As a kid, what with my atypical interest in old movie stars and comedians, I loved Dean Martin's "Celebrity Roasts." I hadn't seen any of them since they originally aired during the 1970s and early ‘80s and was concerned that, like most television specials and variety shows of similar ilk and vintage, they wouldn't hold up. At all. Would they date badly? Were they still funny? Or would the jokes now seem obvious and overly sweetened with laugh tracks? Would they perhaps play hamstrung family-friendly TV versions of the bawdy Friar's Club roasts that inspired them?
To my considerable surprise, The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Fully Roasted turns out to be a highly amusing if patchwork collection of solid comedy. Most of the guests are very funny, and it's fascinating to watch so many performers not normally known for such things "out of uniform," TV and movie stars getting into the spirit of these somewhat pre-fabricated hours. Though scripted, a playful, mildly anarchic spirit rules the day, allowing for some ad-libbed material amidst the mostly scripted ones.
The set reportedly contains "17 complete Celebrity Roasts" though I'm not so sure that's literally true. Some are missing opening titles and a handful of guests on the daises never actually get the chance to speak, at least not these 48-minute episodes. Could some these originally have run as 90-minute specials? Or, like the earlier You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx, did the show's writers and directors discreetly trim those celebrities who bombed? (Not necessarily, though. In one show I watched, Rex Reed's unfunny speech was left in while Eve Arden and Cathy Rigby never left their seats.)
This excellent set features loads of good extras including bonus comedy sketches (from Dean's variety series and elsewhere), featurettes, new interviews with such varied talent as Phyllis Diller, Angie Dickinson, and Abe Vigoda, and an excellent, informative and observant booklet.
The Roasts began as part of the last season of Dean's weekly variety series (the first celebrity roasted was then-California Governor Ronald Reagan), and then expanded as a steady stream of specials. When Dean's variety show was cancelled, the roasts briefly continued to be taped in Los Angeles but by the fall of 1974 they had moved to the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, more convenient for much of its Vegas-based talent and only a short flight away (and perhaps an incentive) for its Hollywood names. The shows were filmed before a live, clearly appreciative audience, though also sweetened with canned laughter.
These "Man of the Hour" (or, more rarely, "Woman of the Hour") specials soon fell into an established formula. Dean, appearing intoxicated, would be the Master of Ceremonies, one-by-one introducing a dozen or so guests. Some of these guests would be personal friends or colleagues of the guest of honor. In one roast honoring Dennis Weaver, for instance, they included his old Gunsmoke co-stars Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone, as well as his then-current co-star on McCloud, J.D. Cannon. (Gunsmoke star James Arness didn't show up, but his brother did, actor Peter Graves.) But cronies of Dean's like Joey Bishop or Don Rickles would also appear, and oftentimes celebrities with no obvious connection (Gene Kelly roasting Muhammad Ali, Jane Withers in a show honoring Ralph Nader) inexplicably appear.
Certain stars became Celebrity Roast regulars. Red Buttons began turning up around 1975, invariably doing his "Never Got a Dinner" routine, a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Ruth Buzzi likewise appeared regularly as her dowdy spinster character, Gladys Ormphby. I was never much a fan of her or that character on Laugh-In, but watching these specials I really grew to admire Buzzi's ability to ad-lib, which she does more than most guests, and always right on the money. Charlie Callas, Rich Little, Nipsey Russell, LaWanda Page, Foster Brooks, and Zsa Zsa Gabor also turn up a lot.
Pretty clearly the key to making these shows work was the writing, the shows having been written mostly by Dean's unusually good variety show staff, people like Harry Crane, Larry Markes, Stan Burns, Stan Daniels, Rod Parker and others, many of whom were or became associated with some of TV's finest comedy shows. My guess is that in addition to writing Dean's material, they wrote all the speeches for the non-comedian speakers, and probably wrote template material for the more seasoned comics to their particular style, which they in turn could then fine-tune themselves, to their liking. Other funnymen like Jackie Mason and Mort Sahl may have written their own material entirely independently.
One frequent guest but non-comic who may have written all of his material was Orson Welles, the great director-actor unhappily taking work where he could find it, mainly to finance several half-finished or never-realized movies. You'd never know this from watching Welles's polished and lively monologues, which are witty and articulate instead of bawdy and jokey. Like Cheeta in the Tarzan movies, Welles seem to be the go-to guy whenever they needed a good cutaway; his uproarious laugh, like a drunk Santa Claus, was infectious.
The experienced comedians are, predictably, reliably funny if sometimes on autopilot, with a few like Rich Little cringe-worthy then as now. Some give polished, obviously rehearsed performances while others like Dean are at times clearly winging it, at least based on their frequent glances in the direction of the cue cards. Because of the high quality of the writing though, even actors not known for their comedic skills tend to come off well.
And though dialed back considerably from far more explicit Friar's Club roasts, the Dean Martin Roasts maintain a surprisingly high quotient of double-entendres and sexual innuendo, and even a few mild curse words as when Ruth Buzzi, in character, calls Angie Dickinson a "bitch." (I wonder if that actually made it to air unbleeped, however.) As one might expect, there is endless guffawing about Dino's "drinking problem," sometimes compounded with Foster Brooks and his drunk act on the same bill, material that's still amusing but much more rarely a target for humor these days. (Similarly, it's interesting to note how many of those chain-smoking on the dais, a common sight on TV back then, died prematurely of smoking-related illnesses.) Conversely, it's interesting to see such an abundance of prime black talent (as varied as Richard Roundtree and Slappy White), in some cases freely flirting with white guests of the opposite sex (Jimmie Walker lusting after Angie Dickinson, for instance), certainly unusual for the period.
And, finally, from an historical perspective it's just fascinating to see athletes like Ali, TV stars like Suzanne Somers and Gabe Kaplan, and political figures like Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Ralph Nader, appearing on such programs at or near the height of their fame.
Video & Audio
Despite disclaimers about the condition of these "film" elements (everything was recorded on tape) these shows look quite good given the limitations of ‘70s-era videography. The mono audio is equally acceptable. Not alternate audio options, naturally, and no subtitles.
Plentiful supplements include bonus sketches from The Dean Martin Show featuring talent like William Holden and Vincent Price; three okay featurettes; and new (and sometimes quite extensive) interviews with the likes of Buzzi, Dickinson, comedian Fred Willard, etc. The booklet is a big plus, too.
This set is a lot more fun than I was expecting and for reasons described above comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.