Mention Dean Martin and the average person thinks of his long partnership with Jerry Lewis (1946-1956), or his 1960s “Rat Pack” association with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford.
But from 1973 to 1984, the crooner who often performed with a cigarette or drink in hand surrounded himself with a different “posse”—people like comedians Dom DeLuise, Bob Newhart, Rowan & Martin, Jonathan Winters, Foster Brooks, Nipsey Russell, Phyllis Diller, Ruth Buzzi, Rich Little, Don Rickles—even the legendary Orson Welles. Along with guests each week, they were his “roasters,” allotted four minutes apiece to poke fun of an honoree.
Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan was the first to feel the comic heat.
The occasion was “The Dean Martin Comedy Hour,” which ran from 1965-1974 and in the final season staved off the kind of elimination that was knocking other variety shows off the air by incorporating celebrity roasts. Early roasts—patterned after the famed Friar’s Club galas—began as segments of the variety show. And early honorees in those segments were late-night staples Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon; actors Kirk Douglas, Bette Davis, William Conrad, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Carroll O’Connor, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall; comedians Jack Benny and Don Rickles; Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner; sports personalities Leo Durocher, Wilt Chamberlain, Joe Namath, Hank Aaron, and Bobby Riggs; writer Truman Capote; consumer advocate Ralph Nader; and politicians Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey, Barry Goldwater, and George Washington (portrayed by Jan Leighton).
The format was so successful that the roasts evolved into individual TV specials honoring Bob Hope, Telly Savalas, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Sammy Davis, Jr., Michael Landon, Evel Knievel, Valerie Harper, Muhammad Ali, Dennis Weaver, Joe Garagiola, Danny Thomas, Angie Dickinson, Gabe Kaplan, Ted Knight, Peter Marshall, Dan Haggerty, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, George Burns, Betty White, Suzanne Somers, Joan Collins, Mr. T, Michael Landon—even Martin himself, who was roasted by Orson Welles, Paul Lynde, Joe Namath, Barry Goldwater, Angie Dickinson, Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Stewart, Gabe Kaplan, Gene Kelly, Hubert Humphrey, Charlie Callas, John Wayne, Joey Bishop, Rich Little, Ruth Buzzi, Tony Orlando, Georgia Engel, Nipsey Russell, Foster Brooks, Howard Cosell, Bob Hope, and Rowan & Martin. Landon, Foxx, Namath, and Klugman were roasted twice, and comedians Nipsey Russell, Rich Little, and Ruth Buzzi appeared most often as roasters.
There were 54 roasts in all, and all 54 are included in “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Complete Collection” from StarVista Entertainment and Time Life—available only through Time Life.
How does it play today?
Amazingly well. My 15-year-old son watched this with me and he laughed out loud a bunch of times. Case in point: when Flip Wilson was saying how envious he was of Bob Hope for having his own golf tournament—The Bob Hope Desert Classic—he told how he was thinking of starting his own “ghetto classic” and went through a funny stand-up routine that he concluded by talking about handicaps, saying, “I learned my handicap, Bob, when I tried to join your club.”
Much of the humor is directed at the honoree, and if you don’t know anything about him/her you won’t get the full context for some of the humor. By the same token, topical humor has an expiration date, yet these celebrity roasts provide a timeless time capsule of another Hollywood—a Hollywood in which men dressed in tuxedos and nearly everyone smoked. As Martin and his posse joke about being drunk and trot out joke after joke about race, religion, sex, drinking—things that you couldn’t broadcast today because someone would scream about political correctness—you realize just how uptight and more racist our society has become. It’s hard not to come away from these roasts thinking that there was something refreshing, even liberating, about watching black and white entertainers joke about race and clearly enjoy doing so . . . and enjoy each other in the process.
