Dean Martin was a classic entertainer: a singer, an actor, and a comedian. It makes sense that he was involved in the creation of the celebrity roast as we know it today. Every time you see the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Roast, you’re seeing a tradition going back to The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. An essential characteristic of Dean’s roast was the wow factor since Dean could call up just about any of the legends of his day and have them appear on the show.
A new DVD collection honors this colossal Who’s Who of talent, like Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Jimmy Stewart, Don Rickles, Rich Little, Jackie Gleason, and many more. The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, which ran from 1973 to 1984, truly set the tone for lighthearted roasts. You can purchase it here. What you’ll find in this collection is a selection of some of the best roasts plus a sharp and thoughtful presentation. I got a chance to review the Collector’s Edition, listed at $59.95, that includes 6 discs and includes three featurettes plus recent interviews with some of the key talent. Also available is a single disc and a complete deluxe edition.
A good way to start in on this collection is by checking out the interviews to help set the tone. Let’s consider an observation by Rich Little. Understandably, we begin with some comments on how humbling, and even terrifying, it was to perform among so many greats. Then we get to some funny bits that include a recollection of teaching Jimmy Stewart how to properly sound like Jimmy Stewart. Little did not prepare Stewart ahead of time. When it was time for Little to lead the roast, he called up Stewart and, with impeccable timing, Stewart went along with it and added his own ad libs. The two of them had the audience in genuine laughter.
Little does not mince words when it comes to comedy. He reveals something viewers may have already suspected. There were some actors, notable actors like Robert Stack, who knew drama but not comedic timing. So, when their reading of lines fell flat, it was common courtesy to splice in a scene of an attendee laughing at the joke who wasn’t even on that particular show. It was all for the sake of a good show. A lot of stuff never made the final cut. The material that got in was either excellent or by an exceptionally noteworthy participant.
Entertainment has always been a serious business. What you come away with from this collection is the undeniable fact that, in the right hands, comedy is king. And this level of comedy does not lose its luster over time. Fans of retro TV will get a kick out of all the pop culture, and historical, references and the big players of the day. It was truly a golden age. To have on the dias some of the greats of yesteryear (and it was totally yesteryear for many of these greats) like Jack Benny and George Burns, is utterly priceless. Sure, the editing on these shows could be choppy and certainly canned laughter was the way to go back then. But that is the price of admission. It is a fascinatingly artificial world to drop in on.
For someone who grew up occasionally watching these roasts, I can appreciate that the last thing on the show’s agenda was getting overly sentimental. It’s show biz, after all. What is the prime focus, aside from the spectacle, is comedic timing. There are plenty of excellent moments of solid comedy to be found here. This collection is presented by StarVista Entertainment and Time Life which you can visit for more details here.