The Roast: A History

The cancellation of Comedy Central’s Roast of Kid Rock has already led one writer to bemoan the odiously unclassy state of today’s roasts. Jake Kroeger makes the very good point that the original Friars’ Club roasts honored sincerely respected entertainers, while modern Comedy Central roasts often target celebrities already scorned by a lot of people and tend to feel like a “hate-filled comment thread on YouTube.” How exactly have roasts changed over the years, and is there anything defensible about today’s roasts?

One misconception I used to hold about comedy roasts is that they were originally meant to ridicule comedians. When the Friars’ Club was started in 1904, it was first called the Press Agents’ Association. Actors, musicians, and comedians joined later, and the tradition of roasting one member a year began (according to the Friars’ Club website) in 1949 with a roast of vaudeville actor and singer Maurice Chevalier. The roasts weren’t televised until the late 60s, on NBC’s Kraft Music Hall program (the 70s also saw the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast on NBC). From 1998-2002, the Friars’ Club roasts were broadcast on Comedy Central, but since 2002 the network has produced its own Comedy Central Roasts series (the Friars’ Club still roasts members relatively quietly, last taking aim at Quentin Tarantino in 2010).

The Club’s early daises were populated by legendary comedians (Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Buddy Hackett), many of whom (Milton Berle, Johnny Carson, Don Rickles, Jack Benny) also took their turn as roastee. Roasts also honored celebrities not known primarily for their comedy (Humphrey Bogart, Harry Belafonte, George Steinbrenner). The Friars’ Club motto was “We only roast the ones we love,” and early roasters did seem to have a deep respect for the butt of their jokes. More heavy on anecdotes than one-liners, the roasts felt (as far as I can tell from Youtube clips) like the gathering of a community.

The sets of roasts today are designed to emulate that closed-doors conviviality of the Rat Pack-era Friars’ Club, with a smoky dais, champagne glasses, and leather couches. It’s tempting to imagine the past as a time of infinite glamour and class (have you seen Midnight in Paris yet?). But how classy were those 60s roasts, really?

For one thing, the content of the earliest roasts was extremely blue for their time. Larry King remembered, “Seeing someone say ‘fuck’ is nothing now, but when I was thirty years old and went to my first Friars roast in New York and I heard Maurice Chevalier say, ‘Fuck,’ I thought I’d die.” Roasts have always had value as a place to “push against the bounds of propriety” in the same spirit as Lenny Bruce or George Carlin’s “seven words” routine.

A cursory YouTube search for “friars club roast” pointed me to this suggestive quote from Groucho Marx, on Johnny Carson: “I went to Nebraska to talk to Johnny’s mother. I’m happy to report she remembers Johnny. She doesn’t remember his father, but she remembers Johnny. Then I called on his old high school teacher, and I asked her, what kind of a student was Johnny Carson? But she didn’t remember Johnny. However, she did remember Johnny’s father.”

I also watched a clip from a 1974 Dean Martin roast of Lucille Ball, in which Foster Brooks turned to Ball and said “How about you, Luce? — That’s what the football team used to call her.” Oh hey, that’s exactly the same thing as Greg Giraldo calling Lisa Lampanelli slutty today! The more things change. In the same speech, Brooks said that he and Ball were drawn together like moths: “I was a lusty larva and she had a cute co-coon — No offense to the co-colored man on this dais,” he said, turning to Nipsey Russell. Hey, a joke with a serious racial slur in it!

It may go without saying in any comparison of the 1960s and 2011, but early roasts were far less inclusive than those today. Women weren’t even allowed into the Friars’ Club until 1988. Phyllis Diller had to dress as a man and sneak into the club to watch Sid Caesar’s 1983 roast. A few women had been honored before 1988, but roasters made a big show of being on their best behavior (in 1962, Johnny Carson was careful to use proper language when introducing the guest of honor as Lucille Testicle).

