A Brief Taxonomy of Roasts

Trawling YouTube is a weekly look at one interesting story or oddity from YouTube. You ever go down a YouTube rabbit hole and suddenly you’ve wasted five hours watching every Madonna video? This is about those rabbit holes, but the comedy-related ones.

When the kush too loud. When someone hand you the aux cord. When you about to fall asleep and you remember you didn’t do the reading. These are the meme captions we all love and know. But there is one that, for me, always hits on a slightly funnier level than any of the others.

When it’s your turn to get roasted.

Why is this such a profoundly funny emotional experience to project onto someone? If we want to think of memes as categorized into two broad groups: (1) one-off, picture-inspired, caption second and thus unique to the situation in the picture memes and (2) more paint-by-the-numbers standard caption applied to unique picture memes, then this handful of ~5 captions (20? 30?) are the specific most interesting, most efficient signifiers for human experiences imaginable. Like, those are the ones we decided on. They got the most retweets, they got the most likes and shares and re-blogs. They rose to the top of all the noise on the internet.

I’ll admit, this seems odd on a cellular level, like the concept of a “standard” in music seems odd: these are man-made and inexact things, yet we have collectively decided on this distinct set of…50? that simply express human experience more efficiently and more universally than any other possible songs. A set that is so commonly agreed upon that you can even pass them off as your own with the full understanding that you aren’t claiming to have written “My Favorite Things” or “Sweet Home Chicago.” Why would these songs need defending? Are they in danger of being diminished if someone thinks someone else wrote them? Hell no! These are the best songs ever!

And so that’s all to say that one of the most interesting human scenarios imaginable is…the roast.

But how does this show up in pop culture? Good question. In many ways, mate. Consider this: cool high school kids on black Twitter and old Catskills comedians who started the Friars Club 100 years ago both invented the formal concept of “the roast” completely independently from each other. Not totally the same as when Leibniz and Netwon both independently invented algebra or two people invented the steam engine in two totally different places at roughly the same time…but also not totally different.

If you have no freakin’ idea what I’m talking about, a good place to start is Twitter search “ftw roast.” Then compare and contrast with the classic Friars Club and Dean Martin roasts (they are the same thing to me because I am under 75 years old) available for binge watching on YouTube here:

Watching these, the thing that struck me the most is that the subtext to everything is “Wow, this is the one entertainment event that America will see this month!” I imagine if I talked to an older comedy fan they’d reminisce on seeing these in the TV Guide and waiting a week or a month for the next big Don Rickles set. Hubert Humphry might even show up!! And specifically this big-TV-event-feel comes across in the opening and closing graphics. They are total showbiz schmaltz stuff, all big grand golden letter animation and swelling Oscars music. Not funny at all. But everything truly funny in this world exists against a background of [Joe Piscopo as Sinatra voice] pure class, ba-by. Very Vegas.

Another thing that struck me about these is, they’re not nearly as problematic as you’d think. Frankly I was a little disappointed; I was all ready to be like see?? See, remember when jokes were really goooood?? But more than anything these expose that, hey, writing jokes isn’t that hard. Sure, it’s good to have a persona like Rickles so you can get genuine laughs out of stuff like “Hey look at this Greek guy? He’s sitting here saying Ooh look at me, I’m Greek!

Here are some highlights: “Hey lady, I’ve seen better looking bodies being sucked out of the Hindenberg.” “This guy obviously steals all his shoes off of passed out drunks…c’mon, Dean Martin wants his shoes back.” [from Hubert Humphry] “Mr. Rickles, Washington would be better off if we had 100 men like you…unfortunately we’ve got about 10,000…”

