But as critics sometimes do, Tosches was substituting his own expectations and disappointments for those of the fans. Sure, to a bare-knuckled Virgil of the shadowlands like himself, a nightclub bruiser such as Gleason was old hat. But for millions of viewers who knew Gleason best as the hard-luck Brooklyn bus driver with a heart of gold, it was a revelation to see his calmly menacing bulk lounging at the lectern with gold pinkie ring, gold cigarette case, gold lighter, and gold cufflinks all glittering. When he says to Russell, “Just think, if you were white, you coulda been Sammy Davis Jr.,” we glimpse the standup heavyweight as captured in “Pafko at the Wall,” Don DeLillo’s rip-roaring opener to his novel Underworld: “Gleason got his start doing insult comedy in blood buckets all over Jersey and is still an eager table comic — does it for free, does it for fun, and leaves shattered lives behind.”

Bingeing on the discs’ 12 episodes as opposed to viewing them spread out as they were over their original air dates reveals some lazy bits. A favorite Rickles routine runs, “I know [fill in name of celebrity on the dais] is a great [singer, comedian, athlete, etc]. How do I know this? Because ([he/she] told me so backstage just before the show.” But for the most part, despite repetition, Mr. Warmth’s delivery, expressions, and gestures all kill, whereas Rich Little’s imitations of Jimmy Stewart’s fractured speech quickly grow stale. And, love or disdain them, 1970s roastees like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Lucille Ball are shining stars for the ages; by 1984, Joan Collins seems pretty low-wattage.

And so we are left with a final question: Was Dino really as smashed as he always appeared to be onstage? Among the scores of drunk jokes directed at the master of ceremonies, one from Brooks pretty much sums it up: “The last time you and I were side by side, somebody [hiccup] stepped on my tongue.” But after Martin’s death, on Christmas Day, 1995, his old friend and colleague Joey Bishop swore that there had never been any drinking during working hours. “He had, in his J&B bottle, apple cider.” If so, Martin’s drunkard persona was worthy of the Oscar he was never nominated for.

Foster Brooks roasts Don Rickles (on right) as Dean Martin looks on, from the roast that aired on NBC in February 1974.
StarVista Entertainment
Foster Brooks roasts Don Rickles (on right) as Dean Martin looks on, from the roast that aired on NBC in February 1974.
Roastee Don Rickles at the podium in February 1974.
StarVista Entertainment
Roastee Don Rickles at the podium in February 1974.


The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts Collectors Edition (StarVista, six DVDs, $59.95)

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Martin’s enduring charm resided in his insouciant indifference. If the ultimate joke asks, “What is the meaning of life?” Dino’s style embodied the punchline “Who cares?”

So give him the last word, from the close of his very own roast. “I’ll remember this night,” [squint at cue card, smile] “until I get to my car.”

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