The roast’s reputation as a place for no-holds-barred humor was taken too far in 1993, when Ted Danson appeared in blackface and used the word “nigger” over a dozen times at the roast of Whoopi Goldberg (whom he was dating at the time). His performance was denounced by the mayor and followed by a formal apology from the Friars.

But the scandal may actually have brought the roasts the publicity they needed to get picked up for broadcast by Comedy Central in 1998. As Roastmaster General Jeffrey Ross explained in an interview last year, Comedy Central was looking for “a big annual event a la VH1 Fashion Awards or MTV Movie awards.” To some extent, they’ve succeeded: ratings are pretty good for the roasts, with around 3.5 million people tuning in for each of the last two.

In 2002, Comedy Central broke from the Friars’ Club and started producing its own series, which upholds the “We only roast the ones we love” credo somewhat less earnestly than the Friars. The Comedy Central Roasts usually target figures who are widely hated, or at the very least not taken seriously (Pamela Anderson, William Shatner, Flavor Flav, David Hasselhoff, Donald Trump). We used to laugh with the roastee; now we laugh at them. Another key change: many of today’s roasters aren’t primarily comics, but stars whose presence might attract better ratings, e.g. the Situation and Snoop Dogg at the Trump roast.

With a giant broadcast audience, Ross said of roasting, “You don’t try to do stuff that’s inside…you want to make fun of things that everyone can see. You want people who like [Joan Rivers], people who don’t like her, people who don’t know her, to all be able to laugh. The trick is the least common denominator premises.”

In other words, with millions of people watching on TV (and more watching clips online), the one-note flatness of insult comedy (where “your momma’s so fat…” and “your momma’s so stupid…” are pretty much the only two options) is heightened. The real guest of honor is not Joan Rivers the person; it’s Joan Rivers’ most two-dimensional public image.

But at its best, that kind of roasting isn’t lazy insult comedy, but joke-writing in its purest form. Roasters are given one central idea (“Joan Rivers has had a lot of plastic surgery”) and are challenged to structure a joke around it in an original way. Subverting this formula is part of what makes Norm Macdonald’s amazing anti-roast of Bob Saget so funny: he often starts with the expected premise and then ironically veers off into an overly literal, irrelevant direction. To Cloris Leachman, for instance: “Cloris, if people say you’re over the hill, don’t believe them. Why, you’ll never be over the hill, not in the car you drive!” On the flip side, trying to make a joke about the expected topic and sincerely failing to deliver looks more like the Situation at the Trump Roast. (“Whitney, you’re a chick, right? On the Jersey Shore, we call ugly chicks grenades. But I actually wouldn’t call you a grenade, cause you’re not blowing up anytime soon.”)

So there are a couple ways in which a comedy roast is valuable: as a celebration of community, a rebellion against political correctness, an exercise in comic creativity. But at its worst, the roast is none of these things; it can be more like randomly selected celebrities running off lazy and offensive punchlines about other, less well-liked celebrities. And it’s easy to see how an all-in-good-fun roast might start to feel like treating a person like a punching bag (as in this sketch).

So maybe Comedy Central would be better off focusing on the positive. Sure, 3.5 million people tune in to watch comedians make fun of celebrities — but when the network’s first ever Comedy Awards aired this April, 16.8 million watched them jokingly celebrate their own community. Personally, I would be much more likely to watch the network’s big annual event if it were a tribute that actually centered on comedians.

But while Comedy Central is still roasting away, it would do well to take some advice from Roastmaster Ross. “You don’t want to be a bully,” Ross has said. “You don’t want to pick on people that aren’t up for it. You want everyone to leave the show going, ‘That was so much fun. I wish I’d been roasted.’ To me, that’s the key, is to have everybody think of it as a party and not as competitive or mean. You want everyone to feel like they’re Frank Sinatra surrounded by the Rat Pack. You don’t want them to feel like a deer about to get shot.”

Hallie Cantor is a writer living in New York.

The Roast: A History