Dean Martin appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson nine times. Nine is not a large number, but he made the most of these appearances. I’ve not seen all nine but I’ve seen most of them and they are crazy good.
Frank and Dean even appeared on The Tonight Show with fellow Rat Pack member Joey Bishop as guest host for Carson. Smoking and drinking, let the good times roll.
Dean Martin was the coolest guy in show business. Period. Cooler than Elvis. Cooler than Brando. Even cooler than Sinatra. Yes, on television, Sinatra couldn’t keep up with Dino. Watch any of their appearances together and there’s no keeping up with Dean Martin. In real life, or on a concert stage, Sinatra was the boss. Unscripted on a talk or variety show, Martin had an extra gear, and he shifted into it.
Of his nine Tonight Show appearances, at least two were with Bob Hope. Even Hope, one of the two or three biggest names in show business, takes a backseat to Martin. Carson is the straight man, and disappears into the background while Martin is there.
It’s not just that Martin is a chatterbox, which he is, but he commands the stage by his presence. He’s funny, irreverent, silly, and a bad boy. Each appearance, he comes out with a drink and a cigarette, he sets the mood for the next 10 or 15 minutes.
Carson plays along, he knows that Martin takes control of the show and tees up Martin’s swings. The sofa usually contains a Martin friend, Hope or Sinatra, or in the most famous Martin appearance, Hope and George Gobel.
What is it about Dino? He’s confident and charming. Self-effacing, with very dry humor. Martin brought a special energy, and you weren’t sure what would happen. First with his long-running weekly variety show, then with his celebrity roasts. He was sort of the class clown, but he didn’t focus the attention on himself. He would pick on Carson or other guests, not in a mean way, but Marin looked for an opportunity. And he could get away with it because it wasn’t mean humor, and you never knew if his drinking act was real or a put-on. Martin always kept you guessing.
Martin’s contract with NBC only required him to show up the day his variety show taped. He read his lines off the cue cards, sometimes correctly, other times with a twist. It was this sense of surprise, not knowing if the show would be on-script, or if Martin would flub a line or simply take it in another direction, added to Martin’s mystique. He was her to have a good time. And he usually took us along.
These were different times. The humor was different. Was culture sexist? You bet. Did we view drunkenness with more acceptance? We did. There’s not judgement here, just a recognition of the many differences in our culture today.