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Don Rickles on preparing to improvise

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Never confuse spontaneity with lack of preparation.

Don Rickles became a leader in the comedy world of the 1960s and ‘70s through a ferocious form of  “insult comedy” that seared without being mean-spirited.

At a small club, Rickles once called out to the infamously moody Frank Sinatra: “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody.” He depicts his own wife as a woman who “likes to lie in bed, signaling ships with her jewelry.” And he greeted Johnny Carson on his first visit to the “Tonight Show” with the words, “Hello, dummy.”

Rickles thrives on ad-libbing to a degree that seems to have ruined him for scripted comedy. When his lines are strictly regulated, he usually fails (exception: as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in “Toy Story”). He can’t do an impression or tell a regular joke.

But don’t assume that his need for spontaneity means Rickles goes to work unprepared. On the contrary, every leader could take a page from his book. Examples:
  • Throughout his 50-plus years in comedy, Rickles has come to work early, typically an hour before the opening act. “You know how a fighter always comes into the dressing room way before a fight?” he asks. “That’s me.”
  • He’ll peek out during the warm-up act and size up his audience.“I like to get the smell of them,” he says. “See how they’re reacting.”
Once Rickles is prepared, he will spontaneously combust, and a poor, hapless victim in the front row will become a “hockey puck.”

— Adapted from “Don’t Call Me Sir: Don Rickles and the art of the insult,” Zoe Heller, The New Yorker.

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