Holding back tears, his voice wavering, his eyes red, and his emotions as raw as any you’ll ever see on TV -- late night or otherwise -- Jimmy Kimmel said goodbye to Don Rickles on Thursday’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
It was a remarkable patch of television -- made more remarkable by the fact that Kimmel, who was so deeply influenced by Rickles, did nearly lose it.
He began the monologue, “I’m going to cry, I’m already crying, which is embarrassing but ... uh.” His voice then trailed off. You can see Kimmel reach for words, but can’t quite get past the emotion. He then gets it together, and continues: “We lost someone that we and I loved very much today ... He (Don Rickles) was 90 years old, and I know it sounds crazy to say but he was too young because he was youthful and funny and sharp and generous. I was fortunate to not only have him on this show, but I became close to him and his wife Barbara. “
As the Brooklyn native explained, Kimmel grew up in Las Vegas where Rickles’ “name was on the marquee at the Sahara.” Rickles -- who died Thursday of kidney failure -- would ultimately become a mentor and “Live” regular.
As Kimmel fans probably remember, he also broke up during his tribute to “Uncle Frank” Potenza, another “Live” regular, who was also Kimmel’s real uncle, and who died in 2011. He began that particular September edition, “As you may have heard, Uncle Frank -- a fixture on our show since our first show in January of 2003 -- passed away over our vacation. He hated vacations so he decided to ruin ours.”
Kimmel’s tribute to Rickles Thursday was indeed moving and human -- a reminder to us all that emotions lurk just beneath our hardened exteriors, ready to expose our hearts. But it’s nevertheless an exceedingly rare display for television. Rickles’ influence on late night TV was certainly profound. Along with Joan Rivers, he was Johnny Carson’s most reliable and important comic partner over a three-decade span on “Tonight.” And Rickles’ art of the instant comeback -- either as a rebuke, or funny observation – schooled two generations of late night hosts. The Rickles’ lesson to them was obvious: Never allow even a half-second of “dead” air; and if you’re going to have a comeback to something a guest on the show just said, make absolutely certain it’s both funny AND makes the guest look even better.
Kimmel thus mustered the most perfect "thank you" a late night host possibly could -- in heart and tears.