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By Phil Hall | December 28, 2013

When Dean Martin’s long-running TV variety show began to lose steam during its final 1973-74 season, the format was switched away from a musical-comedy revue to a celebrity roast. This reconfigured setting allowed Martin to share the spotlight with a wider selection of stars without having to go through the expense of elaborate musical numbers or comedy sketches.

Beginning in 1974, Martin’s roasts were spun off from a weekly format into a series of specials that dotted the TV season. This lasted through 1979; three additional roasts were belatedly added in 1984. This DVD anthology brings together the entire line-up of 54 roasts – and while a great deal of the material doesn’t quite hit the mark, there is plenty of amusing 1970s-style humor to justify the revival of their specials.

Strangely, Martin was among the least interesting aspects of their roasts. Disconnected from his singing, he fell back on his drunk act while serving as the host of the proceedings. For the most part, Martin’s faux-inebriation and flubbing of the cue card readings was never that funny.

To his credit, however, Martin stepped back to allow a wacky line-up of old-time funnymen to soak up much of the laughter. The roasts were hot when comics like Don Rickles, Frank Gorshin, Rich Little, Charlie Callas, Foster Brooks, Nipsey Russell, Ruth Buzzi and Rowan and Martin went off script and ad-libbed wild comments. One genuinely classic moment involved the appearance of Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo at the Frank Sinatra roast – Falk’s seemingly befuddled yet intrusive detective left everyone in heavy laughter as he scrounged about for a cocktail napkin and pen to secure a Sinatra autography while he clumsily inquired if Jerry Vale was the actual voice heard on Sinatra’s later albums.

However, not all of the stars were adept at freewheeling one-liners. Many non-comics actor and athletes asked to participate on the shows were clearly ill-at-ease reading from cue cards – though, surprisingly, Senators Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey were more than capable of one-upping their Borscht Belt companions on the dais with quips and insults. Another misstep came in attempts to create roast regulars out of baby-voiced Georgia Engel and sassy LaWanda Page never really clicked – their respective putdowns were diluted by their obvious lack of familiarity with the celebrities being roasted and the weakness of their scripted material.

By contemporary standards, the roasts are remarkable for being politically incorrect. Racial, ethnic and gender jokes were sharp and often bizarre – a roast for Sammy Davis Jr. contained some astonishing humor related to slavery and lynching that would never be allowed on today’s network television. But despite the alleged insults tossed about the stage, none of the shows smelled of mean-spiritedness or crass vulgarity (which cannot be said for the puerile attempts by Comedy Central to roast contemporary talent).

If acquiring this entire DVD collection may seem overwhelming – some “best of” segments from Martin’s variety show are also included – or if the material seems foreign to those who were not around in the 1970s, one can easily get a taste of the Martin roasts via YouTube segments. If these samples seem agreeable, then this mighty package would be worth acquiring.

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  1. AJ says:

    Youre absolutely wrong about Lawanda Page’s appearance on his show. She’s TEN times funnier than most comics then or today. Brilliant in fact. She had courage and chutzpah. Something sorely needed today to confront the mean-spirited, killjoys that overpopulate the media.

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