I don’t know about you, but when I discover that a certain celebrity is open to some good-natured ribbing from his contemporaries (or peons like me, for that matter), my opinion of that particular person ticks up a point or two. Americans love success but they don’t love success entrenching itself too firmly in one’s head. It is a shrewd celebrity that willingly throws him or herself on the sword of public deprecation. What better way to ingratiate yourself with a fickle fanbase than to set yourself up as a target for jokes, while you carry on with a humble ‘aw shucks’ grin, in an industry where every slight is possible front page news? Manage to escape to the other side of the roasting gauntlet while maintaining your good humor and people will only love you all the more for the verbal beating you just took.
It was in this spirit that Dean Martin’s series of extremely-popular Celebrity Roasts periodically ruled the airwaves from the mid-to-late 1970s. Employing a wide-ranging and surprising collection of guest roasters (Ronald Reagan? Johnny Bench? Neil Armstrong?), and with drink and cigarette firmly in hand, Dean Martin affably slurred his way through dozens of ‘man of the hour’ takedowns. Originally only segments on the flagging Dean Martin Show, the roasts were so popular that NBC quickly signed Martin to a series of roasts after his show’s cancellation in 1974. And the rest, as they say, was history.
The new 6-disc Collector’s Edition of Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts from NBCUniversal contains 12 select roasts in their entirety, with such ‘victims’ including Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, and Don Rickles. Between the roasts, and special features including interviews, bonus sketches, and a handful of featurettes, there are over 15 hours of goodies to pore over. Perfect for lovers of classic television and ribald humor.
And boy, is the humor ribald. It may surprise unfamiliar younger viewers just what Martin and his guests were able to get away with back in the feel good decade. As an amusing social experiment, I decided to choose a roast at random (Bob Hope’s) to see how long it would take Martin to crack an incredibly offensive ethnic joke that wouldn’t get near the airwaves in this day and age. That experiment ended in about three minutes. But casual prejudice aside (and really, that need not dominate a DVD review of a 40-year-old television show), the roasts are enormously entertaining, albeit with a couple minor caveats. The production and editing involved has a strong feel of ‘old television’. Cuts between roasters and guests are choppy and awkward, while the super close-ups and million watt lighting on said guests often do them few favors in the appearance department.
That being said, this DVD set is oodles of fun. Older viewers will undoubtedly find more to love, as the vast majority of the jokes are reference-based and will be lost on most people Generation X and beyond, but there are many pleasures to take away from the tone and atmosphere of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts regardless of one’s age. If nothing else, the roasts offer an intriguing looking glass into an age of television the likes of which we won’t see again, when the cigarettes, booze, and offensive one-liners flowed like the Amazon and celebrity’s stars shone all the brighter for it.
The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts Collector’s Edition is available on DVD now.