This, of course, contrasted with the contemporary standard bearer for roasts, Comedy Central’s craven obsession with goofy celebrities. If you follow enough bitter comedy writers and listen to enough LA-comic-hosted podcasts, one criticism of these shows will emerge: doing a roast of Pam Anderson or Justin Bieber kind of defeats the whole point of doing a roast. Who gives a shit about this person nobody is friends with? This isn’t a peek into this crazy showbiz world where these famous people are busting each others’ balls; this is a huge set up Hollywood event, like a boat show or something. The purest distillation of this gripe is probably Hannibal Burress’ set at the Justin Bieber roast: “I don’t like you. I don’t know why I’m doing this. We’re not friends. I don’t give a shit about you and I sincerely hope this hurts your career.” [paraphrase]

Another notable non-Norm set (I’m getting there) is Patrice O’Neal’s set at the Charlie Sheen Roast. I believe the story goes that Patrice wanted to do this roast because he was fascinated with how Charlie Sheen was untouchable as an actor and was just using that status to really rub the entertainment industry’s nose in some unpleasant truths. He and Comedy Central finally reached an agreement late in the process, O’Neal flew to LA from NYC at the last minute, writing his set on the plane, then they put him up last and he threw away his written jokes and built this set during the show on a napkin of something.

One other notable thing about this roast is that William Shatner and O’Neal talked for a while afterward about how O’Neal was only 40 and was unhappy all the time because he felt like he was about to die. According to manager Jonathan Brandstein, who I spoke to for another piece, Shatner and O’Neal had a deep heart-to-heart that made Patrice cry in the parking lot. I tried to get a comment through Shatner’s publicist, and here is what she sent me: “We touched souls in the parking lot. That’s all I can say. – William Shatner”

I submit for your approval, a hypothesis about the Comedy Central Roasts. They are pretty reliably funny, or at least are packed with really well crafted jokes – good enough jokes that it does legit make up for this new thing where there’s no personal relationship assumed with the roasters/roastees. But their primary cultural/comedic significance is that they brought roasts into the 21st century. Like, it’s fun to think that the concept of “roasting” someone just bubbles up in all these different ways. But realistically, it’s probably because funny high school kids saw five minutes of one of these and said, “Hell, I can do that.” The bridge between the Friars and the 17-year-olds who run all the @WorldstarHAHAofficial Twitter accounts…

And of course, Comedy Central has a free pass for life in my book if for no other reason than it facilitated this, the height of Western Civilization:

Unfortunately, I have watched this about 75 times and so for now it’s not funny to me (have to get to maybe 90 times and then it’ll prob be really funny), but I do recognize that it effectively deconstructs the whole concept of the event roast. Who gives a shit that all these strangers are being mean to each other? It’s kind of just a big experiment in irony – so why not just be the biggest ironic piece of shit possible? But then what if you could do that without being ironic…at all?

Fortunately I assume there are a number of academics out there writing books and dissertations about how funny it is when he says “when you go to the bathroom sir, and see the sign that says ‘gentlemen’…pay it no heed. There is no bathroom for scoundrels…” And the one about how the guy’s neck is a typewriter because it’s under wood. (I assume Underwood is a typewriter brand??)

But I imagine the greatest thing about the concept of roasts currently is that it’s still a primarily live medium. Notice that none of those Worldstar memes actually show anyone getting roasted. They’re almost all just referencing the common scenario of being roasted at school or when you’re out with friends. It is heartening to see millennials thinking of jokes and insults without immediately posting them on social media where they instantly transmogrify into the dreaded #content.

Yes, despite all the limitless Silicon Valley promises about the potential of online, so far it has actually mostly turned all art into joyless clicks and ruined the lives of countless people who become addicted to advertising factories like Twitter and Facebook.

However, there is hope. There is one high profile instance of a roast truly taking advantage of all the potential of social media. Fittingly, a roast of one of the main Silicon Valley thought leaders (Jon “@fart” Hendren, #DevOps) and his busted-ass shoes that he got out of the discount bin at the ska surplus store. This Complex article claims it is “one guy” roasting his friend’s shoes, which is not exactly true. It’s many people from all areas and all walks of life roasting the shoes Jon Hendren apparently got with his $18 pimp costume at the Halloween superstore.

And folks, like any good organic roast…it’s all about the replies:

A Brief Taxonomy of Roasts