The Interesting Reactions to Don Rickles’ Obama Joke

Like many, I consider legendary comedian Don Rickles to be a comedic genius. Though I’m a bit young to have enjoyed his work while he was in his prime, I’ve always gotten a kick out of his appearances on late-night television shows, and his acting in re-runs of some of the classic television sitcoms he guest-starred on. From his hard-edge, insulting style and quick-wit to his hilarious mannerisms, it’s hard not to marvel at the man’s talent.

What I didn’t realize until just a couple of years ago was something that pretty much everyone else had apparently long been aware of: Just how ethnically offensive Rickles’ standup comedy act is. I rented a documentary on Rickles from 2007 entitled, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.”  Only being a casual fan, I had never actually seen one of his uncensored routines. Quite frankly, I was shocked by its content. Jews, Asians, African Americans, the Irish… They were all broken down into the bigoted stereotypes of decades past. Forget the era of political correctness. Rickles’ jokes seem to pre-date even the civil rights movement.

The common message from celebrity friends of his, who were interviewed for the documentary, was that Rickles himself is certainly no bigot or racist. Even the hardest-left of the bunch (Roseanne Barr, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Carl Reiner, and Whoopi Goldberg) explained that Rickles is essentially in character when he’s on stage, and his style is a throwback to the “Golden Age” of standup comedy when performers could freely deliver insulting, racially insensitive diatribes. All of his friends conceded that Rickles is probably the only comedian today who could get away with such rankness, due to his legendary status.

Though the double-standard makes me uncomfortable, it’s an argument I’ve bought into. I’ve never been one to hastily throw around blanketing accusations of racism (which happens far too often these days) and I’m inclined to recognize Rickles’ art form as lighthearted, equal-opportunity denigration.

The consensus seems to be that Rickles can say whatever he wants because he’s, well… Don Rickles. Fair enough.

That’s why I found it so interesting a couple of days ago when headlines like, “Don Rickles Shocks Hollywood Crowd With Racial Obama Joke”, began to appear across the internet. Numerous media sources described a scene that occurred last Thursday night at the American Film Institute’s tribute to actress Shirley MacLaine. Don Rickles was a featured speaker at the event, and he made the following joke in front of a microphone:

“I shouldn’t make fun of the blacks. President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.”

The Hollywood Reporter reported that the black-tie crowd gasped in reaction to the joke which was said to have “bombed”. The Drudge Report and numerous other news-sites linked to the story, and the topic was discussed on a number of cable-news shows. The Politico actually felt the need to contact Rickles’ people for comment, who made it clear that Don is not a racist. Regardless, Viacom (who owns TV Land) announced days later that the joke will be edited out of the television broadcast of the event, which is planned for June 24th. Their decision was reported by ABC News among others.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Rickles’ joke wasn’t funny. Even beyond the realm of political correctness, it was lazy at best.

What kind of fascinates me, though, is the reaction the joke has received. There seems to be a consensus that the quip was newsworthy. Enough media outlets have picked up on the story to conclude that. And judging by the reactions of both the Hollywood elites who were in attendance, and Viacom, the joke apparently crossed a line that they weren’t comfortable with.

My question in both cases is… Why?

If even the ultra politically-correct society we live in today has deemed Don Rickles a pass on his choice of comedy, why is such a joke a controversy?

After all, the celebrity-roasts that Viacom has aired on its Comedy Central channel have proudly featured far more offensive rhetoric than anything that came out of Don Rickles’ mouth last Thursday. If you don’t believe me, just watch their roast of William Shatner and the types of jokes that were made at George Takei’s expense.

To me, it seems that the controversy comes directly from the fact that Rickles’ joke was aimed at the sacred cow of Hollywood elitism: President Obama.

I wish I could say it stems from Hollywood’s reverence to the office of the presidency, but that’s clearly not the case. Hollywood liberals and Viacom were never queasy when it came to raking President Bush over the coals. Virtually nothing was off-limits when it came to Bush, even on TV Land whose annual award show featured presenters that regularly skewered the president.

No, it’s different because it’s Barack Obama. That’s what makes it controversial. That’s also what makes it yet another example of how defensive the left, in this case Hollywood, has been of the president since he took office.

Liberals were taken back by the joke because, with Obama, they felt it was overboard. I’m pretty confident that if Rickles had made the same joke about Herman Cain, there would have been no collective gasp and Viacom would not have edited it out of the broadcast. After all, Viacom didn’t edit out Jon Stewart’s controversial Herman Cain impersonation on Comedy Central’s Daily Show.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are fascinated with the story because they don’t often hear stinging jokes made about President Obama, especially by Hollywood darling like Don Rickles. It’s something very rare.

In the end, the overall reaction to the joke is more of a symptom of the kid-gloves President Obama has been approached with over the past four years, than it is anything else. Don Rickles should be left to be Don Rickles. How is it fair for Hollywood to suspend the exemption they’ve long given to Don Rickels’ humor in order to maintain the exemption from humor that they’ve given to Barack Obama?

