“If you are watching this at home you are what’s wrong with America. All the books in the library, all the websites online, yet you choose to learn about history from Jeff Ross?” – Nelson Mandela
If you hate the idea of Historical Roasts as soon as you hear it, there’s nothing I can do to change your mind. For a large chunk of society, there’s no excuse for making fun of Anne Frank, and they’re not even curious how you’d try. That’s fair. But if you don’t mind your comedy black, you’ll find a lot to like in Historical Roasts’ silly look at the past.
Right off the bat, it’s important to note that Historical Roasts isn’t like a traditional roast. Born from a live LA comedy show of the same name, it has a stronger focus on character work than what you might expect from a roast. A panel of celebrities performs as famous historical figures doing their best to say mean things about each other. Each episode focuses on a different historical icon, from tragic figures like Anne Frank to pop royalty like Freddie Mercury.
While a handful of performers stick to the traditional “this guy looks like” roasting formulas, the vast majority mix up their barbs with broader jokes about who they’re playing. It’s an odd choice, but once you catch the rhythm of the show it quickly reveals its charms. That is if you make it past the first episode.
Watching Historical Roasts made me nostalgic for the art of making a mixtape, sequencing pieces together in a way that enhances the whole experience. Netflix’s choice to put the Abraham Lincon episode of Historical Roasts first is mind-boggling. Beyond being the weakest episode, it’s also the one that struggles the most with finding the balance between history and roasting. It’s a terrible first impression for a show that deserves more.
If you want to give Historical Roasts an honest chance, start with episode two, Freddy Mercury. Then watch the show in the rest of Netflix’s order. You’ll get a better understanding of what the show’s tone actually is and, even better, you’ll miss out on the only bad episode.
The Mercury roast exemplifies everything that’s great about Historical Roasts when its firing on all cylinders. The jokes are sharp but just as silly as they are dark. There’s a playfulness in Nikki Glaser as Kurt Cobain telling the crowd, “Sorry, I’m a little nervous. My head is all over the place.” Watching Fortune Feimster as Princess Diana going on a rant about poppers is a delight, just like listening to her try and do a British accent.
James Adomian’s Freddy Mercury is coy, brash, and flirty, bantering lightly throughout the show before delivering a hysterical Queen parody at the end. His interplay with Seth Green, bizarrely cast as David Bowie, is an unexpected pleasure—the sort of thing you’d never think to ask for but are greatful to experience. If you know Queen’s history it’s even better, but the show makes sure even if you don’t know anything about its subjects you’ll learn.
At times Historical Roasts greatest weakness is, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, its respect for history. The writers of the show are torn between two sides, historical context and writing dirty jokes. As a history nerd, it’s understandable why they felt it was important to talk about Anne Frank and Harriet Tubman’s lives.
Roasts already walk a thin line between joking about horrific truths and just repeating them. But Historical Roasts’ injections of trivia are often clunky, making it hard to laugh at what follows because you’re still thinking about the horror of what actually happened. When it’s handled well, such as the unbelievable tightrope of the Anne Frank episode, Historical Roasts shines.
Ross introduces the episode by fully acknowledging how horrific a concept it is to roast a child victim of racist genocide. He then explains the importance of humor in reclaiming history, especially in the face of a true tragedy. It’s a surprisingly human introduction given what we know it about to come. And yet, the Anne Frank episode is, dare I say, charming.
While the show that follows has all the easy oven jokes you’d anticipate, it’s surprisingly tastefully handled. Rather than do a pure roast of the subject, the dais of FDR, Hilter, and Don Rickles spend most of their time addressing history and each other.
The true surprise of the episode is Gilbert Gottfried’s Adolf Hitler. Using Hilter in a time when Nazis are on the rise is a bold, legitimately questionable move. Gottfried takes the fuhrer and uses him as a vessel to spew both hysterical filth and world history. You wouldn’t expect a roast show to address FDR’s apathy towards fighting the Nazis or the bigotry of the Greatest Generation. You especially wouldn’t expect Hitler to be the one doing it.
Lest you worry they give the Nazi the biggest moments, Rachel Feinstein’s Anne Frank steals the show. Feinstein brings joyful energy to a character who shouldn’t work. Rather than wallow in the misery of what happened to Frank, Feinstein plays her with curious and bright youth. It gives her some of the best moments in the series, particularly during her rebuttal to Hitler. “You tried to break us, but today the Jewish people are thriving more than ever. In fact, guess what, Hitler. You’re being played by a Jew right now,” gesturing to Gottfried. “And it’s the loudest, most annoying Jew we could possibly find.”
While the Lincon episode makes you long for a second shooting in a theater, its the only real dud here. The Martin Luther King Jr. episode is great, Cleopatra gets a shockingly sex positive second look, and Muhammad Ali turns into a celebration of history’s G.O.A.T.s. Historical Roasts is still very much finding its footing as a series, but there’s incredible promise here. Hopefully, season two will see them find a better balance between sharing historical facts and getting in laughs. As it stands, Historical Roasts is a charmingly offensive oddity hiding on Netflix. Its future is still unwritten, but there’s promise if they get a chance to keep writing it.