Wednesday, June 7, is the 100th birthday of Dean Martin (1917-1995). While his career was unusually wide ranging — equally at home in comic and dramatic roles, applying his well-lubricated croon to everything from quasi-Italian pop to country-and-western — Martin’s greatest creation may have been his persona, most fully on display in his NBC variety show (1965-74) and his later televised celebrity roasts: a genial, inebriated rake, stumbling over his lines, missing his cues, keeping a cheerfully self-deprecating eye on his own antics. What is less often noticed is how modern and even modernistic Martin’s act was. He took a dominant feature of contemporary media — electronically mediated intimacy — and pushed it to the point that the artifice was made plain.
20th-century popular culture capitalized on technologically enabled modes of rapport. Crooning’s smoothness and vulnerability would have been impossible without the microphone; recording and broadcasting similarly collapsed the distance between performer and audience. Martin amplified that illusion with an unlikely tool: imperfection.
The original Martin and Lewis act, after all, was predicated on disruption, Martin and Jerry Lewis undermining the frictionless suaveness of nightclub performance. In his variety show, Martin refined and streamlined that practice. His drunk act combined agent of chaos and straight man in one performer. Careening down a flight of piano-key stairs, giving a dead-eye stare in the middle of a musical number (and then appealing to the cameraman for a cue), making an ungainly leap onto accompanist Ken Lane’s piano — again and again, Martin sabotaged the mechanisms of show business, the cue cards, the scripted banter, only to give the viewer a conspiratorial wink in the form of a nonchalantly assured bit of singing.
In a 1967 article, conceptual artist and critic Dan Graham noted how Martin’s deliberate bungling highlighted the manufactured nature of television’s illusion of familiarity. Martin “appears to eliminate all pretense, all ‘distance,’ ” Graham wrote, “but in fact makes the spectator all the more aware of the conventionalization of television’s image of ‘intimacy’ — that the ‘real’ Dean Martin (his television persona) is just a media fabrication.” It is strange to think of Dean Martin as an avant-garde artist, but his art did what all avant-garde art strives to do: interrogate and expose that which we, as the audience, have come to take for granted.
Martin’s clumsiness-as-reality act contrasts with those latter-day exploitations of modes of media authenticity — reality TV, person-on-the-street reporting, not-an-actor advertising — which downplay their essential artificialness, for better or, more often, worse. Martin never took his audience for marks, instead inviting them so far into his stylized bonhomie as to acknowledge the make-believe. His subversion of the media spectacle was based on nonchalant generosity: He let us in on the joke.