Celebrating a carnival of insults: Don Rickles meets Mikhail Bakhtin

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Although comedian Don Rickles was a popular-culture mainstay from the 1950s through the 2010s, scholarship has overlooked Rickles’ comedic legacy. To address this shortcoming, the present study employs Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque to illustrate how Rickles merged transgressive humor with grotesque realism to flout late twentieth-century American social propriety. In distinctive ways, Rickles employed carnivalesque humour to create a public site for inverting social hierarchies, sensibilities, and value systems. This approach to comedy not only allowed Rickles to undermine social conventions, but also allowed Rickles to encourage audience involvement in these carnivalesque antics. Theories of ritual and theories of television that posit an active audience complement this viewpoint. These perspectives show that even as Rickles denied political intent, Rickles’ comedy was eminently political: It not only inverted social hierarchies, but its ambivalent qualities also highlighted the dangers of groups over-identifying with socially constructed subject positions.

Original languageEnglish
JournalComedy Studies
StateAccepted/In press - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • carnivalesque humour
  • Don Rickles
  • insult comedy
  • Mikhail Bakhtin
  • standup comedy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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