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Ribbed And Roasted

With a sense of humour to match his hedonistic habits, Hugh Hefner gamely submitted to skewering

Sascha Cohen

Almost everyone remembers the 2001 Comedy Central Roast of Hugh Hefner, which took place just two and a half weeks after 9/11, when the New York City skyline was still black and smouldering. Gilbert Gottfried made a risky, toosoon joke about air travel but then won back the audience with his filthy version of “The Aristocrats,” giving grief-stricken America permission to laugh again. Hefner, in his 70s and with multiple young girlfriends, gamely tolerated a night full of gloves-off jabs about his ageing body and unorthodox sex life.

But it wasn’t Hef’s first time on a dais getting roasted by his celebrity friends.

Decades before the raunchy latenight special entertained Comedy Central audiences, The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast was airing on NBC, and in 1973 Hefner was in the hot seat.

The program was based on the early 20th century tradition of Friars Club roasts — private dinner shows for the entertainment elite, intended to affectionately insult a guest of honour with material that often ran blue. Martin’s cleaned-up version, shot in Las Vegas, was a good-natured, black-tie affair with mostly scripted, PG-13 shtick and a martini-infused, Rat Pack vibe.

How did a magazine publisher end up as “man of the week” on a televised comedy roast? Hefner had befriended Martin along with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. back in the 1960s. Together they were part of the hip Hollywood in-crowd, evoking an urbane style of masculinity that aligned closely with playboy’s own brand of sophisticated bachelorhood.

In fact, Hefner knew his way around a soundstage; he had charmed television audiences before, with Playboy’s Penthouse in 1959 and Playboy After Dark in 1969, programs that offered viewers a glimpse into star-studded soirees full of beautiful women. By 1973 Hefner was skilled at crafting his public persona as a debonair Casanova and bon vivant.

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