“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.
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
2001: Hugh Hefner
Ross: Hef at that time was one of the most popular people in America just to talk about. He had seven blonde girlfriends living with him in the Playboy Mansion. It was just roast gold, raw sirloin steak for the sharks. I just had to get Hef to New York for a Friars Club Roast. And man, I was so excited we had all these great people lined up. We had everybody from Steve Carell to Stephen Colbert to Patty Hearst to Rich Eisen and Cedric the Entertainer and Dick Gregory and Sarah Silverman and Adam Carolla, and Jimmy Kimmel hosting. It was one of the best daises ever assembled, and then boom: 9/11 happened.
Jimmy Kimmel: The Hugh Hefner Roast, which I hosted, was in New York, like, two weeks after 9/11. It was a really emotional thing.
Ross: New York was still smoldering, and we had to decide whether the roast goes on just a couple of weeks later. At first we thought, “Is comedy over? For how long? Are we still in the comedy business? This is just so depressing and so sad.” We really thought the show and comedy in general could be over. Obviously America had bigger issues to face than whether we do this roast or not. But I remember thinking, “If we don’t do it, the terrorists win!” And that was before that was a cliché statement. I wrote a very passionate letter to Jean-Pierre Trebot, the executive director at the Friars Club at the time, and Hugh Hefner and Comedy Central. And I said that exactly: “We really need to continue what we were going to do. Instead of having a big afterparty, let’s give all those proceeds to the Twin Towers Fund, which was just being established, and let’s go on with the roast.” The American way! What better way to say, “F you!” to the terrorists than roasting an 80-year-old with seven girlfriends? I mean, it was really why the terrorists hated us.
Gilbert Gottfried: That was very shortly after September 11th. It seemed like a few days. The whole world was in shock. Particularly in New York, of course. There were even black clouds still going through the sky from what had happened there. For a while they were thinking about cancelling the roast altogether, but then they decided to go through with it. But a lot of people who were supposed to be there didn’t make it because as far as flying was concerned, they were concerned, and a lot of flights were cancelled.
Adam Carolla: Me and Jimmy were flying to New York, and everyone was saying, “What the hell are you doing getting on a plane and going to New York while the Trade Center is still smoldering?” Driving to the airport, Jimmy said, “We’re up in First Class, and I’m sitting on the aisle. My head’s going to be on a swivel. If I see any terrorists trying to get near this cockpit, I’m taking them down.” As we were taxiing to take off, he was asleep.
Kimmel: When we got there, it was pretty crazy. We didn’t know if New York was ready for a big comedy event. It turned out they were, and it turned out to be a night I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Ross: There was a lot of tension in the room. People were doing fine, but I remember Rob Schneider opened the show, and he started floundering just a little bit. I got nervous, ran up and put my arm around him, and I said to the whole audience, “Rob, hasn’t there been enough bombing in this city?” I just kinda put it out there. We laughed together and hugged, and the tension kind of lifted a little bit. We just kept going and going, and people were laughing for the first time in a long time. It was cathartic, and it was healing. I remember my best joke: I said, “You know why Hef has seven girlfriends? One to put it in, and the other six to move him around!” And then of course at the end of the show, that’s when Gilbert did his famous reference to his flight having a connection at the Empire State Building, and we knew we were all gonna be okay.
Fox: The best roast story ever was the one right after 9/11, when Gilbert Gottfried told the “Aristocrats” joke at the Hugh Hefner Roast, like, two weeks after. He said he was late because his plane had a stopover at the Empire State Building, and the place went berserk. They were pissed. Gilbert lost the room, and out of desperation he told the “Aristocrats” joke. I’ve never seen a transformation of a room like that in my life. People ready to, like, throw chairs and hang, lynch the guy, to falling out of their chairs, spitting out their drinks laughing.
Gottfried: I wanted to be the first one to make a truly poor-taste September 11 joke to basically address the elephant in the room. I did a few jokes, and then I said, “I have to leave early tonight. I have to catch a flight to L.A. We couldn’t get a direct flight. We have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.” I don’t think anyone has ever lost an audience as major as I did at that moment. People were booing and hissing, and you could hear chairs moving around and a lot of murmuring going on. One guy yelled out, “Too soon!” which I thought meant I didn’t take a long enough pause between the setup and the punchline. When I was up there for what felt like 200 years, I just figured, “You know, I can’t lose them anymore than I have, so I might as well go for broke and really see how offensive I can be.” I went into “The Aristocrats.”
Carolla: Gilbert Gottfried did “The Aristocrats”! I was up onstage while he was doing it live!
