Dean Martin Roasts: Remembrance of Zings Past
Forget Lenny Bruce and George Carlin: These old guys with their Brylcreem and tuxedos were trendsetters, too.
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.
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.
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 like 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.)
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?