Somewhere between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign announcement, during which he called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and drug dealers, and his first Republican primary win in New Hampshire, a narrative started to take hold: he was the “insult comic” candidate. The Don Rickles of politics, as historian Kevin Kruse put it on Twitter in August of 2015.
Trump himself invoked Rickles’s name at one point to describe his opponent Marco Rubio, who had started making jokes about the size of his “hands” on the campaign trail. “It’s not who he is. I didn’t like it,” Trump said on Fox and Friends of Rubio’s comments. “But all of a sudden, he became Don Rickles. And he’s not Don Rickles.”
One couldn’t help but think Trump was a little upset that another candidate was homing in on his territory. If anyone was Don Rickles, surely it was him, he must have thought to himself.
While Trump may have a knack for insulting people, there is a huge difference between our current president and Rickles, the greatest insult comic of all time, who died this week at the age of 90.
The primary difference between the two men—besides the fact that Rickles’s jokes were much, much funnier than Trump’s unimaginative put-downs—is that while Rickles was an equal-opportunity offender who almost always told his jokes right to his target’s face, Trump is little more than a petulant bully who likes to lob his insults from afar. As a billionaire real-estate developer and reality TV host, he was almost always punching down. As president, you can remove the word “almost.”
The philosophy behind the comedic roast is very different. Jeff Ross, the self-proclaimed “Roastmaster General” and arguably Rickles’s biggest disciple, titled his 2009 book, I Only Roast the Ones I Love: How to Bust Balls Without Burning Bridges. Speaking to the Today show’s Al Roker just this past October, Rickles said his approach to insult comedy was similar: “I’m never hurtful,” he said. “It’s always something that’s sarcastic, but fun.”
Trump has also claimed “sarcasm” on occasion, like when he called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, but to quote the great Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” After he called Obama the “founder of ISIS,” he tweeted that he was being sarcastic. But then when radio host Hugh Hewitt tried to get him to clarify, suggesting that perhaps Trump was speaking metaphorically, he replied, “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS.”
Perhaps the best way to judge someone’s sense of humor is their ability to laugh at themselves—something Rickles excelled at, as can be seen in his best late-night talk show appearances. In 2014, he was the guest of honor at an all-star comedy roast called One Night Only in which Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, David Letterman and a host of others spent hours making fun of him. Rickles laughed and applauded throughout, especially when the only two women on the bill got up to take him down a peg.
Trump, on the other hand, almost never laughs—period. And certainly not at himself. The stories from his Comedy Central roast in 2011 demonstrate just how little interest he had in being the butt of any jokes. When he received the list of jokes writers had put together for him, he literally crossed out the punchlines, representing “a classic lack of an understanding of how a joke works,” as one of the writers put it.
That same year, Trump had such a horrible time being mocked by President Obama and Seth Meyers at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that many believe it drove him to seek the presidency in a more serious way. Now that he is president, he has decided he would rather alienate the White House Press Corps and skip the event entirely than subject himself to the no doubt merciless treatment he would receive from whatever comedian they choose to host this year.
He was similarly lost at sea when he hosted Saturday Night Live at the height of his Republican primary campaign. As former cast member (and pre-Alec Baldwin Trump impersonator) Taran Killam recalled in a new interview, Trump “struggled to read at the table read, which did not give many of us great confidence. Didn’t get the jokes, really.” This echoed Pete Davidson’s assertion that Trump “doesn’t really know how to read.”
Nowhere were Trump’s lack of comedic skills more fully on display, however, than at the Al Smith Dinner just days before he won the presidency. Traditionally, the charity event has been a chance for the two candidates, who have been going after each other for months on the campaign trail, to trade some light-hearted jabs in good fun. That was, more or less, how Hillary Clinton approached her speech. But when Trump got up, he took his brand of “insult comedy” entirely too far.
After throwing his own wife under the bus for plagiarizing first lady Michelle Obama’s convention speech, Trump was hit with a chorus of boos from the crowd as he said, “Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate Commission,” and later, “Here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.”
Rickles would be the first to point out that if you’re getting more groans than laughs, you’re doing it wrong. Insult comedy only works when the person you’re insulting is in on the joke. As Al Roker said in that 2016 interview, getting insulted by Rickles was a “badge of honor” for fans and fellow comedians alike.
The nickname “Mr. Warmth” was given to Rickles ironically, but it contained some truth about the man as well. Behind all of the insults was a genuinely warm guy, who deep down just wanted to make people laugh. The same cannot be said for Donald Trump.