The Oral History of the Comedy Central Roast

Comedy Features Roasts
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The Oral History of the Comedy Central Roast

“Insult jokes go back to Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, back to people being sort of mean, but in a playful way,” explains Comedy Central Roasts director and executive producer Joel Gallen. “The Dean Martin Roasts started doing it as a live forum. It became very successful as a live event with the Friars Club. We’re just taking it further and maybe using a little bit more explicit language—and Comedy Central has been a lot looser on allowing some of that language than they were from the beginning Roasts, so that’s always appreciated.”

Next Monday Comedy Central will air The Comedy Central Roast of Rob Lowe, its 20th roast since 1998. That year the network started televising the Friars Club’s annual black-tie events, respectively honoring Drew Carey, Jerry Stiller, Rob Reiner, Hugh Hefner and Chevy Chase. After Comedy Central’s original broadcast agreement expired after 2002, a tonal sea change and the dogged allegiance of Jeff Ross culminated in the preservative rebirth of a long-running form itching for modernization. 2003’s Comedy Central Roast of Denis Leary drew 3.2 million viewers, becoming the second-highest-rated property since Comedy Central’s inception (following particularly hot-button episodes of South Park). More than a dozen Roasts have followed since that rebirth, each an unpredictable collision of career redemption, talent incubation, and comedic celebration. Here’s the story behind the roasts, as told by the comedians and executives who made them possible.

The Genesis

Joel Gallen (Comedy Central Roasts director and executive producer): Doug Herzog hired me at MTV years ago when I was there from 1989-1993, and under Doug I produced the Video Music Awards and created and produced the MTV Movie Awards, among many other shows.

Doug Herzog (Viacom music and Entertainment Group President): I had come over from MTV, and was the guy who oversaw events there like the Video Music Awards and helped create the Movie Awards and Spring Break and Rock N’ Jock and all these events that seemed to work great from a programming standpoint, and were great tentpoles. I thought, “Comedy needs a tentpole. What would be a good comedy tentpole?”

Gallen: When I left to start my own company Doug and I stayed in touch, and I did stuff with him at some of his other places, like Fox. But when he landed I think for the second time at Comedy Central and started steering the ship in the right direction, we did a few things for Comedy Central. The first thing I did for Comedy Central was the State of the Union: Undressed. For four or five years in a row we did these live broadcasts with Dennis Miller. He would basically roast or simultaneously make fun of everything that the president of the United States—whoever was president at that time—was saying during the speech.

Tony Fox (former Executive Vice President, Corporate Communications): We had a wonderful relationship with the Friars Club, and the relationship with the Friars was built largely through Jeffrey Ross, who was a young stand-up comic who was a member of the Friars Club. He used to enjoy the old roasts and thought it would be a wonderful way to contemporize it with a partnership with Comedy Central. In many ways he was right, because the roasts did very well.

Jeff Ross (“The Roastmaster General”): Back then the Friars didn’t know a lot about television. I had been doing the roasts for the Friars Club, and they weren’t on television. None of my friends could afford tickets to those expensive fundraisers that the Friars would put on, so I was eager for people to see what I was doing. And back then alternative comedy was really big. I thought, “Wow, this is the most alternative I can be, to be the throwback and do shows for Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett and Henny Youngman, and guys like that.”

Lisa Lampanelli: It’s a great way of honoring someone who’s contributed a lot to comedy. In the old days, it was considered the biggest honor that could be bestowed upon you as a comic.

Herzog: I’m looking back at the Dean Martin Roasts and the Friars Club Roasts, which was then a big annual raunchy luncheon in New York. I always thought, “Wow, it would be great if we could do one of these on Comedy Central.” So we went to the Friars Club and said, “Let’s do a Roast together!”

Ross: The Friars always wanted it behind closed doors. With the older members, they didn’t want to be seen cursing on TV. They said no big star would ever want to be roasted on television; it was always sort of a private thing. It was special in that way. But I really pushed. I pushed. I set up meetings between Drew Carey and the Friars Club and Comedy Central, and lo and behold, Doug Herzog saw it. He had the same vision I had. Next thing we knew we were premiering. It was exciting. It was Comedy Central’s first major awards special. It was their Oscars, if you will.

Herzog: The very first one was Drew Carey, and it was great. It took off from there.

Keep reading on the next page or skip directly to the following roasts:
1. Hugh Hefner
2. Chevy Chase
3. Pam Anderson
4. William Shatner
5. Flavor Flav
6. Bob Saget
7. Joan Rivers
8. David Hasselhoff
9. Donald Trump
10. Charlie Sheen
11. James Franco
12. Justin Bieber
13. Conclusion

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