The Art of the Comedy Roast

With my friend Zan at a Comcast (infinity) TV taping.
With my friend Zan at a Comcast (infinity) TV taping.

During my career I’ve done a few comedy roasts and have helped write material for others. I like doing them as it’s kind of like writing topical material for television because you have an assignment and you can stay focused on your target.

Comics love the idea of doing them because they feel they have no restrictions. Guess what, there are always restrictions, if you want to do well on-stage. A lot of times you are doing a roast that is raising money for some charity. So there will be a couple of subjects off the list from that. Also keep in mind that unless you are doing a roast where only comics will be in the audience, some stuff will be too much for some of your audience.

Now I know many of you are saying, hey, it’s a roast, nothing should be off the table. Well, unless you are someone like Jeff Ross, who has mastered the thing and has a reputation of being the king of the form, if you go too far, it won’t serve you well off-stage and will leave you dealing with scarred feelings with the person you hit. The defense of it’s just a joke is a lame one. For the joke to be good, there needs to be some truth in it, so if it’s too wicked it is going to make some people feeling you went over the edge too far. I have found you can hit almost any topic, but the one’s that really push things need to be massaged more, making it seem as clever as possible and not just some hateful shot.

I’m no amateur in the roast world. I’ve done a few in my time and have written for events as diverse as the White House Correspondents Dinner and the NASCAR awards banquet. When you are writing material for someone (Frank Caliendo) that is about the President and Vice President, when they are sitting on the same dais, you have to have some tact or it could go really ugly. That’s when you need to be as smart as possible when takinh a real shot–especially when it’s a shot about Dick Cheney taking a real shot at someone else.

The first roast I ever did was for an event raising money for Cystic Fibrosis with the target a local DJ and a guy who worked in promotion for a NFL team. To be more specific, the Indianapolis Colts were putting the thing on and the 2 honorees hosted a pregame show for the team. 1 honoree/target main job was as a long-time afternoon DJ on the popular classic rock station. The other honoree/target was a power lifter best known for doing strongest man type stunts to help promote the promotional events he did.

So I spent quite a bit of time coming up with roast material and felt confident that it would do well. This feeling was solely based on my experience with roasts was what I had seen on TV.

There were 2 other comics on the bill. I was set to go last, which I felt mixed about, as it’s never fun to have to break the ice, but at a roast you worry about having some of your jokes lose their steam if they’ve been hammered a bunch of times already by the other comedic hitmen.

First guy gets up and proceeds to just do his comedy act. No shots at the honorees, just his well-rehearsed high-energy standup. The crowd really liked him and after 10 minutes he was done.

The second comic gets up and proceeds to follow suit, just doing his own act and never taking any shots at anyone either. WTF?

Now I’m leaving out 1 very important part of the story. The DJ brought his kids. All 5 of them. They were all 12 and under, sitting at the same table as him. Now I don’t know the rules of a roast, but not bringing your fucking little kids to it should be stipulation NUMBER 1 when asked.

So I have no idea if these other 2 comics bailed on their prepared material or not, but I was not going to wave the white flag on what I came there to do. It was a roast and I wasn’t going to let what I thought was some A grade material go to total waste.

I got up and started in being a little gentler than I had planned. I mentioned that I am a big fan of the (DJ). He’s a massive talent. I mean no one intros a Get the Led out segment on Friday like him. I know he’s the best in the world saying that was a Foghat block party. Hey, I don’t want to say he knows nothing about what is going on in the current music world, but he thinks the Black Crowes are a new band.

This did okay. I responded with I don’t know if you has any idea what a Roast is, but it is about making fun of the people on the dais. And when I say if YOU have any idea what a roast is, I’m not talking to you… the audience…I’m talking to the comics before me who pussed out and just did their act. Now I have to be the bad guy. Well, sorry, but I spent a lot of time crafting roast jokes and you are going to hear them, even if you (looking at the honoree) has brought more children than you would see at the Neverland Ranch.

I then proceeded with some jokes about him being like the 1968 United States policy in Viet Nam, you know, he never knows when to pull-out. More jokes about having so many kids. Then I did a bunch of jokes about the power lifter guy being on steroids. I met our honoree for the first time in the bathroom before the show. He told me he had a little test he had to do tomorrow and if I could help him. Then he handed me a cup and asked me to pee in it.

Stuff like this. Half the room loved and half the room hated it. I never was cruel and was PG at worst, but there was a good segment of the crowd who just didn’t get the idea of a roast. They were there because they were supporting the charity or they were fans of the people on the dais. Having a bunch of kids there and the first 2 comics not doing any roast material, sure didn’t help the atmosphere, though. An important note for aspiring roasters, be prepared with lighter roast material if the audience doesn’t want you to be too rough.

One of the most fun roasts I’ve done was recently in Muncie, Indiana at a place called the Comedy Mosh Pit. While I was the only touring standup comic on the bill, I was really impressed with the quality of material. Each person that got up did jokes I would have done myself, if I had come up with them. (Yes, I know how egotistical that sounds, but there is a narcissistic compliment in it, if you read carefully.) I will also say that I took the least shots of anyone, my guess is because the roasters all idolize me and couldn’t think of anything to hit me on…hey wait a minute. When I got onstage I mentioned that I appreciate the velvet gloves because I was ready to use my immense connections in the business to destroy your future career, if I felt you had gone too far.

There was only 1 mistake I witnessed that night by a couple of the comics.

Scott’s Lesson Number 1 of what not to do at a comedy roast.

Do not make fun of the Honoree’s partner, unless they are a comic or celebrity in their own right.

If someone is willing to be roasted, the gloves should be off, but I don’ think their wife/girlfriend/children should be a specific target. Now if you want to make a joke about how their girlfriend must have lost a bet to be with the honoree, fine, but making pointed marks at her I think is unfair. I’m sure some of you disagree, but I think you should just stick to the people that are on the dais that night. OK, my preaching is over today.

I believe the greatest roaster of all-time was the late Greg Giraldo. He was dark, ruthless, but always smarter than anyone on the stage. Use him as the best example. You can always go a little farther–if it’s smarter.

Roasts have unspoken rules like baseball. If you don’t want to leave there with people festering forever over your remarks, don’t try to attempt to steal when you are 7 runs up. Slam away, but keep in mind that what you say has longer ramifications than just the 5 minutes you are up onstage.

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