The offstage Mr. Warmth is, well, really quite warm (Vancouver Sun)

The offstage Mr. Warmth is, well, really quite warm

Don Rickles, the bulldog of comedy, once studied dramatic arts in New York

The Vancouver Sun, October 14, 2006

Don Rickles isn’t called Mr. Warmth because of his cordial amiability. But after talking to the man on the phone, it’s clear his ironic nickname also works at face value.

The 80-year-old bulldog of comedy has made a name for himself throughout the years as a caustic, politically incorrect insult comic of the highest magnitude. But Rickles has long had the reputation, well-deserved by all appearances, of being a pussycat off-stage. You can’t help but wonder how he’s going to embarrass you (and secretly hoping he does), but it never comes.

Comedy historians trace his style back to Jack E. Leonard, but Rickles begs to differ. “Jack, rest his soul, was a friend of mine,” he says. “But he was so wrong, and so were a lot of other people. They compared me to him. Jack was a funny guy but Jack was the kind of guy that did put-down things in a set routine. Whereas I don’t tell jokes.”

An interesting distinction, to be sure, for anyone at the receiving end of either of these legends’ tongue-lashings. But Rickles, who plays the River Rock Show Theatre tonight, goes one step further, claiming not even to be an insult comic.

“Milton Berle gave me that many, many years ago and it always stuck with me,” he says. “But it’s not insult. Let me put it this way: I’m the guy that makes fun of the boss at the Christmas party on Friday night and Monday still has his job. It’s never mean-spirited. And it’s a matter of exaggerating people and things around us.”

It’s hard to imagine, but were it not for a few more inches and a lot more hair, Rickles might have had a different career path. Some fans and critics were blown away by his dramatic role in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, never realizing the clown had such depth of talent. But Rickles was a graduate of the esteemed American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, along with classmates such as Grace Kelly, Jason Robards, Tom Poston and Conrad Bain, before he ever took to the standup stage.

“I tried to get a job on Broadway and nothing really happened,” he says. “I got a couple of off-Broadway plays and that didn’t work out too well.”

So he started performing comedy, starting as an impressionist who did voices like Peter Lorre and Jimmy Cagney (“very badly,” he recalls with a laugh), before developing his current style by, in effect, heckling the hecklers.

“Without realizing it,” he says, “that’s how this performance developed… Thank God for standup, and of course doing odd jobs, otherwise I’d be selling apples today.”

But that very in-your-face approach to comedy also precluded much success in the movies.

“It did affect my movie career,” he says. “I was fortunate to do films, but to this day there are producers that hear my name and they go, ‘Ah, gee, what’s he gonna do to me?’”

Coincidentally, that’s precisely what his fans wonder, except in gleeful anticipation.

Papa was a Fuddy-Dud (Vancouver Sun)

Papa was a Fuddy-Dud

Vancouver Sun, July 22, 2000

I am a pop culture pariah. Having already come out on these pages as a wuss who’s never smoked pot, I can freely admit I don’t know anything about anything, although I do know this: I know even less about baggy panted people.

Armed with this ignorance, I recently engaged in debate with my 17-year-old nephew (he of the XXXL pants) on the merits of hip-hop. My position was that hip-hop isn’t music. It’s bad poetry with a beat. It has elements of music, I conceded, but most of that is sampled from other, real musicians. To drive my point home, I drolly noted that one need not spend years at Julliard studying to play the freakin’ turntable. Game, set and match to me, right?

When he informed me that hip-hop isn’t music, I thought I had won. But no. Hip-hop is the culture, I was told; rap is the music. Or something like that. I lose interest when I’m losing an argument, not to mention street cred, when I don’t even know the reference points I’m arguing.

A variety of factors have led to my current state, but the bulk of the blame must go to my father. Most of the culture I’ve got, I got from my pop. But it certainly wasn’t pop culture. I guess that’s what happens when your dad is a jazz musician whose cultural references ground to a halt some time in the 1940s. My own knowledge-gap mostly manifests itself in the musical realm, but is by no means confined to it. I’m hopelessly clueless in myriad areas.

I first noticed my disconnection to the masses in ’72: the big Canada-Russia hockey game – or was it a series? (You’d think I’d know these things, having written professionally about hockey in a major daily newspaper, albeit a paper with really big pictures.) The single event in my lifetime that brought Canadians of all political stripes together, and I was left out. No, not left out. That would imply I gave a rat’s ass about the game. I didn’t. Nor did my family. Over the years I have made giant strides to the point where I now know there was some sort of nation-defining sporting event that people my age still talk about. (My sister, however, didn’t find out about it until a few weeks ago when I brought it up in a vain effort to relate to them.)

It’s not that I want to be this ivory-towered pedant who is too good for such earthly concerns. It’s just that nature and nurture conspired to make me this way. I was raised not only by a European mother and grandparents, but, alternately, by a Canadian father, a man who knew less about popular culture than anyone I’ve ever met.

