Men of the Hour: Dean Martin and Ronald Reagan

How Television Roasts Rebranded Two of America’s Leading Men

From left to right: Bob Hope, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra

This article examines how television can be used as an effective tool for rebranding a celebrity’s image. Specifically, it discusses how the first episode of the 1973–1974 season of The Dean Martin Show, “Celebrity Roast: Ronald Reagan,” successfully marked new chapters in the careers of Dean Martin and Ronald Reagan. A version of this essay was originally written as part of Jason Mittell’s “Television and American Culture” class at Middlebury College.

Dean Martin: A Return to Comedy

If Nielsen ratings can serve as an indication, the 1964–1965 television season was a rough one for NBC. The network finished with only five of the top-thirty programs, while ABC and CBS finished with ten and fifteen respectively. Though NBC garnered the number one spot with the sixth season of Bonanza, the network had by far the weakest programming, with no other show finishing in the top ten and only two others cracking the top twenty.¹ In an attempt to bolster their ratings and programming, NBC turned to a man who had just finished one of the best years of his career as a singer, comedian, and actor: Dean Martin.

Dean sings “Everybody Loves Somebody” on The Dean Martin Show

In 1964, at the onset of the “British Invasion,” Martin, at forty-seven years old, knocked The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” off Billboard’s number one spot with “Everybody Loves Somebody,” the recording that would become his signature song. At that time Martin was also one of the most commercially successful actors in the country, starring that same year in What a Way to Go! with Gene Kelly and Paul Newman, and alongside Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals in Robin and the 7 Hoods.

NBC, in an attempt to ride the wave of Martin’s popularity, created The Dean Martin Show prior to the start of the 1965–1966 television season.² After a rough first year, the weekly variety show hit its stride in its second season, repeatedly cracking the top thirty and peaking at number eight from 1967–1969. The program consistently beat out other variety shows like The Red Skelton Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.

With the help of Martin’s long-time producer Greg Garrison, NBC took Dean’s film and onstage persona as a handsome, lovable, debonair drunk, and applied it television. Per Martin’s request, his deal with the network said that he did not have to rehearse for the show prior to taping. While unorthodox at the time, the agreement only enhanced the show, and strengthened Martin’s brand as the playful singer who brushed off mistakes and made performing look effortless. He never took himself too seriously, and the genuine fun he had while on stage translated across the screen. His complete ease of self not only attracted viewers, but also his fellow superstars: Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles, John Wayne, Ella Fitzgerald, Kelly, et al. flocked to The Dean Martin Show, where they sang, danced, and acted in skits. Martin became a stalwart at NBC, where he hosted network specials, like “Christmas with The Martins and The Sinatras” in 1967.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis

For Martin, the show was a return to the first successful phase of his career, where he dominated night clubs and motion picture sets as one-half of “Martin and Lewis,” one of the most successful comedy teams in history. As the straight-man to Jerry Lewis, Martin proved himself to be a superb and multi-faceted performer. Not only could he sing , but he had comedic abilities that rivaled those of Milton Berle, Jack Benny, George Burns, and the other comedy stars of the day. His friend Joey Bishop said that Martin’s comedic timing was so impeccable it was a shame God gave him such a good singing voice.

Although “Martin and Lewis” dominated the 1950s as a critical and commercial success, Martin wanted more. As the more loquacious and goofy member of the duo, Lewis got all of the credit for the pair’s success, and Martin, wanting to prove himself, decided to go out on his own. With Lewis, he was branded as a comedian who could sing. On his own, he would be able to prove he could sing as well as Sinatra and his hero Bing Crosby. And so, in 1956, Martin and Lewis called it quits and, to the surprise of no one, Dean Martin quickly became one of the most commercially successful singers in the country.

Dean Martin sings “Volare,” “On an Evening in Roma,” and mixes in a few jokes.

As the number two member of The Rat Pack, Martin also became a pillar of Las Vegas, selling out live shows and becoming one of the biggest stars in show business. Though at that time he was known primarily as singer, his sense of humor always found its way into his live performances. On stage, lyrics to his most popular songs, like “If I had it in my power…” from “Everybody Loves Somebody,” became “If I had you in my shower...” He could blend comedy and song like no other. It was this Dean Martin that Garrison was able to portray on screen, and the one that the team at NBC relied on to boost their ratings during the later half of the 1960s.

Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin, and Orson Welles on The Dean Martin Show

However, that success soon came to pass. After the 1971–1972 season, The Dean Martin Show’s ratings began to falter. The skits and shticks felt repetitive to audiences, and variety shows as a genre saw a decrease in viewership.³ And the audience for crooners was only growing older. Before the start of the 1973 season, NBC had two options: cancel the show or reimagine it. Were they to choose the former, the network would lose the star whose brand they had spent nearly a decade cultivating. They would also have to spend millions of dollars developing and launching a new show that could easily fail. They opted for the later, taking the best parts of The Dean Martin Show — Dean’s humor, charm, carefree nature, and on-air chemistry with big stars — and restructured the program as a celebrity roast show.

