Today’s crude and rude “reality television” cannot match the crassness of TV “roasts,” which were popular in the 1970s and ’80s. Then, words were used as weapons. Today, those “weapons” have been replaced by cusses, sex, vulgarity, and nudity. In effect, nothing in TV has changed, it’s just adapted to the politically correct times.

While re-watching some of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast shows taped at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, one thought came to mind: With the Politically Correct Police Force now on patrol, those shows could never be aired today.

When the shows were broadcast on NBC from 1974 to 1984 (with a total of 54 episodes), each installment was guaranteed to insult people with impunity — no matter their race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. But, no one even seemed to be offended — not the live audience, not the viewers at home, and not those sitting on the dais. The words were less “insulting” than they were “enjoyably irreverent.” It was all considered to be in good fun, and the ridicule was never disdainful.

People shelled out their hard-earned cash to listen to comedians like Don Rickles (aka, “the Merchant of Venom”), who made sure to ridicule everyone equally — without discriminating.

Nowadays, the only person in the world able to disparage people with impunity is U.S. president Donald Trump, who has contemptuously derided women, soldiers, Latinos, Muslims, the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and even the Pope! This is something that no other presidential candidate will be able (or willing) to do, making him a formidable contender for re-election among his “base,” i.e., those who don’t consider themselves to be politically correct.

What brought this journalist back to Martin’s show — which has a few episodes available on YouTube — was his research into the career of his Italian co-regional, Dean Martin (born Dino Crocetti, 1917-1995), whose father came from his native region, Abruzzo. (The region seems to be a breeding ground for talent. Other notable Hollywood luminaries originating from Abruzzo include Madonna, Alan Alda, and Patti LuPone, as well as the late Henry Mancini, Penny Marshall, and Perry Como, among some 40 or so other famous personalities.)

The very popular Dean Martin Celebrity Roast was a spin-off of the similarly successful The Dean Martin Show. The “roast” (a type of insult comedy) was a TV show concept developed in 1949 by the Friars Club in New York City. However, the insults at the original shows were not nearly as biting as those subsequently used at Martin’s roasts, and they didn’t contain what today are considered offensive and prejudiced statements. Later, the Comedy Central Roasts, which began in 1998 and ran through 2018, managed to adhere to these unspoken politically correct guidelines.

Indeed, in those Comedy Central shows, many topics were completely off limits, and some celebrities being roasted even objected to the presence of lesser-known personalities on the roasters’ dais.

Martin’s roasts were unusual for several reasons. First, their length, since each episode lasted 100 minutes. Today’s broadcast TV programmers would not risk three half-hours. Then there was the fact that Martin had it in his contract that he was not required to rehearse before taping, which would represent additional risks these days (in terms of costs and sponsorships). Finally, roasters and the roasted (also called “roastees”) weren’t just comedians, but also actors, singers, TV presenters, authors, athletes, and politicians like Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Hubert Humphrey. One 1973 episode in effect launched then-California governor Reagan’s presidential campaign, presenting him as a likeable person.

For many years, Martin’s Celebrity series was sold by California-based Guthy-Renker, which released the shows on DVD, and by Time Life, which marketed them via infomercials. However, according to a Time Life executive, their rights to Martin’s series expired in May 2019.  Since 2003, Time Life has been owned by Direct Holdings of Fairfax and based in Virginia. According to John Griffeth, husband and manager of Dean Martin’s daughter, Deana, also a singer, all rights are now reverting back to the Martin estate since Dean Martin retained ownership of the series.

Another interesting tidbit is that the co-owners of Direct Holdings are Michael Mahan, president of Dick Clark Productions (DCP), and Allen Shapiro, DCP’s CEO. Mahan is also a partner in Valencia Media, which owns DCP.

Today, the only entertaining “roast” that comes to mind is the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, which is offered for and typically attended by sitting U.S. presidents (Trump, however, declines to participate). But it’s not televised.

Nowadays, reality television has taken the place of these televised roasts, and replaced outrageous dialogue with outrageous behaviors and characters, as well as shocking stories.

Similarly, reality TV attracts audiences — not with words — but by making fun of a variety of things, including how people look (e.g., Botched on E!), how couples have sex (e.g., Sex Sent Me to the ER on Discovery Network and Sex Box on WE), people’s sexuality (e.g., Playing it Straight on FOX), their ethnicity (e.g., Jersey Shore on MTV), their gender (e.g., Sister Wives on TLC), their behaviors (e.g., Buying Naked on TLC and Dating Naked on VH1), and their age (e.g., Sunset Daze, a show about geriatrics in a retirement community on WE), among other similarly outrageous topics.

Reality television was created in 1948 (one year before the Friars Club developed the “roast” concept on TV) by American producer Allen Funt (1914-1999) with his popular Candid Camera series, which was first broadcast on ABC, then on NBC, then moved to syndication in 1951, then returned to NBC seven years later, then finally aired on CBS.

However, reality television didn’t really take off widely until the late 1990s. It experienced a decline in popularity in the early 2000s, only to return more popular and outrageous than ever in 2013.

None of the post-2013 shows, though, would have aroused the ire of the Politically Correct Police Force as much as just one of the insane lines directed at Dean Martin’s guests, which included black performer Sammy Davis Jr., Italian singer Frank Sinatra, female comedian Ruth Buzzi, and many a man who made fun of his own Jewish wife.

(By Dom Serafini)

Audio Version (a DV Works service)