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Zingers with the stars: ‘Dean Martin Roasts’ debut on DVD

Published: Thursday, Oct. 24 2013 3:28 p.m. MDT

Dean Martin, left, is comically skewered by his friend James Stewart during one of the "Dean Martin Roasts," now on DVD for the first time.

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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.

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