“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old-fashioned groaners — blame These Changing Times, which make the sort of racial humor Rickles often employed feel outdated — the event was packed with laughs from beginning (when Newhart, who’s been best pals with Rickles since the dawn of time, dropped in via video) to end (when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: