Dean Martin is a complicated character, a world-class singer who only became famous once he played straight man to Jerry Lewis, an icon of cool who spent years playing wingman to Frank Sinatra and a world-class actor who spent his later years pretending to be sauced on NBC.
After nearly a decade of variety shenanigans on The Dean Martin Show, Dean transitioned to a series of 54 Dean Martin Celebrity Roast specials that ran between 1974-1984. All 54 specials are now reissued in a massive box set called The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Complete DVD Collection.
Mostly filmed at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, the specials honor a wide assortment of old Hollywood legends (Bob Hope, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas ), politicians (Sen. Barry Goldwater, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Gov. Ronald Reagan), athletes (Hank Aaron, Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlain, Muhammad Ali), contemporary TV stars (Gabe Kaplan, William Conrad, Carroll O'Connor, Johnny Carson, Redd Foxx) and Dean's Rat Pack pals (Frank, Angie Dickinson,Sammy Davis Jr.). Throw in a few cultural icons like Evel Knievel, Hugh Hefner and Mr. T and you've got a time capsule from the era.
That's not counting the roasters, who include Don Rickles, Tony Orlando, Rich Little, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Orson Welles, Milton Berle, Dick Butkus, John Wayne, Yogi Berra, Howard Cosell, Shelley Winters, Nipsey Russell and the era's premiere drunk comic Foster Brooks.
There's a lot of crossover with Bob Hope's USO specials from the same era: throw some big names on a stage with some up-and-comers on a network TV show and everybody watches because there are maybe two alternatives on the other networks.
Ethnic jokes that were mild for the era seem pretty shocking today (even though there's nothing that compares to the raunchy humor on the modern Comedy Central Roasts). There's a lot of obvious unrehearsed reading off cue cards and no sign of an actual audience. The laugh tracks are set to stun and Dean usually looks like he rolled up five minutes before taping.
None of that's meant as negative criticism: these shows really bring back strong memories of the era. It's hard to imagine contemporary icons like, say, Tom Hanks, LeBron James and Sen. Ted Cruz getting together to poke fun at Honey Boo Boo but that's pretty much the vibe going on with these specials.
The top choice would be the complete set with all 54 roasts, a 44-page photo book that highlights some of the producers' favorite jokes from the series, 15 hours of bonus material (including some new interviews and four Dean Martin specials, some episodes of the variety show and some of Dean's home movies) and a Dean Martin figurine, all for $249.95.
If that's too much dough (or too much Dean), you can get 18 complete roasts with two variety show DVDS and a handful of bonus featurettes for $99.95.
It's hard to believe the comedian who made these shows is the same Dean Martin who was an amazing recording artist or the same guy who starred in Some Came Running, but Martin was maybe the most versatile performer of his day. Maybe not as good a singer as Frank, but almost certainly a better actor and definitely a much funnier guy. Check these out and see how good he could be cruising on autopilot.