The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Complete Collection
If you're of a certain age, then just the sheer mention of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts will immediately bring a big smile to your face. Younger readers will probably look at this and think it's that old guy infomercial thing they see over and over and then, mutter the words, "hash-tag boring." The thing is, I get that. Compared to the over-the-top and seemingly mean-spirited Comedy Central Roasts that are on today, on the surface the Dean Martin Roasts would probably seem that way. There may not be any convincing that can be done about this set with a younger viewer, but for myself, this complete collection of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts is without a doubt one of the very best DVD sets I've ever laid eyes on. This is genuine television history here, and nothing short of pure pleasure to go back and rediscover these shows.
I was a kid when The Dean Martin Variety Show was a Thursday night staple on NBC in the 60s and early 70s. It was regular viewing in my home as my Dad was a big Dean Martin fan (and of course, I became one my own self as well). The Dean Martin Variety Show would usually have a couple of celebrity guests that would perform in skits with Martin, and Martin would, of course, sing a couple of songs during the show, sometime performing in duets with his guests. Dean Martin hated doing rehearsals for the show, and enjoyed being spontaneous when actually filming it, right down to the point of being able to tell that Dean was reading his lines off of cue cards. This added a real lively element to the show, and you can certainly check that out in this set as well as it includes two bonus DVDs with seven full episodes of the show. In 1973, the ratings were starting to slip, and Martin and producer Greg Garrison switched up the format a bit and tried out the idea of doing half of the show in a comedy roast format along the lines of the famed Friar's Club roasts. The idea took off, quickly becoming a popular part of the show and eventually taking over the entire show, moving over to Friday nights at a full hour and sometimes even longer.
This spectacular set from StarVista and TimeLife includes all 54 roasts that aired from 1973 up to 1979, including three comeback versions that aired in 1984. In addition, this also includes a ton of bonus materials, including selected sketches from The Dean Martin Variety Hour. (from the episodes that started the Roast format), interviews with roast participants, eleven specially produced featurettes, and a nifty little collector's book filled with photos and quotes around the production. There's a few full days of material here to absorb, and it's just been a pure pleasure doing so.
As I said, I was a kid when this first aired and so at the time, there were probably a lot of jokes that went right over my head -- and some that you just could not get away with on television today (check out the Sammy Davis Jr. roast for that). Viewing these now at the age of 51, these seem fresh all over again, and I've even gotten a whole new appreciation for some of the performers who regularly appeared on the roasts. As a kid, I used to really enjoy seeing impressionist Rich Little come up and do these wonderful impressions, and I'd almost forgotten that comedian Frank Gorshin (best known as the Riddler from the 60s Batman TV show) also did impressions and appeared on a few of the episodes, delivering material as strong as what Rich Little did. Ruth Buzzi was part of the Greg Garrison produced Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, in which she played all sorts of characters, but her most memorable was the spinster Gladys whom she would often reprise for these roasts. As a kid, I half-tolerated these parts of Laugh-In and the roasts, but now (and then too, I just didn't know any better) they've just been a joy to see again, none more spectacular than when Buzzi appeared as Gladys on the Muhammad Ali roast and literally had to be carried off from the dais (all part of the act) in hilarious fashion. Comedic actor Red Buttons would appear regularly with his routines that would ask why were they honoring this particular person when some of the most famous people in history never got a dinner. These were favorites of mine back in the day, and they still hold up really well now with me getting an even bigger appreciation of Buttons' pure performance skills. The biggest surprise for me though is with actor and comedian Foster Brooks. Brooks was most famous for a comedic drunk act that, again, as a kid, I just kind of tolerated. Watching it now (and I just don't think anyone could really get away with this act any more--you can't do drunk, but you can do stoned), it's amazing to see just how funny and fine-tuned Brooks was with this. He was an obvious favorite of Dean Martin's (having also appeared plenty of times on the variety show) and it's really easy to see why Martin would include him on the show.
I mentioned the Muhammad Ali roast above, and while this whole set is a terrific time capsule of sorts, some of the individual roasts (like the Ali roast) act as mini-time capsules that pinpoint big moments from history with specific sports stars, politicians and performers. In addition to Ali, other sports stars roasted include former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, home run record setter Hank Aaron, tennis player Bobby Riggs (best known for the Battle of the Sexes match that he had with Billie Jean King) and stunt performer Evel Knievel. These roasts would often include sports commentator Howard Cosell on the dais (surprising that Cosell himself was never the subject of a roast) and it's fun to see his interaction with the subjects (in particular with Muhammad Ali). Political star highlights include roasts with President Ronald Reagan (then coming off of his governorship of California), Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey and Ralph Nader. Reagan is not only the subject of a roast but also showed up on a few of the shows to toss some genuinely funny lines out at some of the other subjects. In TV history, one of the best representations I've seen thus far has been around the roast of Jackie Gleason who, of course, is best known for his portrayal of Ralph Kramden on the historic Honeymooners TV show. His roast alone included co-stars Art Carney (appearing as Ed Norton -- not the actor, the character from the show), Jane Kean, and both actresses to play Ralph's wife Alice, Audrey Meadows and Sheila MacRae. Other TV history subjects include both Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (roasted at the same time in honor of The Odd Couple TV show), Lucille Ball (including on the dais her frequent co-stars Vivian Vance and Gale Gordon), Angie Dickinson (very famous for her Police Woman TV series at the time) and Michael Landon who's roasted twice on the set (also the subject of the very last roast in 1984). During this period, Landon was one of NBC's biggest stars, having appeared on three successive highly rated shows -- Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven -- and each of his roasts feature appearances from his co-stars of those shows. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to TV history being represented here in mini-time capsules; this subject is all over this set.
The "glue" that holds this all together though is, of course, roastmaster and star Dean Martin. Martin was pitch perfect as the front man for this whole thing. Martin's own drunk act not only makes him a perfect target for the roasters but also sets the tone for all the shows as a risqué but friendly affair. As you pore over the interviews with the various participants of the roasts, you'll see nothing but pure respect for what Dean Martin did in holding these things together and for the atmosphere that was created around these shows. Over the past few years, I've watched a few of Martin's movies again, and have gained a whole new appreciation for his acting skills ("Rio Bravo" in particular shined for me). Seeing these roasts again does the same thing with his comedy skills. Dean Martin was a national treasure and it's very rewarding to see a DVD set of this magnitude that shows his talent off in such a specific way.
The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Complete Collection is, as I said above, one of the very BEST DVD sets I've ever had the pleasure of viewing. The video and sound quality is absolutely first rate considering the age of these shows, and the package itself is about as comprehensive as can be. It is pricey at $250 as a direct order from TimeLife, but this 25-DVD set is definitely worth it, especially if you were a fan from back in the day or just a fan of TV history in general. I'm already wanting to re-watch some of these shows even as i write this. Head over to their official site and check this out… better still, just buy it! This set will not disappoint at all, and who knows… maybe even some younger viewers will get turned on to some of this genuine television history.
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