It's tricky to call something 'ultimate'. There's always something more to dig up, right? Nevertheless, this conglomeration of Rickles material available in its separate components is pretty close. Spread across eight DVDs, we're presented with four Don Rickles TV specials, hour-long variety shows that aired in the '70s. Two specials with a few extras come each to a disk, in their own DVD keepcases. The remaining six disks (in two DVD keepcases with flippers) collect the entire run of Rickles' weird sit-com CPO Sharkey, which premiered in 1976. Cram these four keepcases into a slipcover, and start laughing, you hockey puck!
Volume I: The Many Sides Of Don Rickles
Opening with wide shots of sets and audience, the camera finds cast and crew working to open the show, while the band vamps through a soft-funk number that sounds pretty smooth. Rickles introduces the show, joining his guests in a casual roundtable with audience members included. Harvey Korman, Don Adams, and Robert Goulet cut-up with Rickles, surprising the audience and themselves in the process. Next up is an odd bit of sketch comedy with Rickles as a Friar overseeing a rehearsal for the filmed version of his life. Laudanum-laced laughs come at a leisurely, awkward pace. As we wend back to the behind-the-scenes milieu, Rickles starts riffing, berating a nearby cameraman and roasting crooner Goulet by way of an introduction; Goulet then rips into a poignant song of lost love, bringing the house down. The combination of Goulet's spot on emoting, while seen singing to a camera from the distance, represents the perfect expression of the show's deconstructionist motif versus the artifice involved in performing arts. The hour-long (for television) special continues curiously apace, equally entertaining (check out the weirdness of Korman's hyper-sexual Love Guru) and oddly fascinating (certainly for representing such a unique capsule of a particular expression of '70s culture). Ultimately, Rickles unloads a bit of his soul on a group of psychiatrists, (yes) and we're left eagerly cueing up the next Special.
Volume I: Alive And Kicking
Rickles walks among the audience for some funcomfortable (my portmanteau, but you can use it if you want) interaction with the audience. A sketch involving newlyweds features cringe-worthy sexual humor, which is a good thing of course, followed by Juliet Prowse doing a weird song-and-dance, singing Honkey Cat by Elton John. More strange/awkward sketches, such as an awards ceremony for plastic surgeons featuring Carol O'Connor, and more song-and-dance numbers follow, before the show ends on yet more singing and dancing. Though not as innovative as his first special is, 'Alive And Kicking' at least parlays some serious kitsch from its traditional variety-show format.
Volume II: Mr. Warmth
Rickles stops often to intimate that his humor is just in fun, and that we are all merely humans with faults, so you know his heart is in the right place. However, take a chance and screen this for your Liberal friends and watch the outrage! When you aren't feeling like you're doing something wrong by laughing, enjoy a slate of guest stars that's truly an embarrassment of riches. Carol O'Connor reappears, the guys from Adam 12 pop up, Steve Landesberg cracks up with some offensive material, Bob Newhart, Loretta Switt, Jack Klugman, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin also chip in. Hell, even one-joke-wonder Ray Jay Johnson appears, making all of us wonder just what was in the water back then.
Volume II: Rickles
Set in Las Vegas, the show cruises behind the scenes at Caesar's Palace with Otto Preminger, and cranks out a showgirls song-and-dance production with bagpipes and Latin drums. Rickles gets mildly topical with his takes on faith and religion, but also proves canny enough to parody Midnight Cowboy. More offensive racial humor pairs with that most-unlikely of signifiers, Rickles clearly in flop-sweat mode, none of which makes this special any less edgy (both then and now) or funny. There's a reason the hockey puck ascended to the level of stardom demonstrated by these specials, he's funny, smart, talented and supremely confident. Enjoy the kookoo magic of these specials before digging into the true strangeness of CPO Sharkey.
CPO Sharkey: This ultimate collection gathers not only the two disks of specials, but also six disks representing the entire two-season run of Rickles' mid-to-late-'70s sit-com, CPO Sharkey. There are those among you who would say that attempting to review the entire two-season run of CPO Sharkey, in which Rickles plays Chief Petty Officer Sharkey, commander of a platoon of Naval Cadets in San Diego, would be fun and easy. I would impolitely call those of you 'idiots' or possibly 'hockey pucks', while reminding you that mid-seventies audiences got to absorb this show in half-hour chunks over dozens of weeks. We reviewers need try to suck it all down at once, like binge-drinkers threatened by a bunch of hopped-up senior Frat members.
