At an age when most folks are retired or dead, Don Rickles celebrates his 90th birthday the way a comedy legend should: on the road performing, with a kid (relatively) named Regis Philbin opening for Mr. Warmth, the Merchant of Venom, take your nickname pick.
Cue the insult comic's toreador theme song. Someone's getting gored, as good-naturedly as it gets.
How does Rickles still do it? How has he outlived nearly all of his comedy peers and celebrity targets since the Rat Pack era?
The answer may be found in an anecdote Rickles dropped at the end of our telephone interview:
"My mother, rest her soul, I was very close with," Rickles said from his Beverly Hills home. "She was about 84 and she was in the hospital, in bad shape. I'm an only child and I went over to the bed, said, 'Doctor, can I talk to her?' He said absolutely.
"I said, 'Mom, you're 84 years old, God's been good, keep your chin up.' She looked at me and said, 'I can't be 85?' "
A wistful laugh, then: "I'll never forget that."
Rickles hasn't stopped working like that, either. In addition to his birthday tour, there's another Toy Story gig as Mr. Potato Head coming, and two new outlets for his humor on Twitter and an iTunes app.
"Well, you do everything for money unless you're a dummy," Rickles said, perhaps his second-favorite term of endearment after "hockey puck."
Fearless yet cautious about whom he skewers, Rickles has heckled show biz and White House royalty for decades, through countless concerts and television appearances.
His pugnacious manner is just an act, of course. Rickles kids because he loves. Being roasted by "Bullethead," as Sinatra called him, is a badge of honor. Nothing personal, and only aimed at those Rickles knows can take it. Rickles was politically incorrect long before that was cool.
"Thank you for saying that, I appreciate it," Rickles said. "What I do is different, and different took me a long way.
"Mine is an attitude and my attitude is always fun. You can always tell that. I exaggerate, and sometimes when some other people try to do that, as you say, it comes across as rude or unkind.
"I know I can't please the world, but for the majority I never had that complaint. There's always somebody who may not find the humor in something. I realize sometimes somebody walks out of the theater and they're maybe not crazy about me. They're entitled."
Anyone leaving a Don Rickles show dissatisfied must be a hockey puck. The man is a comedy icon, deserving every stop and standing ovation on his birthday tour. Just don't congratulate him on turning 90 too soon.
"It's not till May, so don't rush me," Rickles said. "I've got a little time yet."
Hopefully a lot more.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.