Archive of Roasts
Multi-disc compilation of Dean Martin celebrity roast contains many comedy gems to discover
By Michael Shashoua / Jester editor-in-chief
“Dean Martin Roasts: Stingers & Zingers,” an 8-disc DVD set released by Starvista Entertainment on April 14 is a voluminous package that is nearly impossible to review in its entirety without days on end to devote to it. Picking out pieces of it to watch is like diving in to the video archive consoles at the former Museum of TV & Radio in New York (now the Paley Center).
So, this review is based on just a small sample of the roasts in the set – those for Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker on “All In The Family”), Truman Capote, Monty Hall, Hubert Humphrey (any others). It’s often been said that these roasts, the inspiration for the more recent Comedy Central roasts – contained material that pre-dated political correctness, in a way that might seem shocking even to fans of the more recent type of roasts, like those for Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen.
But what’s more surprising is that some of the material is just plain corny or hacky – usually that delivered by those who were outside show business – authors like Joseph Wambaugh on the Capote roast or Sen. Lowell Weicker on the Humphrey roast, who were less adept as comedians. Some of host Dean Martin’s lines, strangely enough, come off the same way, but that might be a factor of his boozy personality.
The material that might offend some is actually the more well-crafted stuff, and some of the highlights of the collection as I’ve managed to get to – namely, Nipsey Russell at the Carroll O’Connor roast, taking the stage as the head of the Archie Bunker Fan Club in a KKK outfit, then removing the hood to reveal himself – and launching into self-effacing racial jokes about what Archie Bunker thinks of various things like whether a black man could become president (“only if he runs against a Mexican”) or an astronaut (“they would end up with the top down, playing the radio too loud”). It’s a performance that goes even further past the lines than Dave Chappelle would cross decades later.
Foster Brooks turns up on several of the roasts – he’s a performer who may be forgotten or unknown to younger people today, unlike others whose personas endured longer in pop culture, even after they retired or died. If you don’t know, Brooks performed much of the time in character as a drunk, slurring and struggling to find words as he spoke – but in a manner that was carefully constructed to provoke laughs. Brooks’ act is something of a wonder to behold, and the sheer volume of this set means it may contain many other interesting nuggets.
Overall, despite whatever might be considered offensive in these roasts, the collegial manner of the roasters and their subjects toward one another keeps the audience in on the jokes, rather than having the lines come off like nasty, hurtful statements. Even though roasts have been revived in a more modern form since these days, seeing an old master like Redd Foxx drop a double entendre with perfect timing is uniquely entertaining. There are plenty of such gems to discover in this set.
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© 2005-2017 Michael Shashoua