If you’re awake late at night, and you surf the televisions channels, you’ve probably stumbled across a 30-minute commercial for a video collection of the Dean Martin celebrity roasts. They were first broadcast several decades ago, and it’s a treat to see some of the top entertainers of the era in their prime.
It’s an even better treat to laugh so heartily.
Those top stars joined Dean for an evening of laughs from 1973 to 1984. In those 11 years, Dean and his panel of pals ridiculed, embarrassed and made fun of legendary figures like Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr., Ronald Reagan (while governor of California, before he became president), Howard Cosell, Michael Landon - and even Martin himself, to name a few.
They say that laughter is contagious, and these shows proved it. Even a modest joke could touch off a wave of uncontrollable guffaws as the camera panned the dais, and you saw people like Johnny Carson, Lorne Greene, Mohammad Ali, Angie Dickinson and Don Rickles almost falling off their seats. You’d like to think they weren’t acting, and they were truly caught up in the moment. If so, it’s a condition my mother used to say happened when “someone turned over your tickle box.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, a roast is an event at which a successful person is chosen to be “honored,” and that person is always someone who deserves the acclaim. But these honors are the type that only your best friends can give without somebody coming to blows. And then, at the very end of the evening, the “honoree” has the opportunity to return the favor to everyone who spoke.
I guess the relative tameness of the insults is a reflection of the simpler times we lived in then. The jokes weren’t mean-spirited. Writers worked hard to provide roast material that was suitable for prime-time, especially in those days. After all, there’s a fine line between making a joke and being horribly cruel.
A couple of weeks ago, I read that a particular network, available to subscribers of cable or satellite subscription television services, was going to broadcast a roast of Bob Saget. I decided to catch up with one of the repeat airings of the show. After all, the broadcast was heavily promoted.
Apparently, Mr. Saget performs what many describe as an “edgier” type of humor, a style that contradicts the family image many of his viewers hold from his work on “Full House” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” For some, “edgier” translates into “raunch.”
I don’t consider myself a prude by any means, but this was more than I cared to endure. Language is one thing, certainly, but the roasters tried - and I emphasize tried - to find humor in things like chronic obesity and child abuse. Without doubt, the old formula for a roast was followed to the letter. Each speaker offered insults not only to the “honoree” but also to each of the other speakers lined up for the show. I assume the guest of honor got some minutes at the end, but I can’t say whether Saget salvaged any good comedy out of it or not. I didn’t stick around to see it. So I’m here today to say this didn’t work for me. I never knew I was so far out of things. And if I really am, I don’t care to “enlighten” myself any further.
Those 30-minute commercials on another channel, the ones showing Dean Martin and the rest, explain how DVDs of those old shows can be purchased. I’m thinking about making the call. Frankly though, a half-hour of excerpts from the roasts’ 11-year run is almost enough comedy to satisfy my hunger. And they certainly are broadcasting the ad often enough.
But I am still thinking about it. If the Saget affair is cutting edge comedy these days, I may have to be content to flip my “tickle box” with videos of Johnny Carson, Dean Martin, Bob Hope and others like them. Am I sounding like my father now, or what?
Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.