DVD Review: The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Complete Collection

STUDIO: StarVista/Time-Life | DIRECTOR: Greg Garrison | CAST: Dean Martin
DVD RELEASE DATE: Oct. 20, 2013 | PRICE: $249.95
BONUSES: Celebrity interviews, featurettes, two Dean Martin specials, sketches from The Dean Martin Comedy Hour
SPECS: NR | approx 66 hrs. | Comedy | 1:33 | stereo

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall


The infomercials promoting The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts set are running on various cable channels nearly every day, but the actual contents of the box are even better – and the extras certainly more refreshingly honest and interesting – than those late-night pitch-fests indicate.

Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra

The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts began in the 1973-74 season of The Dean Martin Comedy Hour as a way to revive the show as the ratings were flagging. At first the roasts took up half of the show; by ’74 they were the show, as NBC decided to continue with roast specials instead of the Comedy Hour (which had begun in 1965).

Clearly modeled after the infamous roasts at the Friars Club in NYC and LA (which had circulated as uncensored “party records”) the Martin roasts suffered from a handicap: since they were airing on network TV, no “filthy” jokes were allowed.

Producer Greg Garrison quickly found his way around this limitation by stressing two elements that have made the Martin roasts so memorable to viewers over 40, and invaluable to fans of classic TV. The first element was the plethora of stars brought on to do the roasting – from fertile, often frenzied, standup comics to big TV stars, sports figures, politicians and other media figures of the time.

The “roasters” included a mixed bag of comedians, from the truly great (Jonathan Winters, Don Rickles, both of whom came up with their own spontaneous material) to the legends (Benny, Burns, Hope) to later icons (Carson, Redd Foxx), and character comics who came on as relatives or acquaintances of the guest of honor (Ruth Buzzi, Charlie Callas, the overwhelmingly tedious “drunk” Foster Brooks). As was the case with the great TV variety shows of the Fifties through the Seventies, the roasts openly telegraphed the message, “if you don’t like this act, wait a few minutes, you might like the next one….”

The 54 unedited roasts included in this 25-disc set (available only at www.deanroasts.com) include tributes to legends and flashes in the pan (Dan Haggerty, anyone?). The original run of half-hours roasts move very quickly, whereas the later shows are a mixed bag of classic comic moments and protracted ones.

The time-capsule aspect of the series makes it a must-see for nostalgia buffs, but the other most intriguing aspect of the Celebrity Roasts was the glaring “incorrectness” of the humor. There are race jokes, gender jokes, and gender-preference jokes that most likely wouldn’t be considered appropriate for the contemporary Comedy Central roast shows (and if they did show up would be accompanied by an audible noise of amazement from the audience).

This strain of humor is dissected in one of the most interesting featurettes in the box called “Politically Incorrect.” Comments from roast participants like Don Rickles are augmented by reactions from TV critics. The verdict among the latter is that these jokes are regrettable, but there’s no question that these sometimes jawdropping moments are indeed the “spice” of this collection. However the contemporary viewer might receive these jokes, it is very important, as critic David Bianculli notes in the featurette, that they not be edited from the programs, since they are a part of TV history.

The remarks about African American performers are indeed harsh at times but, in true Ricklesian fashion, there are also jibes at Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, the Polish, the Irish, Native Americans and several other races. And for the old white males in attendance, there are jokes about their drunkenness, their extreme age, their hairpieces, the fact that their careers are dead, and their boring personalities. The playing field was always level, and shots were fired at each attendee. All this while there was no chance of going near the cursing and explicitly sexual jokes found on the current Comedy Central roasts.

Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan

The Celebrity Roasts also offer an often head-spinning combination of the old (polite jokes about Jack Benny’s cheapness, or Danny Thomas’s religiosity) and the new (post-Norman Lear bits by Freddie Prinze and Nipsey Russell about the ghettos they grew up in).

The folks at StarVista have supplemented the shows with a slew of extras. First and foremost are the celebrity interviews, ranging from participants in the shows (Don Rickles, Jack Carter, Angie Dickinson, Jimmie Walker, Ruth Buzzi, and the late Jonathan Winters and Phyllis Diller) to fans (Fred Willard, Tony Danza, Bill Nye “the Science Guy”).

