Classic FRIARS CLUB ROASTS on getTV in May

THE FRIARS ROAST JERRY LEWIS on getTV

Those of us who came of age in the 1970s knew one thing: there was no surer sign of impending young adulthood than our parents letting us stay up late to watch a Celebrity Roast. For those unfortunates who may be unfamiliar with the concept, the Roast was a series of primetime specials wherein popular stars were “celebrated” by a panel of actors, comedians, and raconteurs. And by “celebrated,” we mean “mercilessly mocked.”

What we might not have known, however, was that the roast had been around since at least 1949, when the fraternal organization known as the Friars Club began skewering famous members at its New York City clubhouse. And, years before Dean Martin began borrowing the format in the mid-1970s, the long-running variety series The Kraft Music Hall staged the first-ever televised roasts on NBC. And you can see what we mean when getTV presents two early installments of The Friars Club Roast on Sunday, May 26 — both emceed by Tonight Show host Johnny Carson!

At its best, the Roast feel like an invitation to the Friars’ smoke-filled banquet hall. The televised roasts were surely never as risqué as the live events, but they certainly pushed some boundaries. When you get a bunch of comedians together to rib each other, topics may be broached that might not have been blessed by the censors on a scripted program. A roast was the closest many of us ‘70s kids got to a comedy club, frat house, or old school “stag party.” In short, it seemed like a non-pasteurized preview of being grown-up.  

Nothing ever got too out-of-hand, of course. But there was always the sense that it might. And that made the Celebrity Roast extra fun for those of us too young to understand that “live TV” wasn’t really live.  

Here’s a preview of the two Friars Roast specials airing on getTV in May:

1. The Friars Roast Don Rickles (1970) — May 26 at 10p ET

“All of these remarks are made in the spirit of good fun, mutual admiration, and affection,” host Johnny Carson says as he opens the September 30, 1970 installment of The Kraft Music Hall. “We’re suspending these conditions tonight, because of the nature of our guest.”

First up is Chet Huntley, journalist and recently retired co-anchor of NBC’s The Huntley Brinkley Report. He calls Rickles “the poster boy for birth control,” an example of a line that might not have slipped past the censor on a scripted series of the era. Next is comedian Alan King, who recounts Rickles’ start as an “insult comic” in the early 1950s. (One of his early victims was Frank Sinatra at a club in Brooklyn.) Comedian Henny Youngman launches into old jokes from his nightclub act, as Milton Berle tries to drag him off stage. Dick Cavett congratulates Rickles on his “public humiliation by a cheese company” (a joke at the expense of sponsor Kraft). George C. Scott tells a story of his early days at acting school with Rickles in the 1950s. And the notoriously hostile Berle closes out the testimonials by knocking Youngman, Cavett, Huntley, AND Rickles (of course).

Rickles finally takes the mic for his closing and playfully attacks each of the panelists. He also correctly predicts George C. Scott’s Oscar win for Patton a few months later. But his remarks depict the exact opposite of his stage persona: a genuinely nice guy who appreciated all the opportunities he had been given. “Thank you for making me feel a little bit important,” he says. “I promise you I will not let it go to my head.”

2. The Friars Roast Jerry Lewis — May 26 at 11p ET

Jerry Lewis “is the only person I know who’s been belted in the mouth by Mahatma Gandhi,” Johnny Carson says as he opens this January, 1971 special. Alan King takes a spin through Jerry’s career, from his partnership with Dean Martin (which ended in 1956) to the present day. Next up is comic Charlie Callas, who does a mock eulogy for Lewis. Milton Berle calls Jerry the “Federico Fellini for five-year-olds” and makes some zingers about Jerry’s ex-partner Dean. Film critic Rex Reed delivers some cracks about Jerry’s movies but ends his remarks with a tribute. As does, comedian Jack Carter, but with a slightly sharper edge.

“Jerry Lewis has done more to help my career than anyone else,” Carter says. “He made 43 movies and kept me out of all of them.” Next, Don Rickles heckles the panel and gets both a smack and a kiss from Berle, who seems to have a problem staying in his seat. “Why am I here tonight, Jerry?” Rickles asks the honoree rhetorically. “Because you might get hot again!”

“These are the people I have grown up in the business with, many of whom have been teachers for me,” Lewis says in his heartfelt closing, adding that he was “terrible proud to be the brunt of their humor.” It’s a sweet ending to a delightfully salty show.

For more, visit the getTV schedule.

close