The first episode of the new Dean Martin Show aired on September 14, 1973 and marked the successful rebranding of the show and its star. Martin had hosted a roast of his friend Johnny Carson during the 1972–1973 season, however, it was not until the 1973–1974 season that the show abandoned skits altogether and became solely a roast show that each week featured a different “Man of the Week.” After that season, Martin became the host of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, a special show that allowed NBC to retain Martin and deliver popular programming every month or so over the course of the following ten years.

And so, as crooning and variety shows ebbed away, Dean was able to rebrand himself, once again, as the comedian who sang, rather than the singer with a sense of humor.

Complete Episode of The Dean Martin Show: “Celebrity Roast: Ronald Reagan”

Ronald Reagan: From Governor to President

While the Sep. 14, 1973 episode of The Dean Martin Show re-energized Martin’s career, the program more so marked the next chapter of the roastee’s career: then Governor of California Ronald Reagan.

In 1973, Reagan, nearing the end of his second term as governor, was widely considered to be a potential Republican nominee for president. At the time of the roast, then President Richard Nixon found himself engulfed by the Watergate investigation, and was just one month away from ensuring the nation that he was “not a crook.” To observers of the political landscape, it was clear that the president was in trouble, and that the Republican Party needed to run a candidate who was the complete opposite of Nixon if they were going to have a chance of keeping the White House in 1976.

Governor Reagan greets Presidential Candidate Nixon in California (1968)

Reagan, in many ways, was the perfect candidate, and the September 14 episode of The Dean Martin Show, “Celebrity Roast: Ronald Reagan,” presented him as such. As Reagan laughed alongside the roasters, it showed that he, unlike Nixon, was gregarious, likable, charismatic, had a clean record, and, above all, could take a joke.

The roast of Ronald Reagan illustrates how television satire can be used as an effective tool to humanize political candidates. In Reagan’s case, the roast reintroduced him to a national audience that knew him as an actor and governor. The program helped to rebrand him not only as a presidential contender, but as the complete opposite of Richard Nixon.

The episode begins with introductory remarks and a bit by Dean Martin in which he reads telegram messages from people “who couldn’t be here tonight.” The final telegram he reads is “from” Nixon, who writes, “Dear Governor Reagan, I am sorry I couldn’t come to your roast tonight. Dean invited me but I don’t trust anybody named Dean anymore.”⁴

Men involved in the Watergate Scandal

The Dean that “Nixon” refers to is former White House Counsel John Dean, who, in June of 1973, became the first person to publicly testify before the Senate Watergate Committee that Nixon and several of his advisors and cabinet members were directly involved in the Watergate break-ins.

From the outset of the roast, there is a clear distinction made between the people that Reagan and Nixon each surround themselves with. The Watergate investigation showed that Nixon associated himself with criminals and corrupt political operatives, hence the title of Woodward and Bernstein’s future book, All the President’s Men. By comparison, Reagan’s crowd was comprised of singers, movie stars and comedians, some of the most beloved people in America. In addition to being an actor himself, Reagan also served as president of the Screen Actors Guild for close to a decade. He was friends with Hollywood’s finest, many of whom would later campaign alongside him. Reagan’s Dean was the lovable singer, not the criminal lawyer.

Furthermore, Reagan’s association with the glamorous men and women of Hollywood showed voters that he was a part of that world, one that all American’s yearned to join and embodied wealth and success like no other, a world that voters want their leader to be a part of.

Many of the roasters were friends of Reagan’s, and while they do not explicitly endorse Reagan’s candidacy, it is clear that they respect and admire him. This love translates across the screen, as roasters made jokes not at Reagan’s political expense, but at Nixon’s, and used humor to contrast the president with the Man of the Week.

Ronald Reagan, the actor

The humor in the episode is playful, and the roasters tell jokes that exhibit a softer form of satire that was common for the period. As a whole, television programming was less political, and jokes were more coded and subtle in how they discussed politics. Rather than writing jokes that explicitly dealt with a single political issue, television shows often dealt with current events in more general terms.

The critic Noel Murray describes this comedic style in an essay on the popular television program M*A*S*H. He points out that the show “wasn’t explicitly about Vietnam,” rather, “it used the Korean War as a stage from which to comment on the futility of all war, and the inherent madness of military life no matter the era of specific conflict.”⁵

This same humor tactic is employed by roaster Pat Henry, the comedian who famously worked as the opening act for Frank Sinatra, a future Reagan supporter. Instead of calling Nixon a crook and referencing Watergate directly, Henry says, “I hear all this talk of Governor Ronald Reagan trying for the White House in ’76, but with all due respect to you Governor, I must tell you that you’re wasting your time. How can you aspire to such a high office? You’ve never even had a good scandal attached to your name…Who’s going to trust a politician like that?”

Henry comments on the nature of all politicians, even though the audience knows that he is specifically referencing Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Because his joke is subtle, the satirization of Nixon is more effective, as it allows the audience to come to the intended conclusion on their own. This kind of joke not only ribs Nixon, it bolsters Reagan’s reputation, and communicates to the audience that, policy aside, he, unlike the president, has a clean record.

