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How Nikki Glaser Writes Roast Jokes

Nikki Glaser. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Getty Images

This interview originally ran in October 2018. We are rerunning it in anticipation of Nikki Glaser’s appearance on the Comedy Central Roast of Alec Baldwin.

Roast jokes are deceptive little things. They tend to be very short, very to the point. But they’re often weeks and weeks in the making. Beyond the writing staff tasked with amassing a pile of jokes to be divided among the celebrity members of a Comedy Central dais, every comedian involved is writing essentially nonstop, as well receiving a fairly constant stream of joke-ideas from comic friends. A comedian will then run the jokes over and over again at clubs around the city, as they would for any other TV set. So, when you see Nikki Glaser prove herself as one of the absolute best ever roasters on the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis, you can be certain that every one of those jokes has been considered and reworked ad nauseam.

Glaser’s set is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who write them. Listen to the episode and read a short excerpt of the discussion about a few of Glaser’s best jokes below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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[From the Roast of Rob Lowe, to Ann Coulter] “The only person you will ever make happy is the Mexican that digs your grave.”

I wanted to go hard on Ann Coulter. Amy [Schumer] was the one that was really like, “Hey, you have a chance here. Just say what everyone wants to. Just go hard on her. Go harder than you want to go.” I really took that to heart and was like, “I will, because what do I have to lose?” If I want to stand out, that’s a great way to stand out.

Then that joke was pitched to me by Mike Lawrence, who is a great roast joke writer and roaster. He’s won Roast Battle. It was pitched to me while I was in the makeup chair right before we were going on, because they were like, “Here’s some jokes no one’s doing that the writer’s room came up with.” Mike really believed in it and I trust Mike. And everyone in my trailer at the time was like, “Oh, my God, that joke.”

I didn’t like the joke because I didn’t like throwing Mexicans under the bus in a joke that is supposed to be like them saying “fuck you” to her. It didn’t need to be a Mexican. It could’ve just been the person who digs your grave and it would’ve still been a good joke. I get it, it’s like she hates Mexicans, so a Mexican might maybe [would] relish the fact that they get to dig her grave more, but it also is saying that Mexicans dig graves more than white people. I didn’t like that sentiment of it.

I kind of cringe every time it’s brought up as representative of me as a comedian, because I could’ve been called out for being racist in that joke that was supposed to be going against someone who is blatantly racist. It’s not my favorite joke, but I’m grateful for it. A lot of times as a celebrity or anyone who is in the spotlight, you get thrust into the spotlight for something that you were like, “I almost didn’t even say that,” or, “I regretted saying that at the time.” I’m grateful for it. It’s not like I don’t like the joke. I did it. I don’t want to insult Mike Lawrence, who wrote the joke, but it’s not my favorite joke. It’s just the meanest thing to say, and sometimes you need to say that to Ann Coulter. I just wish it didn’t throw Mexicans under the bus.

“Kevin Pollak is here. Such an amazing actor … I know Kevin as one of the greatest impressionists of all time. I’m a huge fan. My favorite of his is, umm … he does an amazing Robin Williams. I just wish you would finish it … Listen, all I’m saying is that we’ve lost a lot of greats to suicide recently, and it’s time we lose some okays.”

That was my favorite joke. Man, it had a longer ending, too, that I had to chop off. I was like, “No, but seriously, your loved ones will miss you. And ‘by your loved ones,’ I mean your assortment of hats.” I go, “Don’t leave a note. Just print off your IMDb page.” Like, it just went on and on. It was so mean.

Someone had written a joke that he’s an impressionist and he does a Robin Williams impression. They didn’t write [this] joke, but [theirs] had mentioned it. I was like, Oh, really? Then I was like, There’s my ticket to a suicide joke. When I wrote, “We’ve lost a lot of greats, but it’s time to lose some okays,” that was just one that I was like, That is one of my favorite jokes I’ve ever written. Just it’s so insane to tell someone to kill themselves. Twice. Really lean into it.

I wanted to acknowledge it. This is the thing. Anthony Bourdain had just killed himself. Kate Spade had just killed herself. It was in the zeitgeist. I was like, I know this is going to get a huge groan. I know people are going to be talking about it and saying how insensitive it is that I would say that. But I talk a lot about suicide in my act. I think a lot about suicide. I’m a depressed person. I have dark thoughts about it. I feel like if I don’t talk about it and if I don’t lean into it, then it’s winning. I want to acknowledge it more.

I was running this joke around town and I remember one time a girl in the front row was like, “Not cool.” I go, “Oh, have you lost someone to suicide?” She’s like, “Yeah.” I go, “So has everyone. Everyone!” I go, “The only person that can get offended by a joke about suicide is someone who committed suicide. And guess what? None of those people are here tonight, so shut up.” I have lost loved ones. I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts. I really feel, like, more entitled to that joke than any joke. I probably should feel less entitled to it, to be honest, because it’s the meanest one.

I got a lot of backlash for it, but then I realized, I know that Robin Williams would think that’s funny. I just know. I had never met him, but I just know that he would think that’s funny, because it’s funny.

“I’m a huge fan and my mom is an even bigger fan. My mom has learned everything from Martha Stewart, including cooking, cleaning, and withholding affection.”

I didn’t even plan on doing that joke. That was not in the prompter, but I had been working on it all week. It just was one of the ones cut right before. Then she wasn’t that nice to me backstage right before we went on. Like I could just tell she was as cold as I thought she was. I had thought, Certainly she’s not as cold as I’m writing all these jokes out to be, and then she was, and I was like, I’ve got to do that joke, because there is so much truth in that joke on every level, and I just witnessed it backstage.

I was scared to even look at Cybill Shepherd after I got offstage, but she came up to me and gave me the biggest hug and was like, “You were amazing.” I was just like looking at Martha like, Where’s my love, Martha? She didn’t even say “good job” — that old bitch.

“I’m just not a big fan of action movies. I don’t know. I’ve never seen one of your films … consensually. Like it’s always something a guy puts on when he’s trying to finger me on his roommate’s couch. Maybe I didn’t understand The Fifth Element. And it isn’t because I’m a dumb girl. But it’s hard to follow that plot when you’re fighting off a roofie and there’s a knuckle inside you.”

I wanted to write to women who have been fingered on a couch to his movies. That joke was really written about The Usual Suspects. At first, it started out as a joke about all the men — Kevin Pollak is in Usual Suspects; Edward Norton, Fight Club; Bruce Willis, The Fifth Element. These are all movies that I watched because I was about to hook up with a guy. I was like, There’s something there.

The more I talked to women, I’m like, “Yeah, this is a thing. It’s a movie the guy puts on.” I wanted to say that I’ve gotten fingered to these movies: “I just watch the screen dead-eyed as I’m being fingered.” Like I’ve watched scenes and not known what’s happening because I’m trying to deal with what’s maybe happening to me.

The thing is, the sex act is consensual. Those are all consensual, but the movies themselves always felt like, I don’t want to watch this, but okay. So, it felt of-the-times to say that. It felt true. Like I didn’t want to watch those movies, and I had to, and I still don’t want to watch them. They’re still movies I see all the time, for men.

That just was one of those jokes. I literally wrote “I’ve never seen one of your movies consensually,” as that was me getting to a point, but that just got a laugh out of nowhere. I was like, Oh, is that funny? I didn’t even know. Sometimes you write a joke as a comedian and you go, Why is that funny? It’s just truth.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How Nikki Glaser Became One of the Best Roasters Ever