokes Don Rickles had for him. “The governor is the greatest politician of all time; he laughs at everything. ‘My brother died!’” Rickles then pretends to be Reagan and laughs like him.
Rickles didn’t hold back in the slightest. He kept bringing more and more aggressive jokes to the table. He continued to insult Reagan throughout the roast. But, impressively, the then-governor seemed to be laughing the hardest at the jokes of anyone attending.
When Don Rickles was asked about the highlight of his career in an interview, the iconic funnyman told Charlie Rose it was his performance at the 1985 second inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. Rickles explained he got the impressive gig thanks to his very good friend Frank Sinatra.
“The highlight, the highlight of my career, Charlie, is when you say backstage and show biz, believe it or not, is when Frank Sinatra had me at the Ronald Reagan second inaugural,” he recalled. “That was the biggest treat of my life.” Clearly, Rickles must have been nervous. This was a gala event in Washington, D.C., and the list of attendees was like a who’s who of the rich and powerful.
Nevertheless, Rickles wasted no time roasting President Reagan. “Remember when you were governor and you used to walk over to my table?” Rickles said pointing at the president. “Now your big and you’re getting on my nerves!” he added before turning and walking away as he says to the audience in a nervous voice, “Is he laughing?” The comic then told the band, “If you see Marines coming toward me, go into ‘Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.'”
Next, Rickles scanned the audience and proceeded to playfully insult Secretary of State George Schultz, actor Charleton Heston, preacher Billy Graham, and of course, First Lady Nancy Reagan. Rickles even joked that he didn’t vote for the president, but in the end, he was all grace and class. “May God be good to you and yours for the coming four years and beyond that,” the comedian said. “You’re a great gentleman and a great credit to the country. May he give you health, the almighty, and may you reign as long as you wish.”
In the past few years, as the “woke” activists and “cancel culture” have made headlines, many are wondering if a comedian like Don Rickles could have survived today. One example that called insult comedy into question occurred when comedian Chris Rock was slapped by actor Will Smith for making remarks about his wife at the Academy Awards ceremony.
“Many have taken the moment to wonder how Don Rickles, the late, great king of insult comedy, would fare in today’s social climate,” New York Post reported. “Rickles was best known for his endless barrage of insults, which made him a comedic legend. His career truly gained traction when he publicly ridiculed the notoriously hot-tempered Frank Sinatra when the superstar walked into a club where Rickles was performing in 1957.”
“Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody,” Rickles quipped in an iconic moment, sending Ol’ Blue Eyes into a fit of laughter. The Post goes on to report that social media users weighed in. “Class, charisma dignity, humor charm, self-deprecation—these once defined Hollywood and American culture—to ourselves & the world. But we’re a long way from Charlton Heston,” wrote Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to former President Donald Trump.
“As an aside, insult humor—and no one was better than the legendary Don Rickles—is one of the finest traditions of American comedy,” Miller added. “And having a sense of humor about oneself is one of the defining attributes of American Celebrity. Smith’s violent outburst is, in a word, psychotic.” Frank Sinatra laughed at Rickle’s insult about his mafia ties, while Will Smith chose to slap Chris Rock. These two examples show the impact of today’s social climate. The question is are we better off now, or was America a much healthier nation with celebrities and politicians who could take a joke from an insult comedy king like the legendary Don Rickles?