Sunday, April 20, 2008

Leave 'Em Wanting More

As a teenager, the Dean Martin celebrity roasts marked the start of my cynical side regarding "show business" when I realized that the shots of celebrities reacting to their fellow roasters were often strategically edited to create the impression that everyone on the dais found all of proceedings hysterically funny.

It was as if the Dean Martin producers thought that the audience would unquestioningly accept the fact that Nipsey Russell could be reduced to tears and uncontrollable laughter by a routine Rich Little performance.

I did notice that they didn't have to resort to this tactic very often during a Don Rickles performance. He was ALWAYS the funniest one there. That's understandable given that insulting people was his shtick.

In fact, a Dean Martin roast that didn't have Don Rickles, was a letdown similar to a John Ford movie without John Wayne (only more so).

That and his Tonight Show appearences still hold a very special spot in my memories.

So, I was sincerely excited about the Landis directed HBO documentary, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (2007), that mixes live recordings from Rickles' Las Vegas act, interviews with various celebrities (including Rickles himself), and clips from Rickles' work in television and movies.

A valiant effort, and seemingly a labor of love, the main problem I had with Mr. Warmth, like the Martin roasts, came down to editing. Landis tries to cram so much in that he is forced cut away from scenes just as they're getting good.

For instance, there's clip from a Rickle's appearance on an old Tonight Show where Frank Sinatra was the guest host. Sinatra asks Rickles who his favorite singer is and without missing a beat Rickles replies Dick Haymes. I'd love to have seen more of that interchange, but Landis cuts to something else.

All too often, that something else Landis cuts away to is not quite as interesting or funny as what he's just left to take us there. If I have a chance to see vintage footage of Don Rickles and Frank Sinatra jousting on air, who cares what comedian Bobby Slayton has to say?

On the other hand, Penn Jillette, comic magician, makes an interesting comparison between Don Rickles and The Sex Pistols, yet gets only one short appearance. John Stamos and Bob Saget, who both hardly talk about Don Rickles, end up with MORE onscreen time.

The dilemma Landis faced was understandable. In addition to segments of Rickles' stage act, old movie and television clips, Landis has to juggle a daunting list of "commentators" who make an appearance in Mr. Warmth. Including: Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Richard Lewis, Sarah Silverman, Bob Newhart, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Lawrence, Robin Williams, Roseanne Barr, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Regis Philbin, Sidney Poitier, Kathy Griffin, Ed McMahon, James Caan, Joan Rivers, Jimmy Kimmel, Harry Shearer, Chris Rock, and Martin Scorsese.

But that doesn't excuse Landis from often making the wrong choices.

Fortunately, the DVD release of Mr. Warmth has extra material that includes some of the things that should have made it to the finished piece. Such as James Caan explaining how he channeled Don Rickles for his characterization of Sonny in The Godfather. Why that didn't make the final cut is a mystery. There's also a neat "extra" where Caan talks about working with Howard Hawks, John Wayne and Robert Mitchum on El Dorado (which, of course, was correctly omitted from the actual documentary).

I also wish Landis had spent a bit more time exploring the question of why Rickles can get away with a persona that, on paper, is so politically incorrect. Chris Rock touches on that idea when, while commenting on Rickles' act, says "of course, it's offensive...unless you're into comedy."

Mr. Warmth was informative, but it could have dug a bit deeper. Mr. Warmth was funny, but it could have been funnier.

Landis just needed to make up his mind.

The irony is that the best part of Mr. Warmth was seeing Rickles make the rounds on various talk shows promoting it.

In March of this year, he made a killer of an appearance on David Letterman's show with Denzel Washington (who elected to remain an extra segment just for the thrill of it).

The clips of that performance are proof that even at eighty, Rickles still has it.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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