Author Bio:

John Daly couldn't have cared less about world events and politics until the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks changed his perspective. Since then, he's been deeply engaged in the news of the day with a particular interest in how that news is presented. Realizing the importance of the media in a free, democratic society, John has long felt compelled to identify media injustices when he sees them. With a B.S. in Business Administration (Computer Information Systems), and a 16 year background in software and web development, John has found that his real passion is for writing. He is the author of the Sean Coleman Thriller series, which is available through all major retailers. John lives in Northern Colorado with his wife and two children. Like John on Facebook. Follow John on Twitter.
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  • arthur schwartz

    It is what is called a Black comedy (or dark comedy) do a google search.

  • SmellyMike

    Rickles Obama joke is hysterical. To you politically correct idiots who find it offensive..and have absolutely no sense of humor at all, you know where you can shove it.

  • tanstagcopc

    The most interesting thing about this whole joke is, the entire situation is not being reported. And because of that, so many people are writing reactions based on a half-truth of what actually happened and running with that because they don’t know the whole story and didn’t bother to seek out the complete recording of the joke and judge for themselves.

    The audience gasped. And then they laughed, and then broke out into raucous applause along with their laughter. The initial shock was followed by their realization that Don Rickles had refused to change his act to be politically correct in today’s world and had stayed true to form just the same as he always did, even now when it could be taken so differently than when he first started his career.

  • Teriek Williams

    Don Rickles has done these kinds of jokes about blacks, Jews, Italians and everyone else in the past. I’m black and not offended. I know Rickles holds no malice toward anyone. He’s an insult comic. That’s just his style.

  • swampland

    Rickles is a good and decent man. And the Obama joke is very funny.

  • Blackhawk3220

    Unless the joke was actually about competence and not race…

  • Bo (from Denmark)

    I hadn’t heard that joke before, but just now, when I read it, I laughed.
    There’s something more to it. It’s Rickles knowing that this is insanely offensive. That makes it funny.

  • Ray

    That’s why no one is watching Leno and the late night people. Their inability to say anthing remotely offensive about Obama has ruin their satire and comedy that we used to love. And the old Bush jokes are meaningless and terribly outdated, boring and not funny any more.

    • Teriek Williams

      I don’t think its their reluctance to talk about Obama. Its not about him. Its about the race thing. Many comics joke about Obama including liberal comics like Lewis Black, but they won’t touch the race thing because its goes beyond Obama. However, Don Rickles has done this about all ethnic backgrounds including his own, which is why I’m not offended at all.

      I’d also say that the Bush jokes aren’t entirely outdated considering we are still living in the world he helped shaped and many of his policies have been kept fully in tact (if not beefed up) by the current President and his administration (NSA, drone attacks, PATRIOT Act, holding suspected terrorists without a trial, etc.).

  • Count_E_Limerick

    Our funny bone for decades got tickles,
    From the insults of good old Don Rickles.
    Is it now time to stop?
    Clean his act with a mop –
    Just because some hockey puck got the prickles?

  • Ed

    Don should keep telling the Joke, but follow it with “Wow, that went over like The Bombay India Ruth’s Cris”, “What? no sacred Cow on the joke Menu?” “Well at least he’s better than Bush – I hear Obama can usually make make The Green in two strokes “.

  • Billmccann

    If Obama’s presidency had been phenomenally successful; if employment was at 4.2%; if he had reduced the national debt and had championed what it took to put the private sector back to work; if he were not a traitor in authorizing the release of classified material to make him look good; if the medical doctor who had helped him kill Osama bin Laden was not languishing in jail, etc. etc. this would have been a funny joke and taken as such. The problem is that Obama’s re-election is at best a 50/50 proposition; and, therefore,  anything that could even remotely move those odds toward Romney is not funny. Bottom line: When you’re a winner almost anything is funny; when you’re a loser nothing not in your favor is funny. Amen.    

  • Mary

    Great piece John, I saw Don Rickles live, he was a riot. The left was offended because it was OBAMA, please, he is no better than anyone else. My Question is was the left offended when HBO had Bushes head decapitated on a stick. If that were OBAMA,
    it would have been the top story on ABC,CBS,and of course NBC. Give me a break,I’m so sick of Hollywood I can’t stand it!!! I no longer go to the movies, don’t want anything to do with most of them.  Just let Rickles do what he does best,INSULT!!
    He really is a nice man. Hollywood is liberal because they don’t live in the real world
    If they lived in the REAL world I’d say half wouldn’t support OBAMA and his ridiculous policies.

  • floridahank

    First you have to realize that Hollyweird is not made up of normal people.  As a whole,
    they’re vain, self-seeking, loose morality, atheistic, money-lovers, love attention, and
    border on abnormality in many areas.  They see Obama more as a fellow actor than as a strong leader as President.  They see him as a cool dude, Al Green’s fellow singer, and not as an economic, financial leader of our nation.  Hollyweird has no conception of the real world of people who make this country grow. Actors simply play a game and rake in the $$$ from people who have no desire to face challenges and do something other than go to the movies — a lazy minded approach to living a full life.  So many better things to do than sit in a theatre for 2 hours without having a positive thought about life.  — Boring!!