From left to right: Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan, Dean Martin, Phyllis Diller

The jokes at the roast also served to quell the anxieties of the audience. At that time, the Watergate investigation dominated every aspect of television and American life. Television viewers needed comic relief from the absurdity that was, and still is, American politics. As a result, many of the jokes were aimed to mimic that absurdity. Jack Benny jokes, “In all fairness to [Reagan’s predecessor] Pat Brown, when he was governor, we didn’t have earthquakes.” And Phyllis Diller says, “Ronny, if you ever become president, and I think you may, try not to have a recession at a bad time, like when everybody is out of work.”

This type of humor appealed to audiences because it served as a reminder that, even in the most serious of times, it is ok and necessary to laugh at politics. Humor can be found in the bleakest of situations. And throughout the roast, as the comedians prove this to be true, there is a shot of Reagan sitting next to them, laughing hard at the jokes and demonstrably sharing in this belief. In fact, Reagan laughs the hardest at perhaps the harshest joke, when Don Rickles turns to him and says, “Black, white, jew, gentile, we’re all working for one cause: to figure out how you became governor.”

G. Gordon Liddy

Reagan’s ability to laugh at himself and the absurdity of politics humanized him. And it showed to the audience that he, like Dean, did not take himself too seriously. To an electorate that was used to seeing the famously insecure, serious, and combative Nixon, Reagan’s laughter and contagious smile were a breath of fresh air.

At the end of the episode, when it was Reagan’s turn to be the roaster, he showed not only that he could take a joke, but that he was funny in his own right. His first joke at the podium was a jab at Nixon. Reagan impersonated the testimony of G. Gordon Liddy, one of the men who would later be convicted for his role in the Watergate break-in.⁶ Reagan says, “Let me just say about my decision tonight, in hindsight, to the best of my recollection, at this point in time, I really goofed.”

By using this platform to make fun of the Watergate scandal, Reagan is distancing himself from the president, thus making it easier for him to run for the White House in 1976 and not have his own brand tarnished. This, again, illustrates how subtle humor can be an effective tool in delivering a political message.

Dean Martin and Ronald Reagan on The Dean Martin Show
Ronald Reagan with William F. Buckley Jr. on Firing Line

Reagan, using his sense of humor and experience as a performer, harnessed the power of television to become a presidential contender. Part of what made Reagan such an effective politician was the way in which he used popular culture to communicate with voters and build his brand. He recognized that one of the most valuable aspects of the medium is its diverse programming. Television allows one to easily engage with different voters and demographics. One week, Reagan would get roasted on The Dean Martin Show, the next he would engage in a serious policy discussion with William F. Buckley Jr on Firing Line. His unique ability to appear on a wide-range of programs highlighted his different talents and abilities. He used the medium to his advantage, thus allowing him to build a coalition of voters that would eventually send him to the Oval Office.

Throughout both his presidential campaigns, and his time in the White House, Reagan famously used humor to communicate to the masses and deliver his message. A quick YouTube search of “Reagan + jokes” shows dozens of quips that Reagan made at the expense of liberals, the Soviet Union, etc. Reagan’s sense of humor not only humanized him, it made him an effective political communicator.

Though it is impossible to pinpoint one specific instance that marked the beginning of Reagan’s run for the White House, and equally impossible to find the first time he used humor as a political tactic, it is fair to say that the 1973 episode of The Dean Martin Show was the first time that Reagan coalesced his skills as a politician and entertainer into one, effective political message: I am not Richard Nixon.

Ronald Reagan at the 1976 Republican Convention

The following year, Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president. In 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged Ford for the Republican nomination and lost. His loss was probably for the better, as Ford would go on to lose to Jimmy Carter in the general election, giving the Democrats control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives.

In subsequent years, Reagan would continue to appear on television and build his brand, returning to Dean’s show to roast friends like Frank Sinatra and George Burns. His appeal to the masses culminated in his victory in the 1980 Presidential Election.

The case of Ronald Reagan shows how powerful television is as a medium, and how individuals can use it to rebrand themselves. Above all, it shows how television is perhaps the most effective way to deliver a political message, as if we needed more evidence of that today.

[1] Wikipedia contributors, ‘Top-rated United States television programs of 1964–65’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 August 2016, 02:18 UTC. Accessed 22 May 2017.

[2] King, Susan. “Classic Hollywood: Dean Martin Does TV His Way.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 23 May 2011. Web. 22 May 2017.

[3] Lauer, Matt. “Headliners & Legends:Dean Martin.” YouTube. MSNBC, 14 June 2014. Web. 22 May 2017.

[4] Garrison, Greg. “Dean Martin Celebrity Roast — Ronald Reagan.” YouTube. NBC, 14 Sept. 1973. Web. 22 May 2017.

[5] Murray, Noel. “M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy.” Ed. Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell. How to Watch Television. New York, NY: New York UP, 2013. N. pag. Print.

[6] Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. “News Analysis: Still Secret — Who Hired Spies and Why.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 31 Jan. 1973. Web. 22 May 2017.

Other Works Consulted

Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Men. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014. Print.

Mittell, Jason. Television and American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.