Gottfried: “The Aristocrats” joke: incest and bestiality and other things like that, and the audience starts laughing, and then they’re laughing harder. It’s like it becomes explosive how much they’re laughing. I guess it was cathartic to laugh that much then. They were just howling. I figured, “Well, terrorist attacks: bad taste. Incest and bestiality: good taste.”
Kimmel: That Gilbert Gottfried joke is what is remembered, and it was very funny, but that was sixth on the list of whatever was on the top of everyone’s mind that night.
Lampanelli: It was Gilbert’s great way of saving face at the roast after saying something that you generally can’t come back from, which is doing a 9/11 joke right after 9/11. It was Gilbert being the genius that he is that revived the crowd. I don’t think it’s necessarily “Oh, now we can laugh again!” It’s basically saving his ass, and I am guaranteeing you that very few people can do that. It was horrifying, then that “Aristocrats” thing starts coming out, and it was like, “This guy nailed it!” It was really stunning. I was in shock.
Ross: I know that Hugh Hefner thinks about it often. He tells me it was a very exciting night that he was able to not just get roasted, but get roasted at that time in New York, and raised I think $600,000 towards the Twin Towers Fund. That was one of the most special, proudest moments in my roasting life.
2002: Chevy Chase
Kimmel: The Chevy Chase Roast was supposedly spectacularly disastrous. Supposedly Chevy was very, very, very upset afterward.
Ross: That was the first one that I was not invited to. I had a disagreement with one of the producers about the Hef Roast, which I was a producer on—a very junior producer. I really wanted all references to 9/11 to stay in for historical purposes, and she had insisted that they all come out for rerun purposes. I said, “No, this is a significant historical event. I really think it should be this way. People are going to look back at this roast for a long, long time, so why strip out the more dangerous parts of it? I mean, this is 9/11. This is going to be a Never Forget moment.” We just didn’t see eye to eye. As a producer they didn’t invite me back, and as a comedian they didn’t invite me back until 2005.
Lampanelli: That was the first one I ever did. The Friars Club had said to Comedy Central, “Put this Lisa Lampanelli on.” I was completely unknown, they had no idea who I was, and Comedy Central was like, “Who?” But the Friars pushed it.
Gottfried: The Chevy Chase one, that was a peculiar one, to say the least. Paul Shaffer went up and started it with this song “We Couldn’t Get Anybody Good.” Because it seemed like in his long career, maybe he’s burnt a bunch of bridges over the years. There were a lot of people where you were going, “Well, where’s so-and-so?”
Fox: I don’t know that the direction of the talent was wrong, but Chevy was just a guy that it turns out very few people liked. The whole idea of a roast is that you show up and you rib someone you love. That was the original idea, and that was certainly the mantra from the Friars: “You only roast the ones you love.” It turns out a lot of the guys and women who worked with Chevy during his SNL days, and I probably shouldn’t say this on the record, but nobody liked the guy. Apparently he had a drug problem, and instead of showing up and roasting, those that did show up just sort of eviscerated him. It was a very uncomfortable event.
Lampanelli: Everyone was bombing, and Chevy Chase was acting like the biggest douchebag in the world. He was literally the opposite of a good roast subject, which is someone who laughs along, pays attention, makes eye contact. Chevy Chase sat there with his stupid sunglasses on and his smug expression and his judgy-ness. I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to act like this little bitch is having the time of his life so I can nail it. This is my first time I’m ever on TV. So whether he likes it or not, I’m going to act like he’s having fun.” I remember, thank God, doing well and going, “Okay, I’m not going to get cut out of this—I hope.”
Lou Wallach (former SVP, Original Programming and Development: The Chevy Chase Roast was painful. I remember sitting in the audience, and it was just like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe how awful this is.” We were all sort of sliding under the table, and it wasn’t because of the alcohol. You looked at this guy’s stone face the entire time—it was so embarrassing.
Gottfried: When he was sitting there through the whole thing, he looked okay, but then at the end when he made his speech—which I found the most fascinating part of the evening—he was saying that a lot of things that people said about him, he’s thought about himself. He seemed genuinely thrown and hurt by it.
Ross: I never watched it but, I remember asking Greg Giraldo why he didn’t think it went so well, and he said, “Well, none of Chevy’s friends were there.” I said, “Didn’t you even meet the guy beforehand?” He said, ‘No, no one introduced him.” And I remember thinking, “That’s where I would have come in. I would have set up the dinner for the comedians to meet Chevy, or I would have gone over before the show and had Chevy meet all the comedians before they start busting his balls.” I think we all learned a little bit more about how to produce these shows. It has to come from a place of affection and respect. It definitely hurt not to be there, but it was kind of a relief to have missed the bad roast.