  • Ceciliomr

    I saw the Don Rickles act (on You tube) at the Ronald Reagan Inaugural.  He was 10 times more “insulting” and all he got was a belly laugh from Mr. and Mrs. Reagan.  I think Hollywood is enamored with the “Golden Bull” you mistakenly call “sacred cow.”

  • asl3676

    who made a big deal about Rickles’ joke? looks like some people need a reason to create a controversy where there is none…

  • terry


  • Easy Ed

    Don didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. He should have realized before now that there is a double standard in Hollywood: You can ridicule anyone but a Democrat, especially one named Obama. It’s probably not entirely his fault. The organizers should have make it clear: There is a double standard in movieland. How else can you explain how the “stars” proclaim their support for unions then go to the ends of the earth to shoot film with non-union tradesmen?
    John, you may be too young to have seen the original “raw” Rickles material, but the supposedly shocked celebrities know the routine very well. Nothing is sacred in his act. As he explains at the end, the fact that he attacks ALL the big shots and ALL the stereotypes shows that we’re all the same; we’re all equal.
    Except in Hollywood (spell that H-Y-P-O-C-R-I-S-Y), some are more equal that others.  

  • Phillip G.

    Only the far left wing nuts would be offended by Mr. Ricles. Hate to tell you this but Don Rickles has made a career of this type of comedy. I’ve seen Rickles insult Reagam, Carter Bush and Ford  but God forbid if he insults in humor a black president. In my opinion it’s the far left who are destoying our country and need to be made fun of. Rickles is a comedy legend Obama is barely worth a joke.

  • Terry Walbert

    It used to be that saying four-letter words would get you in trouble, and many comedians would go to it if their regular material wasn’t working.  It was called “dropping your pants.”  But now that four-letter words are the staple of comedy, what can a hard-working comedian do to shock his audience and get laughs?   

    I’m waiting for a young stand up comedian just starting out to go after the liberal sacred cows just for the publicity. 

  • Paul Courtney

    John:  His act pre-dates even the Civil WAR!  The English Civil War!  We’ll know we’ve entered the “post racial” era when a joke like this brings no more attention from cable news than his stuff on Irish drunks etc.  We are, regrettably, not there yet.

  • SouBelle

    How dare he make a joke about the affirmative action poster child. Liberals gasping was just another example of their hyprocracy.

  • Kathie Ampela

    Observational humor, not Don Rickles’ insult style of comedy, is what’s in vogue nowadays. But if Rickles’ had made a similar type of joke about say, Condoleeza Rice during the Bush era, I doubt if it would have made news. 

  • Chief98110

    Even on their best day liberals have absolutely no sense of humor for the any joke directed toward the chosen one.  On the other hand they find any joke about conservatives hilarious. Typical Liberal BS.

  • Jeffreydan

      Lisa Lampanelli gets away with similar “hatred”, be it at the Roasts or her stand-up routine in general.

      I understand perfectly why the left protects Obama like a helpless child: he behaves like a helpless child.  

  • RonKean

    You can go to Youtube and see how Rickles insults Mayor Linsey of NYC and Ronald Reagan.  Sammy Davis Jr., Nipsy Russell and Frank Sinatra.  He’s a funny man and the joke was funny.

  • Wil

    Don Rickles is a pig and he even looks like one!  

    • John Daly

      I bet you loved him, though, when he was making fun of Palin.

      • Wil

        Nope, not a fan. They say, if you catch his act in Vegas, it’s so filthy. people walk out.

        • John Daly

          I think that’s probably true. Like I said, his routine was shocking to me when I watched the documentary.

        • Bo (from Denmark)

           Those people, the one that walk out: They don’t matter.

  • Bob Weber

    I think racial humor in general and Don Rickles work in particular is funny because it points out the absurdity of the comment.  His joke may have been lazy, but does anyone out there seriously think that Barack Obama, leader of the free world, was mopping Rickles floor because he was black. 

    Good comedy tells us more about ourselves and our way of thinking.  I think it’s very illuminating the response this piece of humor brought out.  I think part of the ‘kid glove’ treatment Obama is getting is due to how tenuous his position is.   The Hollywood liberals are starting to see the writing on the wall and it’s making them nervous.

  • John R

    I have always liked Rickles, from back when I was 15 and staying up late to see him on Johnny Carson.  He is an equal-opportunity offender!  Nothing and nobody is sacred and that’s what’s so refreshing.  He says a lot of things that people may be thinking but are too afraid to say.  I say more power to him!!

  • Nancye

    I’ve never liked Don Rickles brand of “comedy”.  But of course, we can’t let him insult the Marxist-in-Chief” now can we?  <<<<<  (Said in sarcasm)

    • John Daly

      Personally, I think his suitable-for-all-audiences humor is WAY funnier than what I’ve seen of his stand-up. But if he gets a pass on the offensive stuff when it comes to everyone else, he should get a pass on Obama as well.

      • Nancye


      • Carroll73

         please write an article explaining why the mainstream is liberal.
         what is it about liberalism that attract them?? both cronkite and hugh downs said that most reporters start their careers in the field so they see the down side of society which made them more liberal. .i curious what do conservatives reporters see that makes them conservative
        carroll grandy