Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Dean Martin: America’s Grand Roast Master

By David Luhrssen
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Dean Martin had several careers, from straight man to Jerry Lewis through drinking buddy for Frank Sinatra and star of a weekly television variety show. In his waning years, Martin hosted a series of televised celebrity roasts. Seventeen of them, plus interviews and other bonus material, are collected on a DVD set, “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Fully Roasted.”

Taped from 1973-1978, the shows were sprinkled with Rat Pack razzmatazz and formatted more or less identically. Martin and a head table of famous funny people faced a live audience (“the beautiful Ziegfeld Room” of the MGM Grand was one venue) and ribbed the guest of honor seated to the host’s left. Those guests were mainly from show biz but also included one sports star, Muhummad Ali, and three from the political world, Ronald Reagan (a show biz veteran but already Governor of California), Barry Goldwater and Ralph Nader. Reagan displayed the Teflon-plated good humor that served him well as President; Goldwater and Nader were dour by contrast (what were the show’s producers thinking?).

The comedians flanking Martin at the head table were a mixed lot. Aside from the mass media’s first glimpse of Billy Crystal, most of the young up-and-comers never came (and easy to see why). Most of the old timers were excellent, whether in the great control and timing of Jack Benny, the in-everyone’s-face Don Rickles or the erudite irony of Orson Welles. As for the star of our show, Martin often looked just a tad sloshed—and seemed to be having the time of his life.

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