Cinemax's salute to the Friars Club offers a glimpse of what it was like to be there when the great entertainers entertained themselves. 

A Most Exclusive Club

"Let Me In, I Hear Laughter ... A Salute to the Friars"
Cinemax
7 p.m.
Tuesday, Oct. 26
Repeats Nov. 15 at 5:30 a.m.

Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Eddie Cantor, Red Buttons, Sammy Davis Jr., Henny Youngman, Irving Berlin, Enrico Caruso, Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Cary Grant and Lucille Ball.

What did they all have in common — besides being the greatest comics and entertainers of a century that's fast coming to a close? They all wanted a place to get away from the vicissitudes of daily life on stage. They wanted a place of their own, where they could be themselves and mix with their own kind. So they joined the Friars Club.

The Friars Club began in New York at the turn of the last century as a fraternal organization of show people. For a long time, only men could join. Phyllis Diller once attended a Friars roast disguised as a man — complete with mustache and wig. (She couldn't figure out what bathroom to use, but that's another story.) As the entertainment industry moved west, the Friars opened a West Coast branch in Los Angeles. And in the late 1980s, the Friars reluctantly began to admit women to their ranks. For a long time they used the excuse that their roasts were peppered with raunchy language — too offensive for women to handle — but, like the rest of us, they got over that.

Now the Friars on both coasts are dying off. As one new member, Janeane Garofalo puts it: "If you love seniors, you're gonna love the Friars."

Perhaps in an attempt to pump up membership among the rising generation of comics and entertainers, or perhaps as a means of simply marking the twilight of an era, Dean Ward - a comedy writer who is himself the youngest Friar to sit on the board of directors — has co-produced, directed and edited "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter ... A Salute to the Friars" for Cinemax's Reel Life series.

"Let Me In" is hysterically funny and tastelessly vulgar. It's bittersweet and it's bawdy. It's all about entertainers at play among themselves. As a historical document, it's praiseworthy, but as television entertainment, it's mostly unsatisfying because of the very nature of the Friars Club.

For years, even the waiters were banished when the famous celebrity roasts began. No cameras or recordings are allowed to this day. Thus, all Ward had to work with for "Let Me In" were interviews, snippets of film made before and after the roasts, and pieces of audio tape — probably bootlegged — that managed to survive the club's tight restrictions.

So we're only told about the fact that Lucille Ball was once introduced at a roast as Lucille Testicle. We're only told that Frank Sinatra's moving tribute to Cary Grant caused Grant to break into tears at the podium, whereupon the audience gave him a standing, tearful ovation. We're only told about the scandal that erupted over Ted Danson's blackface appearance at Whoopi Goldberg's roast. And we're only told that when comic Harry Einstein collapsed and died after his moment in the spotlight, singer Tony Martin made the awful decision to sing "There's No Tomorrow" while Einstein was being carried off stage.

Nevertheless, as a tangible piece of entertainment history, "Let Me In" does succeed. It offers a glimpse, a hint, a whisper of what it was like to be there when the giants were entertaining themselves. And sometimes a glimpse, if that's all you're going to get, is

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