Comedy Central has revived the concept of the celebrity roast and attained a level of popularity. But even executives at the network quietly admit that they had questions about how the format would work, until they heard Howard Stern and his crew skewer B-level celebs like Andy Dick and Colin Quinn. Those roasts were shepherded by Rev. Bob Levy (now an outcast from the program).
The Friars' Club in New York were among the first to "roast" celebrities. The regular gatherings of the comedians who founded the organization turned into ball-busting sessions that grew larger and larger. Eventually, the premise evolved to "honor" someone. It didn't matter who. Anyone in attendance (and especially on the dias) was fair game.
In 1973, the Dean Martin Show was beginning to flag in the ratings on NBC. Variety shows in general had declined over the years, but the long-running Martin show persisted due to the genial nature of its host. True story: Sid and Marty Krofft's puppets were regulars for eight episodes in the first season (1964), but got fired because Dean felt they upstaged him.
For the 1973-74 season, the show began to "roast" some of Martin's celebrity friends (and some who were not, like Muhammad Ali and Bette Davis). Ratings moved upward but Martin had grown tired of the show's routine. It became a series of roasts and moved to Las Vegas, where they became a staple for a decade, until even Martin grew tired of the premise.
Now StarVista has revived the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts and brought them back. Everything old is new again, the circle is completed. If you ever wondered why people revere Don Rickles, here are a (relatively clean) plethora of clips as he rips into famous people (as well as unseen audience members). Then there's the almost forgotten Foster Brooks. While Dean Martin took a lot of hits as a boozy singer, Brooks took it one step further. His stage persona was a drunk, through and through. With political correctness, it's inconceivable that such a character could exist in today's media climate. But watch the clip below, from a roast, and see Brooks turn 90 seconds of material into a four-minute monologue and bring down the house.
The six-DVD set is more than 900 minutes (!) of roasts and additional material, including some of Dean's home movies. For someone who grew up watching TV in the 70s and the 80s, it was a blast trying to decipher the bizarre dais seating arrangements (Orson Wells and Rowan & Martin?). Many (honestly the majority) are long gone. And most of the material was scripted for them. But the reactions are honest and the roasts capture a time period that is long gone.
Comedy Central may prop up the genre every year, but the roast is a concept from bygone days. Brooks brings down the house with a simple story about watching Don Rickles on TV (with Rickles' wife). Nowadays, I can only imagine what a comic would have to do to receive a similar reaction. But Dean Martin presided over a slice of TV history with a veritable cavalcade of legends (Frank Sinatra, Rickles, Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball). Come for the names, stay for the laughs.
The DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS are available from Star Vista, Amazon, and TimeLife.
Here is a clip of Foster Brooks roasting Don Rickles: