Today is the birthday of Mr. Don Rickles (b. 1926). Famous for being a politically incorrect insult comic in live performance, he originally trained as an actor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and played occasional roles in film and television. His initial shot at his own situation comedy The Don Rickles Show lasted only 5 episodes in 1972.
In 1976, a vehicle was devised for him that seemed better suited for his persona and his reputation. In C.P.O. Sharkey, Rickles played a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy whose crew of recruits consisted of a diverse rainbow of ethnicities for the star to make fun of: Italian, Polish, Puerto-Rican, black, Jewish. Among the straight-up WASPS, there were other things to make fun of: his assistant was six feet seven inches tall and basically retarded; his Lieutenant was a scrawny wimp with glasses and buck teeth. And the company captain was a woman. It was all about the clash between Sharkey, an old school rough and tough foul mouthed tar, and the new, modern, politically correct Navy during the Jimmy Carter era.
Sounds promising, but in my recollection, it still fell short. I’m guessing the producers had taken a page from Redd Foxx’s book. Like Rickles, Foxx was a stand-up comedian with a rude and raunchy live act. There had been high expectations that his tailor made sit-com Sanford and Son would echo Foxx’s live act and push the envelope some. It didn’t, but that was okay — because Foxx’s performances were so hilarious, and the comedy writing was often excellent. Fred Sanford was not Redd Foxx. The show was one of the major success stories of the 1970s. C.P.O. Sharkey only lasted two years, and my instinct as to why is because it attempted to do what it couldn’t possibly do given prime time television standards of the day, which was echo Rickles’ stand-up persona. The show was kind of toothless, and the writing wasn’t very funny. Rickles unscripted was far better than what the C.P.O. Sharkey writers could cook up for him.
To find out more about show biz past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc