Seinfeld, Stewart, Fey & more salute insult master Don Rickles: The night's best jokes

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Image Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

“On the Mount Rushmore of stand-up comedy, there are four faces, in my opinion: Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Cosby — and Don Rickles,” Jerry Seinfeld declared at the top of Tuesday’s all-star tribute to legendary insult comic Rickles. The show — taped two days before Rickles’ 88th birthday — will air on Spike TV Wednesday, May 28.

Clearly, the biggest names in comedy agree with Seinfeld’s assessment. The evening, filmed in Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater, included tributes and mini-roasts of “the Merchant of Venom” from Bob Newhart, Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and David Letterman, as well as some good-natured ribbing from Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (who worked with Rickles on 1995’s Casino), and a truly bizarre, rambling reminiscence from Johnny Depp. (The general gist: When they first met, Rickles didn’t make fun of Depp — and the actor’s had a complex about it ever since.)

Give or take a few old-fashioned groaners — blame These Changing Times, which make the sort of racial humor Rickles often employed feel outdated — the event was packed with laughs from beginning (when Newhart, who’s been best pals with Rickles since the dawn of time, dropped in via video) to end (when Rickles finally got a chance to fire back). Even more impressive: The octogenarian, famous for improvising putdowns, apparently performed his final set  without the help of either notecards or the teleprompter. Here’s a preview of the night’s funniest gags, in roughly chronological order:

Jon Stewart, on the event’s location in Harlem: “If there’s one thing that we can learn about tonight, and I think this is true, we knew, somehow, the Jews would find a way to gentrify this neighborhood.”

Stewart, continuing in the same vein: “Jews and blacks, we come from the same history….We’ve just expressed our suffering differently as people. Blacks developed the blues. Jews complain; we just never thought of putting it to music. Reminds me of a blues song my grandmother wrote, called ‘It’s Very Drafty in Here.’ You might be more familiar with the B-side, ‘Now It’s Too Hot.'”

Brian Williams, introducing a montage of Rickles’ best moments on The Tonight Show: “About Johnny [Carson]‘s guests over the years, I know we all in this room share a particular favorite. All of America did: The great and incomparable Bob Newhart….We’re not specifically honoring Bob tonight. That’s coming later this year, at a much larger event.”

Tracy Morgan, after a heartwarming story about Rickles sending him flowers following Morgan’s kidney transplant: “To this day, I carry with me this card that he sent me. [He reads:] ‘Dear Tracy, I hope you get better. But I still don’t want you coming to none of the home games.’ Oh — this one is from Don Sterling. [pause for laughs] By the way, talking about Donald Sterling — if I owned a team like the L.A. Clippers, who had lost for 30 years, I’d hate black people, too!”

Martin Scorsese: “Bob [De Niro] and I did eight pictures together. We put everything we had into each, and we’d always be excited about doing the next one. Then we did Casino with Don 20 years ago. We haven’t worked together since. It’s amazing, Don, the influence you had on our careers.”
Robert De Niro: “Yeah, Don — on behalf of Leo DiCaprio, thanks a lot!”

Scorsese: “When Bob De Niro and I are on the same stage together these days, it’s usually to give each other lifetime achievement awards. So we see each other mainly at awards ceremonies and memorial services — like tonight. [pause for laughs] We wanted to honor your memory, Don, so here we are. Though if I’d been directing this, I don’t think I would have gone for the open casket.”

Scorsese: “You’re a great guy, Don. You are. Not that we give a sh–.”

Tina Fey: “We’re here tonight to celebrate Don Rickles. And honestly, it’s almost like he’s here with us. You can feel his spirit in this room tonight.”
Amy Poehler, gesturing to Rickles: “Tina, Tina — he is here.”
Fey: “Jesus! I thought that was somebody’s purse.”

Fey: “The great thing about Don is that his jokes appeal to everyone: Polacks, Chinamen, coloreds, broads. What, I’m not allowed to say that anymore? Why is he saying that?”

Fey, to Rickles: “This is true — when my cousin was 19 years old, you gave her her first big break. She was a singer, and you let her open for you at the Foxwoods Casino. And you and your lovely wife were so, so nice to her. And that is why I’m here tonight: to rub it in my cousin’s face that I got famous.”

David Letterman: “He’s been on the [Late Show] 25 times as a guest. That’s the most times a guest has been on our show named Don.”

Rickles himself, getting the last laugh on Letterman: “It’s sweet of you, Dave — I know your busy schedule of going to the bank and trying to figure out what the hell you do.”

And on Seinfeld: “He’s a wonderful guy. You talk to him, it’s like being alone.”

And, finally, on the night in general: “You were all marvelous, really you were. I [could spend] all night saying how great you were. [pause] Except De Niro was weak.” Cue thunderous laughter — especially from Scorsese.

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