This is a man who didn’t own a TV for years. And years. And years. When he finally acquired one, it was a tiny black-and-white number that sat unused in a corner until I or my sisters came to stay. I remember once he regretted to inform me it wasn’t working. Being a musician, he had no idea why. I’ve never been a handyman but I thought I’d go over and take a look.

Unplugged.

It’s possible, now that I think back on it, that he was disappointed his only son didn’t show enough interest in reading (except for books with really big pictures, which perhaps led to me writing for newspapers with really big pictures) and he was using the old unplugged TV trick to get me up and out.

You had to know my dad, though, to know that he likely believed it was broken. He was not the most mechanical of men. I never once saw him use a tool or do a chore, other than to load the dishwasher. He was above all that. Once, as a child, I was sent over without a change of socks (an oversight, I’m almost certain). I wore the same pair for days until they crusted over and retained the shape of my foot even when off, as if I had an invisible sock-wearing friend. No laundry for those stinkers, though. Not on dad’s watch. They went straight into the garbage and he bought me new lifeless ones. 

Once I forced him to sit down and watch Cheers, at the time my favourite show and widely thought to be the best-written one on television. But this was a man who was proud to claim that Andy Hardy Joins the Army was the last movie he’d ever seen, so it was an uphill battle. He watched five minutes of it before harrumphing “Dumb” and leaving, all the while muttering “Dumb, dumb, dumb” as he walked away.

Pop’s place was not child-friendly. He had no toys. He had no yard. There was not much for a kid to do. So we made do. On our visits pre-TV, we had but three options:

1. We could read from his vast collection of books, consisting of jazz biographies and histories, Russian literature, classic humourists like S.J. Perelman and P.G. Wodehouse, philosophy, essays, curmudgeonly tomes on the English language, or a smattering of books from the entertainment world, most of which were written by old-time comics he worked with at the Cave Supper Club, and to which I gravitated, leaving me with a lifelong admiration (bordering on obsession, friends tell me) for Steve Allen.

2. We could listen to his vast record collection: classical or jazz, that was it. I got enough of that long-haired music (I’ve always loved that anachronistic phrase) at piano lessons so I opted for the jazz (Jelly Roll Morton and Lance Harrison were my faves as a pre-teen), which also ensured I’d always miss the pop culture parade. A 15-year-old kid should not be attempting to play Bix Beiderbecke’s solo from “I’m Coming Virginia” on his trumpet. He probably shouldn’t even know who Bix Beiderbecke is. Or, if he does, he should also know at least one song from Pink Floyd. (I kid you not – I http://time.com/3639655/serial-innocence-project-deirdre-enright/spent 10 minutes searching through a reference book just to find the name “Pink Floyd.” Someone like me should have grown up on that stuff! Friends give me that you-can’t-be-serious look when some vaguely familiar (to me) rock anthem is playing and I ask who sings it and it turns out to be The Who or The Stones or The Led Zeppelin.)

Or 3., and this was the best option, we could throw grapes off his 16th floor balcony while he was inside practicing scales or doing the cryptic crossword.

All that jazz education I absorbed from my dad was endearing when I was younger. It was cute when I was pulled out of school for a day in 1969 so I could meet Duke Ellington and all the cats in the band at the Cave. Whether it was Count Basie at the Queen E, Harry “Sweets” Edison winking and me and my sister, the only kids at his show, or Chet Baker at a local club, I soaked it up. Even the Stephane Grappelli concert I attended alone amongst the blue-hairs and no hairs. Now I’m a no-hair (thanks again, Pops) and I know I’m perceived by the kids today as just an out-of-touch guy who likes old-guy music. But what can I expect when I find myself dropping phrases like “The kids today”?

Truth is, I was an out-of-touch young guy who liked old-guy music, too. Over the years, I’ve made some concessions to today’s music with an expanding pop CD collection, but none of it is considered very “popular”. I do know this: no matter how tasteful and musical I may think a particular pop group is, my Dad would have none of it. I’m relieved in a way that rap and hip-hop culture had the decency to wait for him to die before it took hold on society. I don’t know what I’d do if some rap group were to sample one of his many recordings. I’d probably become catatonic.

Is it any wonder I feel lost in this world of pop culture? I’m not saying I’m giving an inch on the rap/hip-hop debate. Or any other debate in which I’m ill-suited to participate. I’m just saying, that’s all.

No, Thank You (Vancouver Sun)

 

Confessions of a Straight Man

No, Thank You

Guy MacPherson doesn't smoke pot – and he's not afraid to admit it
 

Vancouver Sun, July 1, 2000

Today, while the rest of the country is busy celebrating the Maple Leaf, many a Vancouverite will be worshipping their own leaf, rolling it up and toking it to Cannabis Day. Aren’t we a patriotic bunch? I myself will mark the occasion just as I have the rest of the 13,817 days I’ve spent on the cold side of the womb – by not smoking pot.

