Film and TV

Yukking in the '70s: Dean Martin Roasted Celebrities as He Got Fried

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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."

Bingeing on the discs' 12 episodes as opposed to viewing them spread out as they were over their original air dates reveals some lazy bits. A favorite Rickles routine runs, "I know [fill in name of celebrity on the dais] is a great [singer, comedian, athlete, etc]. How do I know this? Because ([he/she] told me so backstage just before the show." But for the most part, despite repetition, Mr. Warmth's delivery, expressions, and gestures all kill, whereas Rich Little's imitations of Jimmy Stewart's fractured speech quickly grow stale. And, love or disdain them, 1970s roastees like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Lucille Ball are shining stars for the ages; by 1984, Joan Collins seems pretty low-wattage.

And so we are left with a final question: Was Dino really as smashed as he always appeared to be onstage? Among the scores of drunk jokes directed at the master of ceremonies, one from Brooks pretty much sums it up: "The last time you and I were side by side, somebody [hiccup] stepped on my tongue." But after Martin's death, on Christmas Day 1995, his old friend and colleague Joey Bishop swore that there had never been any drinking during working hours. "He had, in his J&B bottle, apple cider." If so, Martin's drunkard persona was worthy of the Oscar he was never nominated for.

Martin's enduring charm resided in his insouciant indifference. If the ultimate joke asks, "What is the meaning of life?" Dino's style embodied the punchline "Who cares?"

So give him the last word, from the close of his very own roast. "I'll remember this night," [squint at cue card, smile] "until I get to my car."

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R.C. Baker
Contact: R.C. Baker