Once in a while, the Comedy Central cable channel pulls together a raft of mid-to-low-level celebrities to “roast” someone, comically skewering the subject with allegedly humorous and often downright filthy comic jabs. Those subjected to the roasting have included Charlie Sheen, William Shatner, Pamela Anderson, Joan Rivers, Donald Trump, Roseanne and David Hasselhoff, among others.
And as you might expect, the material can get pretty “blue,” a steady stream of sexual and body-function gags so raunchy that some of them are bleeped (though they go out uncensored on later DVD releases). In fact, although this is more of a rarity, a few jokes have been so dicey that they were actually cut before the episode was shown.
Still, this is in keeping with the famous New York Friar’s Club roasts of the 1950s and ’60s, which were extremely risqué and featured some of the biggest comedians and other stars in show business, both as roasters and roastees.
But — and here’s the difference between the latter half of the 20th century and the new “freedom” of the 21st century — the Friar’s Club roasts were also private, invitation-only affairs, and the stars involved would never have dreamed of releasing them to the general public.
So, somewhere between these two extremes, Dean Martin stepped in. When his once-popular NBC variety series, “The Dean Martin Show,” began floundering in the ratings, Martin and his producers took a somewhat drastically innovative step for the program’s ninth season, which would also be its last (1973-74).
They changed the format so the newly labeled “Dean Martin Comedy Hour” had no regular performers except Martin and his pianist Ken Lane, and the first half of the show featured a country-music spot and the second half a celebrity roast, with a star being comically insulted by his peers.
The latter proved to be so popular that after the series’ cancelation, the roasts continued to be produced as periodic network specials for another decade.
True, not every roast was squeaky clean, but the sexual jokes were fired off in the form of innuendo and double-entendres rather than the kind of literal, crass material that permeates virtually everything on television these days. And more significantly, on the Martin roasts such jokes were infrequent, whereas today they seem constant.
All of which is a preamble to discussing the DVD debut of “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts,” the complete set being a massive collection of 54 shows on 23 DVDs, with bounteous extras.
The shows follow an obvious format: There’s a podium with two long tables on either side. Martin hosts (except for the one where he is the celeb being roasted) and sits on one side of the podium; the subject of the roast sits on the other. And lining each table is a variety of celebrity insulters — and the roster is genuinely star-studded.
For those of us who lived through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s and knew them as big-screen superstars, it’s quite amazing to see Bette Davis being lampooned by Henry Fonda or Frank Sinatra by Gene Kelly or Dean Martin by both John Wayne and James Stewart.
Among others subjected to wilting barbs are Kirk Douglas, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Leo Durocher, Ralph Nader, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Betty White, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Collins, Angie Dickinson and, when he was governor of California, Ronald Reagan.
Of course most of the roasters are comedians — Andy Griffith, Paul Lynde, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, Flip Wilson, Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, Billy Crystal and George Burns, among others — but there’s also Orson Welles, Vincent Price, Ernest Borgnine and too many more to name.
Obviously these shows will appeal primarily to older viewers since the stars are from eras past and some of the jests are dated, referring to then-current political issues or inside show-biz happenings. And even for fans, it’s a bit startling to hear politically incorrect jokes that are so racist or sexist they could never fly today.
There’s little question that some of the comedians came up with their own material but most of the quips were scripted. And while not all hit the mark, many do. When the comedy works, it’s often hilarious.
And the format is such that if one roaster flops, another is coming right up, sometimes with adlibs that are funnier than the witticisms on the cue cards. It’s also contagiously funny to see Martin and others cracking up when they’re being insulted.
Ronald Reagan to Bob Hope: “In honor of this occasion, the state legislature has unanimously passed a bill naming you California’s foremost citizen.” (Pause as Hope smiles in surprise.) “I vetoed it.”
Jack Benny to Johnny Carson: “I must say it does seem strange to be on this dais honoring Johnny Carson, because only a few short years ago I was his idol. Now, he’s my idol. And for some reason or other it was more fun the other way.”
Billy Crystal (imitating Ali) to Muhammad Ali: “I’m so fast I can turn out the lights in my bedroom and be in the bed before the room gets dark.”
Orson Welles to Dean Martin: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie. ” (reading the lyrics to Martin’s hit song “That’s Amore” as if it’s a Shakespeare sonnet).
On the printed page, the jokes are just OK. But each jokester’s delivery is what sells them. True, Joe Namath and Barry Goldwater are less than ideal punsters, but whether actors or comics, the show-biz pros know how to time a set-up and where to place a punch line. The result is a pleasure to watch. And rewatch.
“The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Complete Collection” (StarVista, 1973-84, 23 discs, $249.95, 54 episodes in four box sets, 11 featurettes, two Martin TV specials, seven episodes of Martin’s variety show, home movies; 44-page booklet, several smaller booklets in each box set) is available online at deanroasts.com and includes an amazing selection of bonus materials, including new interviews with quite a few of the participants.
Obviously, this is a pricey set, but there are also smaller, piecemeal versions available, so shop around. I spotted a six-disc set at Costco last week for $27.99.