WGF Archive: Roasting Bette Davis on The Dean Martin Show

In a recent episode of FX’s Feud, Bette Davis gets nominated for an Oscar for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? eliciting extreme jealousy in her co-star Joan Crawford. As payback, Crawford conspires with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper against Davis by convincing two other Best Actress nominees that year – Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft – to let her accept on their behalf should they win. The Oscar ultimately goes to Bancroft, so Crawford gets to saunter across stage to accept the award when Davis loses. If you’re a fan of the rivalry depicted on Feud, a recent find from the WGF Archive might just pique your interest. In a trove of scripts from The Dean Martin Show, we discovered the "Celebrity Roast of Bette Davis."

Drawing on the celebrity roasts that first appeared at the New York Friars Club in the early 1910s that later came to be broadcast on the Kraft Music Hall program in the late 60s and early 70s, The Dean Martin Show began celebrity roasts in 1973 with the "Roast of Johnny Carson" (a script we also have). Younger TV viewers might be familiar with roasts from when they were revived on Comedy Central with such celebrities as Joan Rivers, Bob Saget and Justin Bieber.

The format of a roast (think: the opposite of a “toast”) involves guests aiming insult comedy at a celebrity "roastee," who sits back and takes jokes at their own expense with good grace – knowing that the mockery is meant as praise. Studying classic sketch comedy shows like roasts can be helpful to writers and researchers alike – offering a glimpse into the humor, hot topics, social attitudes and personalities of the era in which they were written. More than simply watching the show, reading the script reinforces the idea that the wit and jokes emanating from the famous faces actually begins with writers.

The Davis Roast includes lovingly insulting tributes from the likes of Pat Buttram, Nipsey Russell, Vincent Price, Henry Fonda, Howard Cosell as well as the roastmaster himself Dean Martin. Not to be outdone, Davis has a chance at rebuttal offering this gem, “I’ve certainly had a lot of fun tonight… It would have been nice to have some of my old male co-stars with me… but then, they’d have to hold the roast at the Hollywood Wax Museum!”

One of the more intriguing parts of the script finds gossip columnist Joyce Haber, who took over Hedda Hopper's job at the LA Times in 1968, referring to events seen on Feud involving Oscar acceptances and marriages to Pepsi-Cola magnates…

This and many other Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts were found in the Norman Liebmann collection in our archive. Liebmann wrote on many a comedy / variety series in the 60s and 70s including The Jerry Lewis Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. No stranger to comedy, Liebmann is known for writing on sitcoms like Chico and the Man and Diff'rent Strokes as well as developing The Munsters with his longtime writing partner Ed Haas. Liebmann passed away in 2010. His personal papers were donated to the WGF Archive in 2015 and will continue to be processed this year.

Materials from the WGF Archive are available for viewing by both researchers and fans. Find more information here.