Most of the interviews contain nothing but laudatory remarks about Dean, the roastees, and the guest performers. Rich Little, however, supplies the single-best anecdote in the set (and one that sounds like it should’ve been in Nick Tosches’ glorious and seminal biography Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams) when he recounts the moments leading up to a roast. Dean asked him, “Who are we honoring tonight… who’s the guest of honor?”

Surprised by the question, Little quickly supplied the answer (Michael Landon) and Dean replied “Good choice… we’re gonna have fun!” before going out to do another great job hosting. Was Dean kidding with Little, or did he really not have any idea who that night’s roastee was? All answers are lost in the show-biz mists of time….

The “Behind-the-Scenes” featurette honestly addresses the often bizarrely inserted reaction shots of celebrities laughing. Former president of NBC entertainment John McMahon discloses the fact that certain roasters shot their segments separately (he notes it was mostly the comedians), and Associate Producer Lee Hale takes responsibility for the oddness (and nearly surreal, wildly blatant repetition) of some of the insert shots. His explanation is straightforward and sensible – in some cases there were no big laughs for a given joke, so it was his job to come up with amused reactions from someone on the dais.

The box set also includes a group of non-roast, Dean-related extras (the only thing conspicuously missing from the collection is a chronological list of the roasts, which are packaged by “theme” – legends, TV stars, sports figures, etc). Among these extras are a full disc from the previously released variety-show The Best of the Dean Martin Variety Show collection; several thus far unreleased sketches from the Comedy Hour are also included on the roast discs. More interesting to diehard fans, though, are two Dean specials that have been in the vaults since they first aired.

The latter of the two is Dean Martin’s Red-Hot Scandals of 1926, a two-part special that aired in ’76 and ’77. The music on the shows has been removed, so they are best seen as a great example of the brilliance of Jonathan Winters – since his ad-lib comedy bits with Dean are most of what has survived the edits. Winters is in top form throughout and isn’t even thrown when Dean good-naturedly curses at him.

The other “special” that was broken into two parts was a pilot for an “alternate” variety show for Dean (in 1975 after the roasts had begun airing regularly and the Comedy Hour was gone). It’s a mind-boggling item called Dean’s Place that finds Dino running a bar-restaurant with various kooky employees (Jack Cassidy as a vain maitre d’, Vincent Gardenia as a crazy Italian chef) and celebrity guests (Ron and Nancy Reagan, Robert Mitchum, the tiresome Foster Brooks) as the customers.

At this point Dean’s main producer, Greg Garrison, was trying to fashion a TV show based around young comedians (this reviewer fondly remembers a “summer replacement” stand-up series called The Dean Martin Comedy World), and so Dean’s Place also features stand-up sets from younger comics who are now footnotes to history: Kip Adotta, Ed Bluestone, Kelly Monteith, and Mike Preminger.

Dean Martin and Don Rickles

As with the roasts, it’s the “flow” of entertainment on these pilots that provokes the most fascination. Garrison and his fellow producers clearly enjoyed contrasting different types of performers on Dean’s shows – this of course reached its height in the odd juxtapositions that occurred on the Celebrity Roasts. Younger viewers may not appreciate the incongruities and the flat-out weirdness of having these folks on the same dais, often seated next to each other. But those who are over 40 (and those younger students of Seventies pop culture) will surely get a pleasant jolt from seeing these strange contrasts.

While the roasted in these 54 shows included everyone from Ralph Nader to Mr. T. (that’s the ’73-’84 period right there in a nutshell), it’s their guest “speakers” who provide the greatest contrasts: a Joe Namath roast features both Charlie Callas and Fulton J. Sheen doing football jokes; a Jack Benny roast covers a lot of musical ground by having both Zubin Mehta and Wayne Newton verbally jabbing Benny; Carroll O’Connor (at the height of his Archie Bunker fame) is exposed as a chauvinist by “Mama” Cass Elliott; and, in what might truly be the show’s kitsch high point, a Truman Capote roast finds the rapier-sharp legendary writer seated next to Rocky Graziano.

Not only are most of the above-mentioned now no longer with us, but comedy shows these days are supposed to “make sense,” and TV roasts are almost entirely devoted to discussing how sexually potent the honoree is. Here’s a toast to a time when politically incorrect humor was indeed jarring but good-natured underneath it all, and talk and variety shows were, for lack of a better phrase, eclectic in their booking practices.

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”