Here in Lotus Land, we have some of the best marijuana in the world. Or so I keep reading in the papers. In our own city of Vansterdam, where cannabis cafes and hemp shops give new meaning to the word “drugstore,” hardly a day goes by without a newspaper running some pro- or anti-stoner article. Yet here I am, drug-free for close to 38 years. What went wrong?

Born and reared in British Columbia, I’ve spent all but one year of my life here. I’ve even visited the real Amsterdam. And I’m still a drug virgin. What can I say? I’m a maverick. I remember with absolute clarity and precision the first time I never tried pot. I was in the back seat of a car while two of my classmates from my Grade 11 law class were up front. Recognizing that timing is everything, my friends pulled out a big fatty on the way to the courthouse for our field trip. That’s some major league cajones, my friends. But what did you expect? It was the ‘70s, after all. Smoking up before the law was almost expected. My friends made the perfunctory offer my way, more out of courtesy, I’m guessing, than their desire to share. “No, thanks,” I stammered, trying to maintain my cool, stumbling on to what should be the Canadian version of the U.S. national drug campaign (“Just Say No, Thanks!”).

My buddies had caught me off guard in the car and I just wasn’t ready. Twenty-one years later I can’t really use that excuse anymore. Thank goodness I’m at an age where I don’t need excuses – and I get more and more offers to indulge. I can only guess why I’ve turned out the way I have. My personal credo is never look too deeply, so my best guess is that children naturally rebel against their parents. (We’ll leave it at that.)

Thanks to my high-school buddies’ easy-going attitude to their squaresville friend, I’ve never felt uncomfortable again in turning down the evil weed. Still, pot almost got me thrown out of the Greater Vancouver Open golf tournament. Sports Illustrated, that radical journal, had asked me to get some quotes from golfers about our “sin city” and the cannabis cafes for which we are so famous. At the mere mention of marijuana, Paul Stankowski grabbed the credentials hanging around my neck and held them up to his face. “Who are you writing for?” he demanded. “That’s kind of a weird question. Why are you asking me that?” I decided it probably wasn’t wise to continue. Like almost everyone else who knows I’m from Vancouver, he probably wouldn’t have believed I didn’t smoke pot. And I never found out if he did.

You may think I’m making this all up, perhaps to throw the heat off my trail. But I’m here to say it’s all true and I’m not alone. There are five more that I know personally who are in the same boat. Count ‘em. There may be more out there in the general populace who have never tired marijuana but as of press time, this rumour was unconfirmed. There’s no reason to fear us. We’re just like you, only without the constant case of the munchies. But the stigma attached to our sobriety is so strong here in B.C. that I won’t use the fringe five’s real names for fear of getting them shoved into the locker of life. As “Mary Jane,” a 28-year-old from Calgary says, “I don’t want to be labeled a nerdy, born-again right winger or something like that.”

As it turns out, none of us is born again, or even religious, so there is no churchly excuse for us not to smoke weed. My pal “Rocky” can’t even answer why he’s never tried it. After all, he did smoke half a cigarette – once. And on the question of whether marijuana should be legalized, we split right down the middle. Mary Jane thinks it should be accessible to those who want it, safely and without persecution; she maintains that legalizing weed won’t increase or decrease the number of irresponsible users. It will just eliminate shady distribution and production. She was always the radical among us. On the other side, “Dirk,” 31, who works in retail, thinks there are more useful political debates, while my bud “Geraldo,” a 38-year-old in the entertainment industry, thinks we should keep pot illegal just to “piss off Woody Harrelson.”

The most common question posed to all of us who have preserved our drug chastity is, of course: “How do you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it?”

For me, it’s not a case of liking it, but not wanting to like it. Monkey brain or cow tongue may indeed be delicious, but I’m not particularly anxious to try them, either. It’s kind of like religious zealots who challenge you to ask Jesus into your life: If you ask Jesus into your life, you’ve pretty well accepted Him already. In other words, if you’re willing to try it, you’re probably predisposed to liking it.

My friend Dirk cherishes presence of mind, a reliable memory, responsibility and motivation. Would one toke change this for any of us? Probably not. But it also means we’re completely unmotivated to try it. For Geraldo, the temporary high would not be worth losing the right to say, “I’ve never smoked pot.” As the years go by, I feel the same perverse sense of pride at this Ripken-like iron-man streak. It’s not easy, either. We’re a prime target for pot smokers. They all want to be the first to pop our drug cherry.

And living in Vancouver, we can’t get away from the stuff. Whether we’re at a party, a concert or just walking down the street, the stench of pot is as prevalent as skunk in the West End. Hell, the new Marijuana Party of Canada plans on running 50 candidates in the next federal election. It’s everywhere we look.

Still, I can’t see myself ever succumbing. Not the most motivated at the best of times, I can’t imagine how I’d be under the influence. I barely get off the couch as it is.