Don Rickles Makes Racist, Unfunny Obama Joke

Insult comic Don Rickles told a joke about President Obama being a janitor. Like most of Rickles' material over the last several decades, it wasn't funny.

Insult comic Don Rickles told a joke about President Obama being a janitor. Like most of Rickles’ material over the last several decades, it wasn’t funny.

Hollywood Reporter (“Don Rickles Shocks Hollywood Crowd With Racial Obama Joke“):

Don Rickles nearly hijacked the American Film Institute’s tribute to Shirley MacLaine on Thursday night at Sony Pictures Studios, unleashing a trademark barrage of insults that took aim at President Obama, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and the honoree herself.

“I shouldn’t make fun of the blacks,” Rickles said, and then proceeded to do just that: “President Obama is a personal friend of mine. He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.”

The problem with that joke isn’t that it tries to find humor in the president’s race but that it’s decades out of date. As Joe Gandleman observes, “Rickles has been doing the same, exact humor for years. In fact, some of his jokes are ‘switched’ jokes: jokes where you revise a joke using a different name or make a slightly different punchline.” That’s a tried-and-true technique. But, eventually, the culture changes and the joke becomes out of phase with reality. Blacks haven’t mostly been relegated to menial labor since, what, the 1960s?

Chris Rock could probably make a hundred funny “black president” jokes. So, for that matter, could Louis CK. Rickles just comes across as a cranky old coot.

I didn’t find Rickles particularly funny in the 1970s, but he was at least still current then.  The non-racial jokes were just as weak:

“Shirley,” Rickles, living up to his moniker as Mr. Warmth, began as he rose to his feet from a table near the center of the room. “I never read your books, and I don’t plan to.”

Turning to MacLaine’s brother Beatty, he continued, “I know your brother very well, and I never liked him.”

Shifting his focus to Nicholson, who also was present, Rickles cracked, “He’s not here tonight – he’s with the Lakers, oiling their jocks.”

Taking aim at Jennifer Aniston, one of the actresses who shared the main table with MacLaine, Rickles claimed she “took my table at the Tower Restaurant one night because she was in heat with some guy.”

Surveying the celebrity-packed room, Rickles wondered where all the stars were, saying, “If Sidney Poitier hadn’t shown up, they’d be nobody.” Spotting Dennis Haysbert, on whose series The Unit Rickles had appeared, he shouted, “Oh, there’s the black guy from The Unit,” adding, “now he works for Allstate.”

This isn’t “shocking,” it’s just lame.

FILED UNDER: Humor, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Well, he’s over 65. According to the Bill Clinton advisors, that means he gets a pass.

  2. RIckles used to tell the same joke about Sammy Davis.

    But, I suppose this isn’t 1962 and we’re not at the Sands in Vegas

  3. John Burgess says:

    Yeah… the only thing new here is ‘Obama’. Rickles has been unfunny and racist since he first put foot on stage.

  4. Jim Treacher says:

    Wait, Don Rickles said something mean and nasty?

  5. Dean says:

    Which is worse, Rickles unfunny joke or Bill Clinton saying a few years ago this guy would be getting us coffee?

  6. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    Cute. One somehow waits for the taa-daa and canned laughter at the end.

    I didn’t even know that joke structure still existed “in the wild”. I mean, that’s the kind of joke that the Larry Laffer series made fun of (with bad on-stage stand-up comedians) back in 1987…

  7. Wait, you mean to tell me there’s an 86 year old out there who’s out of phase with the current social culture? Hang on, let me go get my suprised face out of the closet.

  8. Scott says:

    However lame and old fashioned Rickles is, he has a reputation of being one of the nicest people around and on that grounds alone, he’ll get a pass.

  9. Nikki says:

    I’d love to see what lame jokes he told about past presidents.

  10. Nikki,

    Well, he didn’t exactly hold back on President Reagan—KzEYI

  11. Marvin says:

    Someone inally killed the sacred cow – and in Hollywood to boot. The article I read said everyone laughed. I would like some comedians to step forward and do some serious political comedy about Obama that didn’t pull any punches.

  12. Marvin says:

    ^finally (spelling)

  13. DRS says:

    If Slate hasn’t deleted his archived columns yet, it’s worth searching for Christopher Hitchen’s column on Bob Hope’s “humor” and how painfully unfunny it’s always been. Same thing with DR.

  14. Humor is, and has always been, completely subjective.

    Personally, I’ve always gotten a kick out of Rickles and the Rat Pack style of humor. But, that’s just me

  15. al-Ameda says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Humor is, and has always been, completely subjective.

    Exactly right. Doug.
    Of all the “old school” comedians, Rickles has been one who does not made me laugh very much.

    Two current comedians, who appear on HBO comedy specials, and who do make me laugh are Ron White and Margaret Cho

  16. And, see? I find Margaret Cho completely unamusing.

    Like I said, this is entirely subjective

  17. Reggie1971 says:

    Oh for God’s sake. Isn’t political correctness becoming just a bit tiresome? This is Don Rickles form of humor. He does this to everybody. He isn’t going to change and shouldn’t be pressured to by a bunch of insufferably hyper-sensitive people.

  18. grumpy realist says:

    @Reggie1971: There’s hypersensitive and there’s just a non-funny joke.

    I listen to Wayne and Shuster and their stuff is still funny. Ditto for Flanders and Swann. Don Rickles? Meh. Never was funny in the first place.

  19. Gary says:

    Don Rickles has been doing this type of humor since before most of the people posting here were born. HE MAKES FUN OF EVERYONE!!! I’m as sensitive about racial jokes as the next person, but this is what he has done for more than 40 years. I could see if it was someone who came out of his or her mouth that didn’t have a reputation for it, but Rickles does!

  20. steve says:

    You invited Don Rickles to your gala affair. What did you think was going to happen? Did you think he was going to tell you how sweet and lovely you all are?

  21. ken says:

    It was a joke nothing Racist, about it the only it would be Racist is if only stupid black’s was janitors but there white janitors as well get over your self’s .

  22. Dee says:

    But Bill Maher can get away with insulting mormons- HYPOCRITES

  23. steve says:

    @Dee: and Sara Palin and Michelle Bachman!