The roast format is also a nice hybrid. On the one hand, you’re conscious of the roasters and roastee performing. Some have jokes written for them, while others have prepared short routines that attack the honoree, but often members on the dais as well. And yet, led by Martin’s informal way of hosting—a particularly funny bit comes when he refuses to put on his glasses to read lines on the teleprompter and the others give him grief—there’s a great deal of spontaneity and adlibbing, so you also get the sense that you’re catching some of the biggest celebrities in unguarded moments, interacting with each other. It’s like an awards show without the awards.
People who remember stars of the ’50s, ’60s and ‘70s will enjoy these roasts because it’s such a treat seeing so many big names. And for the rest? Like my son, you’ll catch enough of the fun and humor to be entertained—even more so if you pause the DVD after the introductions of panelists for each roast and take a moment to Google their bios. It’s not much different from going to an opera and reading a summary of the plot before the lights dim and the curtain opens. It enhances your viewing experience.
Then again, if you’ve seen plenty of movies and are even slightly culturally literate you’ll know many of these people by association. If you’ve seen “Patton,” for example, you can’t help but think of Karl Malden as Gen. Omar Bradley when the REAL Gen. Bradley walks to the lectern to lambast Bob Hope, who had been entertaining the troops in war zones since 1941. And if you’ve seen “The Honeymooners,” then you can appreciate Audrey Meadows, Sheila MacRae, and Art Carney sitting on the dais for the Jackie Gleason roast.
Though most of the roasters come from entertainment fields, occasionally you get head-snappers from other areas of history. Astronaut Neil Armstrong and diplomat Henry Kissinger turn up, as do boxer Rocky Graziano; football players Dick Butkus, Jim Plunkett, George Blanda, and Don Meredith; psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers; Olympians Mark Spitz and Cathy Rigby; and baseball sluggers Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Stan Musial. It’s a real treat seeing these people, let alone doing brief stand-up segments.
So what’s in the box? I’m not reviewing the figurine that comes with the set if you order from Time Life—only the DVDs. Included are 25 DVDs that are housed in three standard keep cases and three oversized keep cases, all of which fit inside a sturdy box with magnetic clasp. Collectors will appreciate the standard packaging, as you can just pop these on your shelves with all the rest, or else you can keep it as an oversized box set. It’s nice having the options.
The DVDs are packaged as:
“The Best of The Dean Martin Show” (308 min., Color)
“The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” (936 min., Color)
“The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Stingers and Zingers” (1230 min., Color)
“The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts featuring Frank Sinatra” (95 min., Color)
“The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Fully Roasted” (990 min., Color)
“The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Bonus Features” (379 min., Color)
It should come as no big surprise that the quality varies, since these roasts span a decade. But it did surprise me that they are collectively as sharp and grain-free as they are. I expected the episodes to lose their detail as my 50” TV converted them to a 16×9 format, but the series looks terrific on a large widescreen TV. Colors are nicely saturated, black levels are strong, and while the clarity and detail vary somewhat the picture never detracts from the proceedings.
The audio is a Dolby Digital Mono, and the most I can say about it is that there’s no distortion to speak of—no hiss during comic beats and pauses to spoil the punchlines.
Rather than list all the bonus features I’m going to refer you to “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” website, which lists all of the honorees, roasters, and bonus features. I will say, though, that the 34 interviews included are not as rewarding to watch as the roasts themselves, though it does give us more of a chance to see more of these great performers.
Also included are 11 newly produced featurettes: Legends of the Roasts, The Art of the Roast, Ladies of the Dais, Roast in Hell: Politicians under Fire, Sports Stars: Hit ‘Em Where It Hurts, The History of the Roast, The King of Cool: Always in Fashion, Politically Incorrect, Behind-the-Scenes, Primetime Ribbing: Roasting Small-Screen Stars, and Beauty & the Beast: Ruth Buzzi vs. Muhammad Ali. Those, for me were far more interesting because of the focus and context that shaped each one. The insights themselves aren’t as penetrating as you’d hope, but they feel worth watching.