Sharkey must find a way to gently foster his cadets, a crew full of all ethnic types, through their trials and tribulations on the way to graduation. Standard sit-com scenarios unfold, with minor twists designed to adapt to the realities faced by young men in the armed forces. As such, CPO Sharkey is no more, or less, engaging than any other sit-com from the '70s. It's certainly not as thrilling as All In The Family, nor is it as forgettable as Carter Country. (A show so forgettable I had to Google 'forgettable sit-coms' in order to remember it, even though in the hell that was my adolescence, I actually watched the show religiously in syndicated form on Saturday afternoons, when I had nothing at all better to do with my life.)
The trick is finding a way to hang the show on Rickles' shoulders. A comedic genius, Rickles is not the cuddliest character. There's a reason they call him Mr. Warmth, after all. He's like an angry python, slow, bug-eyed, and deliberate. He's not quite a human character, as he strains to show that everybody aggravates him. He's relatable, ultimately, in that, no matter how much they annoy him, he will always go to bat for his cadets, because they are his.
Mostly, Sharkey glides on two rails, Rickles' ethnic humor, and his interplay with his assistant, Seaman Lester Pruitt, (Peter Isacksen) the goofy, 6'7" southerner endlessly pleased with his own humor. If each episode finds Sharkey threatening to keep an eye on someone, the episodes also probably have two instances each of Sharkey glaring up into Pruitt's down-turned face, a Madonna and Child scene if ever there were one. If anything, Pruitt humanizes Rickles too, as both actors stifle laughter at the ridiculous improbability of it all.
But let's talk about that ethnic humor. Rickles is, was, and always will be an equal opportunity offender, taking as many shots at his own Jewishness as he does at the Blacks, Hispanics, Polish, and any other variety of human that happens to be in his unit. Time Life takes pains to warn us on the back of the DVD cases that Rickles' humor reflects the times, may be offensive, and likely would never make it on Network TV today. It's an interesting testimony of our times of Political Correctness, and seems sort of sad to me, like our skins have gotten way too thin. On the other hand, I wonder how the actors (and guests on Rickles' TV Specials) felt about the jokes. Certainly one formidable actor built to withstand whatever Rickles throws at him is Harrison (Sledge Hammer!) Page as CPO Robinson. It's a real pleasure to see Page here, he's a talented and underused actor who always brings good humor and chops to anything he does.
Season One consists of 15 episodes, while Season Two runs a full slate of 22 episodes. There's entirely too much here for one reviewer to absorb while remaining within the ballpark of deadline. Highlights include an episode in which cadet Shimokawa asks to be transferred away from the hockey puck. Fun is poked at the Japanese. A 'Lost Episode' appears, sourced from syndication and thus missing two minutes of run-time excised to make room for additional advertising. This episode, oddly, sports much better visual quality than the others. At one juncture the cadets get the impression that Sharkey likes Black girls, which leads to plenty of uncomfortable laughs. Sometimes the cadets just want to cut loose with an ill-advised before-graduation pizza party, while at other times they sneak off campus to a 'Punk Rock Club' with bowls of fruit on the tables, (very anti-establishment, that) which allows time for Don to find a potential punk rock love interest, and grants actual punk band The Dickies a little screen time. While the direction is sometimes awkward, especially in the beginning, CPO Sharkey eventually finds its sea legs. Don's humor, sometimes composed of one-liners, at other times arising from his love-hate relationship with his cadets, fits neatly into the sit-com format, while Rickles himself ultimately lends a grudging humanity to his character.
Mr. Warmth! Don Rickles: The Ultimate Collection: represents a remarkable time capsule for a formidable comedian. Rickles' in-your-face-offensiveness would have difficulty flying in the mainstream of today, but his message that we are all just messed-up humans still rings true. The four clever TV Specials presented here, and the entire 37-episode run of Rickles' late-'70s sit-com, CPO Sharkey show the comedian at the height of his powers. You'll laugh, you'll cringe, you'll be amazed at what performers both had to do, and got away with as the 20th Century neared its end. If you were old enough to appreciate Don in the '70s, you'll find this collection riding the cusp of Highly Recommended.
The TV Specials Volumes 1 & 2 look much better by comparison. Also presented in their original 4 x 3 full frame ratios, these specials were likely filmed with actual celluloid, while Sharkey was probably filmed on videotape. Colors are warmer, details are much sharper, (though still somewhat soft for DVD) and compression artifacts are not to be found, at least for the TV Specials, compression artifacts would have to fight hard for attention on CPO Sharkey. Rickles filmed introductions for each TV Special, which look sharp and clean, showing off the old hockey puck's age spots with great clarity!
CPO Sharkey Season One includes a three-minute Clip From The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson surprising Rickles and Page on set. It's a lot of fun. Season Two includes a 20 minute CPO Sharkey Cast Reunion Las Vegas, April 2015 with Rickles, Page, and three other cast members.