By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Chris Klimek
By Nick Schager
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
Everyone on the dais was hip enough to acknowledge the malevolence of racism while also accepting it as an ongoing way of life in these United States, a sort of "use those ignorant rednecks for material" attitude. Occasionally, African-American performers inverted the formula, as when Sanford and Son's Demond Wilson pretended to forget roastee Jack Benny's name, saying, "You're that nice Jewish boy who used to be on Rochester's show." Wilson added, with an exaggerated stage smile, that Benny had done much for black people in America: "Before Jack came along, everybody thought blacks were only fit to be shoeshine boys and railway porters. The Jack Benny program proved to America that they could also be chauffeurs, dishwashers, and houseboys." Finally, pointing out that the black characters on the old Amos 'n' Andy radio show were played by whites, Wilson called Benny a visionary, who'd hired a black actor to play Rochester on his radio show because "he knew that television was coming and it would've cost him a fortune in burnt cork."
One repeated Rickles shtick is shouting gibberish in the cadences of an African-American preacher; he would then face the camera with an "I don't understand what they're saying either" shoulder shrug. But when Rickles heckled Muhammad Ali during a 1976 roast, the heavyweight champ rounded his gaze upon the comedian, who immediately turned subservient: "I drive the school bus and you go to school."
Ali replied, "You're not as dumb as you look, boy."
Some jokes reveal the inroads of gay lib on the nation's consciousness, as in Orson Welles' louche surprise as he performs a dramatic reading of Dean's hit song "That's Amore": "'Like a gay tarantella'? Apparently Dean has a side we know nothing about." But the proceedings become more antediluvian when Rickles, in the same roast, professes, "I love my wife. [Pause] But my wife is ill," and then introduces blond Police Woman star Angie Dickinson with "I'd like to bring on this girl. And when we bring her on, let's have the whole dais attack her."
You know we are in the age before MADD when Gabe Kaplan, of Welcome Back, Kotter fame, jokes that he was going to enter Dean in the Drunken Olympics Decathlon: "Ten drunks trying to find their cars." And woe to the comic who had to follow any of Foster Brooks' inebriated alter egos, including Jack Benny's accountant, Martin's Boy Scout master, Jackie Gleason's personal physician, or, most uproariously, the illicit lover of Rickles' wife: "Don, I really must compliment you on your spouse, Missus [burp] Missus Pickles. I say that because she's a real dilly. And I must also admit you have a very lovely home. Incidentally, you're out of scotch." It is great fun to watch Brooks stumble into character as he approaches the podium, and then, when his crapulous bit ends, straighten up and stride back to his seat, suave in his neatly trimmed beard and silvery mane, looking like the prototype for the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" ad campaign. The other comics simply shake their heads in admiration.
For political junkies, there are plenty of Watergate jokes in earlier episodes, such as a 1974 introduction of Rickles as "the only civilian that was ever impeached," or Rowan and Martin, in the Bicentennial year, mocking our nation's only appointed Commander in Chief: "John Wayne has never run for president." "Well, neither has Gerald Ford." The shows often seem edited with Ginsu knives — occasionally, a roaster is welcomed to the dais but never makes it to the lectern. During the Davis roast, the diminutive song-and-dance man explodes twice in exactly the same gatemouth roar, 30 minutes apart, his hands flailing, a duplicate reaction shot meant to ensure that no viewer misses Sammy's double-fisted bling collection.
In his Dino biography, Tosches is cruelly melancholy on the Celebrity Roast sunset of Martin's career, noting that some segments were taped at the NBC studio in Burbank and others at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which meant that "guests often delivered their lines to empty chairs or pretended spontaneous laughter at words that had been uttered in another state." Lamenting the "10-writer assembly line" that cranked out "canned happiness," which he felt imbued the show with "the quality of a relentlessly monotonous and vaguely disquieting dream," Tosches renders his ultimate judgment: "It was a dais of despair. They sat at banquet tables at either side of the podium: the undead of dreamland and the fleeting stars of the television seasons."
But as critics sometimes do, Tosches was substituting his own expectations and disappointments for those of the fans. Sure, to a bare-knuckled Virgil of the shadowlands like himself, a nightclub bruiser such as Gleason was old hat. But for millions of viewers who knew Gleason best as the hard-luck Brooklyn bus driver with a heart of gold, it was a revelation to see his calmly menacing bulk lounging at the lectern with gold pinkie ring, gold cigarette case, gold lighter, and gold cufflinks all glittering. When he says to Russell, "Just think, if you were white, you coulda been Sammy Davis Jr.," we glimpse the standup heavyweight as captured in "Pafko at the Wall," Don DeLillo's rip-roaring opener to his novel Underworld: "Gleason got his start doing insult comedy in blood buckets all over Jersey and is still an eager table comic — does it for free, does it for fun, and leaves shattered lives behind."
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