In the box there’s also a 44-page extra-wide color booklet of quotes and quips from some of the most high-profile roasts, a few quotes of which I’m including here to give you some idea of the humor:
Bob Hope: “As a young boy in England, Bob never had much to say; he couldn’t afford writers then”—Dean Martin
Lucille Ball: “I love Lucy because she is a liberal. She was the first white woman in television to be hit in the face with a chocolate pie”—Nipsey Russell
Johnny Carson: “Johnny never forgets a friend. But then he’s only got two—his lawyer and Ed McMahon”—Freddie de Cordova
Jimmy Stewart: “I know at these roasts you’re supposed to say terrible things about the guest, but how can you say anything nasty about Jimmy Stewart? He’s a doll. I’d even like to take him out dancing. He’s so nice I’d even let him lead”—George Burns
Sammy Davis, Jr. : “All I can say about Sammy is, give him an inch and he’ll be 4 foot 8”—Milton Berle
Jack Benny: “He claims that he is 39 years old. He has soup stains on his tuxedo that are older than that”—Joey Bishop
Dean Martin: “Dean got his start in show business singing with the Sammy Watkins Band in Cleveland. He got seven dollars a night, nine dollars when he didn’t show up”—Bob Hope
Ronald Reagan: “Governor Reagan started out as an underweight, inexperienced, untalented dishwasher in Tampico, Illinois. Unfortunately, he never lived up to this early promise”—Phyllis Diller
Kirk Douglas: “How proud Kirk’s father was when the doctor emerged from the delivery room and announced, ‘It’s a boy, Mr. Douglas, and he’s perfectly normal except for one little thing—his navel’s in his chin”—Burns & Schreiber
Jackie Gleason: “I worked for Jackie for quite a few years and you couldn’t ask for a more generous, kind and understanding employer . . . because if you did ask, he’d fire you”—Audrey Meadows
Don Rickles: “Don has not done that well in television. He’s had four series now. The last one received a minus four Nielsen rating. This means, not only was no one watching, but several people without TV sets had heard about the show and said if they got one they wouldn’t watch it”—Bob Newhart
Betty White: “I feel sorry for her husband, Allen. He’s pretty square, you know. When Betty was first dating him, she’d pretend she was shy. She’d always say, ‘I can’t make love with the lights on; could you please close the car door?’”—Dean Martin
Bette Davis: “In all fairness, I must say this about Bette: She’d never do a picture if cheapness and vulgarity were written into the script. She felt it was up to her to bring that to the role”—Henry Fonda
Angie Dickinson: “I could go on for hours about television’s first lady, about her beauty, her talent, her humanity, but it seems silly to talk about Mary Tyler Moore when we’re here to honor this bimbo”—Cindy Williams
George Burns: “He’s the only man in the world who orders a martini with a prune in it”—Jack Carter
Michael Landon: “When Mike filmed his shows out on the prairie, there were no modern conveniences—no hot water, no electricity—but he managed to bring along a carload of hair spray. If you watch the reruns you’ll notice that his hair is always hard as a rock. In one of the episodes he was captured by Indians and they had to scalp him with power tools”—Brian Keith
Joan Collins: “When Joan sailed with us on ‘The Love Boat,’ the first afternoon at sea we really found out just how sexy Joan Collins is. She accidentally fell overboard and a shark swam up to her with a bottle of champagne and a Sinatra record”—Gavin MacLeod
Muhammad Ali: “Muhammad is always saying that he’s pretty. Anybody would look pretty if the only men you ever stood next to were Howard Cosell and Joe Frazier”—Gabe Kaplan
But I personally would have preferred a booklet that summarized all the roasts and roasters, with air dates on them so you could access them without having to look through the DVD cases.
So many old-time TV shows require you to have been a fan to be able to enjoy them now. That’s not the case with “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.” Come to them cold and you still want to watch roast after roast. A better guide would have been nice, but this box set is still a good one.