While guest-hosting a TV variety show in 1964, Dean Martin ridiculed a hot new rock ’n’ roll act with his trademark blend of cocksure innuendo, aw-shucks buffoonery, and inebriated syntax: “Now, something for the youngsters — five singing boys from England. . . . They’re called the Rollin’ Stones. I been rolled while I was stoned myself, so [pause, audience laughter] I don’t know what they’re singing about, but here they are at.” After the lads performed Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” Dino ushered them offstage, quipping, “They’re gonna leave right after the show for London — they’re challenging the Beatles to a hair-pullin’ contest.” Years later, bassist Bill Wyman, still miffed, recalled another zinger from that day, when Martin described a trampoline acrobat as “the father of the Rolling Stones. He’s been trying to kill himself ever since.”
Imagine: A band that made its bones by being offensive taking offense at a disrespectful elder. Perhaps they consoled themselves by imagining that the crooner was whistling past the graveyard of musical obsolescence; actually, they were just too young to appreciate a kindred spirit, a performer whom no less an expert than Elvis Presley had dubbed “The King of Cool.” With the release of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts Collectors Edition (StarVista, six DVDs, $59.95), you can judge anew whether the tall, dark, and handsome baritone born Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio, still deserved his crown as he and his cronies yukked it up during the twilight of an improbable, uniquely American, career.
In his magisterial biography Dino, author Nick Tosches describes Martin (1917–1995) as a natural-born singer who expanded effortlessly into nightclub comedy and a wide variety of roles on the silver screen. But despite his fabulous wealth and perennial popularity, Martin, according to Tosches, found little solace and even less meaning in his boundless success, maturing into what Dino’s hoodlum pals termed a menefreghista, Italian for someone “who simply did not give a fuck.” In his early singing career Martin was serendipitously teamed with a rubber-faced comic named Jerry Lewis, and their ad-libbed mayhem was an instant smash on the high-rolling nightclub circuit. In 1948, Dean began landing his songs on the pop charts; during the next year, he and Lewis embarked on a lucrative string of ludicrous comedies on the big screen. Lewis once said, with little financial exaggeration, “Can you pay two men $9 million to say ‘Did you take a bath this morning?’ ‘Why, is there one missing?’ — Do you dare contemplate such a fuck and duck? Yet that’s what we did.”
The act broke up acrimoniously in 1956, but by then Dean already had a bundle of top-10 songs, and there were plenty of solo roles awaiting him in Hollywood. Although Martin’s performances received decidedly mixed reviews, he was vindicated by boffo box office. The star was laconic about his acting style; later in his career, one director told Look magazine, “Dean doesn’t like acting, really. We set scenes up so that he only has to work in short spurts.” In the same article Dean dismissed method acting: “Motivation is a lotta crap.”
In 1965, when NBC introduced The Dean Martin Show, Dean found his true métier: indifference. The crooner opened with his mega-hit “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which the year before had knocked “A Hard Day’s Night” out of Billboard’s No. 1 slot and remained there for eight weeks. For his premiere, however, Dean warbled only a few bars, quipping, “No point in singing the whole song; you might not buy the record.” Next up: Dean and his guests cracking wise around a set built to look like a bar, a duet with old pal Frank Sinatra, and plenty of jiggling cleavage and high-stepping gams.
In its review, the Christian Science Monitor sniffed that if Dean “were anymore relaxed, he’d fall on his face,” adding, “One wondered, watching Dean, whether this man cared whether his show went over or not.” But, as Tosches relates in his filigreed prose, “the Dean Martin Show was an immense and immediate success. His uncaring manner and good-natured boorishness endeared him to the millions who were sick of sincerity, relevance, and pseudosophistication. Dean was a man whose success and fortune no man begrudged him. He seemed somehow kindred, one of them but blessed beyond them by the Fates. In him, for one late hour before the final day of every workweek, the multitudes, tired and half-drunk and onward-slouching, found something of their own: lullaby and vindication, justification and inspiration, a bit of boozy song and a glimpse of gal-meat.”
In 1973, producers brought the format of the New York Friars Club roast to the show, relieving Dean of any preparation at all save donning a tux and keeping his glasses handy for reading cue cards. Between that year and 1984, Dean hosted more than 50 roasts, 12 of which appear on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts Collectors Edition DVDs, and they offer a time capsule of comedy spanning from vaudeville throwbacks Jack Benny and George Burns right up through some of the era’s hottest comics, including Flip Wilson, Rowan and Martin, and Freddie Prinze. The formula is simple: An announcer welcomes a bevy of roasters — some of whom, such as standup comics Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, and Nipsey Russell, and impressionist Rich Little, were basically regulars — followed by host Dino and the Man or Woman of the Hour. The gang chortles amid a haze of cigarette smoke and everyone hoists drinks like it’s the fall of Rome, but what really redlines the Wayback Machine are the jokes. For the Sammy Davis Jr. roast, Dino’s opening quip imagines the NBC peacock wearing an afro, the first salvo in a barrage of cracks about the Klan, riding in the back of the bus, and Davis’s copious jewelry. There are also digs about Sammy’s obsequiousness toward Sinatra, a spectral presence in these 12 roasts, notable for his atrophied sense of humor. Comedian Jan Murray emphasized Ol’ Blue Eyes’s vindictiveness by warning Davis that if he kept closing his Vegas act with “My Way,” Sinatra’s signature tune, “You’ll wake up tomorrow morning with the head of a watermelon on your bed.”