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Dean Martin Roasts: Remembrance of Zings Past

Forget Lenny Bruce and George Carlin: These old guys with their Brylcreem and tuxedos were trendsetters, too.

Kathy Shaidle


November 7, 2013 - 2:00 pm



I was always told never to talk to strangers, so if I traveled back in time to have a word with my younger self, I like to think I’d kick me in the shins.

What difference would it make anyhow?

My pre-pubescent, Carter-era self would never have believed it when grown-up me assured her that (putting aside those brown polyester Sears catalog pants and the blue velour platform shoes and the Love’s Baby Soft and the baby blue, cap sleeved “two fried eggs” t-shirts and root beer-flavored Lip Smackers) one day, believe it or not, I — that is, we — would miss the 1970s.

Not just the late ’70s of my adolescence, but even the “Convoy”/Three’s Company/Bicentennial toilet seat ’70s.

It’s like the “beer googles” effect but for inanimate objects:

Pretty much any cultural artifact, no matter how hideous, starts looking pretty darn good after all these Bud Lights years.

Sometimes, those goggles work a little too well; we misremember stuff as being better — or just bolder — than anything we have now.

For example, a few years back, it became commonplace to cluck:

“They could NEVER make Blazing Saddles today.”

Please. Have you seen There’s Something About Mary or any random South Park episode?

Likewise, those of us of a certain age have been known to make the same fact-free claim regarding All in the Family.

True, the same network that once proudly aired that award-winning landmark television show couldn’t broadcast it now, but a cable channel certainly could.

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Or take this recent article announcing the long-awaited release by Time/Life of the complete Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts in a single package:

Each roast was held before a large live audience in Las Vegas and no “honoree” emerged unscathed.

The packaging warns that in today’s politically correct society, much of the racially-charged humor might seem shocking but keep in mind, this was the norm in the day with comedians, both black and white, taking good-natured pot-shots at each other.

Additionally, people who were arch political rivals would engage in very funny by-play. Try imaging that in today’s crazy, polarized political environment.

I don’t have to imagine. That bipartisan “by-play” is on display at every White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

Meanwhile, every Comedy Central Roast features “racially charged humor,” not to mention jaw-dropping sexual jokes and tasteless gags about everything from the Holocaust to 9/11.

However, I do agree with Reason’s Greg Beato that while those tuxedo-wearing, Brylcreemed denizens of Dean’s dias weren’t allowed to work as “blue” on the air, they were more revolutionary when it mattered.

That is, in their own time.

That the younger comics of the 1970s likeĀ Lenny Bruce and George Carlin are now hailed as courageous revolutionaries is mostly a matter of style over substance.

(Carlin’s career didn’t take off until he chucked the sports jacket and grew out his hair.)

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As Beato notes:

In the 1970s, the public got its first prolonged exposure to Friars-style mayhem via Dean Martin’s celebrity roasts. Airing on NBC, these specials may have resurrected the euphemisms and innuendos the Friars had abandoned decades earlier, but they were also besotted with the casual, self-conscious irreverence that pop culture would eventually adopt as its lingua franca.

Compared to, say, Saturday Night Live, Martin and those who populated his dais were incredibly visionary. While the Not Ready For Primetime Players stuck with characters, narrative, and all the traditional tools of live theater, the roasters sailed by on a wave of lightly rehearsed, heavily liquored up verite.

Never had so many mediocre one-liners prompted so much feigned laughter, and yet in those instances where the show’s sloppy spontaneity trumped its black-tie professionalism, Martin and his aging, nicotine-stained pals emerged as the slapdash forefathers of gonzo porn, Jackass, and YouTube.

Speaking of YouTube, you don’t have to invest in that expensive Dean Martin Roasts boxed set to see whether or not the material holds up.

Multiple clips have been online for years.

Alas, many on the dais are now-forgotten B-listers. True superstars, like John Wayne, gamely recite bought and paid-for jokes.

To my taste, the only comics who really hold up are George Burns, Jonathan Winters (in small doses), and, of course, Don Rickles.

I’ll also bet that for many younger, first-time viewers, the most “offensive” aspects may well be the shameless smoking, and maybe Foster Brooks’ “drunk” routine.

Maybe, like so many things, we should savor the memory — the idea of — those Dean Martin Roasts rather than try to recapture their particular magic through binge viewing.

Heck, the set’s 1970s brown and orange color scheme alone gave me a nervous rash.

What do you think?

Any survivors of the 1970s care to comment about whether or not these shows have stood the test of time?

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(KATHY SHAIDLE is a blogging pioneer who runs FiveFeetOfFury, now in its 15th year. She's been called "one of the great virtuoso polemicists of our time," by MARK STEYN. Her NEW book is Confessions of A Failed Slut (Thought Catalog, 2014).

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All Comments   (22)
All Comments   (22)
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Lenny Bruce was long dead before the 70s.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I love the Roasts. When I first got to Youtube it was the first thing I looked for. I would like to add Red Buttons as a great roaster, who always asked, "Why are we giving this (person) a dinner?"

Don Rickles was the best. He roasted everybody on the dais, every time.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I liked 1970s television. Sandwiched between the excesses of the 60s and the cable revolution of the 80s, they were interesting times for TV. The demographic of the executives (people born between 1915 to about 1935) that ran the television business struck the perfect balance between permissiveness and wholesomeness. In other words, what they couldn't say on radio and early television, they let their characters and performers express in the 1970s, but without being downright filthy or demented. The Bunkers could express reality, Sanford and Son could be honest, and game show panels and Carol Burnett and her troupe could get racy and suggestive but never filthy. The crime shows were not exactly gritty, but they were populated with interesting characters, following tight scripts and are still exciting to watch. Crime shows today revolve around spectacular criminal activities; maybe an episode about a run-of-the-mill check forger or a petty shoplifter is actually more realistic
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
One of the biggest bruises on the national funny bone is multiculturalism. With so many non-English speakers and first generation English speakers everywhere, as well as tens of millions of immature ignorant Americans, the only common denominator is the lowest common denominator -- going to the toilet and death are the only things we have in common anymore. Why waste precious screen and television time setting up a joke or attempting a play on words when nobody will get it and ratings and box office will plummet.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
These guys were truly funny. It's a shame the PC people had to ruin what was real diversity.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Dean Martin (and contemporaries) had a certain "je ne sais quoi"...charm, subtlety, wry wit, quick comeback and sophistication that escapes most of today's wannabes.

I loved Ruth Buzzy on the old Laugh In and Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the telephone operator was funny as hell (Is this the party to whom I am speaking ? Ohhhhh, Gorey Veetle...) I could never think of Gore Vidal by any other name after that.

I always want to call Ruth Bader Ginsburg Ruth Buzzy Ginsburg, but only for the physical resemblance, obviously not the humoUr.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Refresh my memory: "two fried -eggs T shirts" what was that about?
The 70s I recall involved good TV,bad hair, worse clothes (with the exception of mini-skirts) but no fried-egg Tees.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You wore it if you were flat chested :-)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
While I was off work last year I watched the entire series of "Thriller" from Netflix. When I was younger, it was scary. Now almost 60, I found it to be very well written for the most part. Another thing about those old shows, including opening titles and closing credits, the shows were 50 minutes long. Like so many shows of its time, Thriller and others had to rely on a PLOT. Now it seems that for a lot of programs it's just an excuse to get 2 people in bed.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yes, All in the Family could be on cable. But at the time..........
Nowadays every new show claims to be breaking new ground. But I remember when "All in the Family" premiered, and I thought OH MY! There was nothing like it before on broadcast TV. It wasn't the highest rated show for years because of nothing.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Liked when Dino had Gov. Reagan on.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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