Wallach: It was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was there for the last three we did with the Friars Club. As much as the night was always fun for the executives and the people in the room, from the television perspective it didn’t keep pace with the sensibility of the audience and what else we were doing with the channel as a bigger whole. And it was getting harder and harder to book in many ways.
Fox: Oftentimes the people that the Friars wanted to roast were elderly comedians, to say the least. And, you know, Comedy Central had a fairly young audience. It wasn’t the best fit. We did do Rob Reiner—perhaps some of the audience of Comedy Central perhaps remembered from his All in the Family days—but a lot of times it was old Catskill-type comedians, and they didn’t really resonate with our audience.
Kimmel: They eventually ditched the Friars and did the roasts on their own.
Wallach: The Friars were our partners. Nobody owns the idea of a roast, but they sort of put it on the map. I do know there was a little bit of ugliness in terms of no longer doing it with them anymore, but it sort of had to get done. The idea of a bunch of people the audience had no relationship with in tuxedos, sort of telling a different style of joke on one half of the dais to the other—I get the move.
Fox: We ultimately decided to part ways, and we did do it amicably. The Friars Club Roasts is a branded and copyrighted event, but a roast is not, so we were able to sort of branch off on our own. We had such great relationships with the Friars Club—and I still to this day have some relationships over there—but it was, again, another bittersweet parting and a result of the network growing up to some degree, and recognizing its audience and wanting to serve it better.
Wallach: A lot of people probably only knew them from the Dean Martin Roast infomercials they would see in the middle of the night. And then the next year it became this rock ‘n’ roll, dressed-down thing. We went from the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel to some studio somewhere. They reinvented it with Denis Leary’s company—Jim Serpico at Apostle—and did the Roast of Denis Leary. Then they produced the Jeff Foxworthy one the year after that. It was a very clean break. Both had their positives and shortcomings, but I agree with the network’s decision in terms of where we were evolving to. No slight to the Friars, but the goals of both parties were continuing to diverge.
2005: Pam Anderson
Gallen: I had done a benefit fundraiser anniversary show for PETA. A guy named Dan Matthews reached out to me. I had done the Ellen DeGeneres HBO special, and Ellen was gonna host this thing. She suggested he reach out to me, and so I produced and directed this big event that had everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to Alec Baldwin to Pam Anderson to Paul McCartney doing a big performance at the end. We got along really well, and the show was a big success. Then he called me and said, “You know, Pam would love to do a roast if it could benefit PETA.
Ross: They did a few kind of forgettable roasts, and then we came back strong when Joel Gallen came back. Or when Joel Gallen stepped in, he brought along Pam Anderson.
Gallen: At that point I was not involved with the roasts at all. Denis Leary’s company had produced a few of them out of New York. I didn’t know what the situation would be, but I said, “Look, I can get us a meeting with Doug Herzog. Let’s go in and pitch it if this is real.” First I met with Pam to make sure it was real, and we talked about how much money we’d like to raise for PETA. Then Dan and I went in and met with Doug, and literally in the room he goes, “Let’s do it!”
Ross: Pam Anderson brought along Jimmy Kimmel, who said basically he would host if he could be surrounded by his friends. He went and got Adam Carolla, Sarah Silverman, and me, and a few others to be part of it. It wound up sort of having resurgence. Not only did we all know each other, but we were all very capable roasters. And Pam Anderson was a phenomenal roastee. We did it for PETA, her charity that she loves, and it had a very dignified undertone to a very, very bawdy, over-the-top, punk rock roast.
Gallen: We were sort of finding our way, but it was probably overbooked. We had maybe 12 or 13 people on the dais, and it seemed to be a very long taping, especially long because we also let Tommy Lee do a song. We built another stage; it was a really elaborate production.
Kimmel: The Pamela Anderson Roast—which somehow turned into the Courtney Love Roast—was pretty crazy.
Gallen: Pam very early on said Courtney should be on the list; let’s try to get her. She really didn’t have a manager at that time, but I finally got her on the phone. We struck a good chemistry and went back and forth for a few weeks, but she still would not confirm if she was doing it. She would say stuff like, “I want to do it, but I don’t know if I’ll be funny enough.” I kept assuring her we would help write her set. This was going all the way down to the wire. I think it was two days before, I still did not know if Courtney was doing the show. Finally on that Thursday she told me to meet her at the Sunset Marquis. I brought Aaron Lee, who was my head writer at the time, and he and I spent our Thursday night at the Sunset Marquee until about 2 in the morning listening to Courtney Love talk about all the jokes she wanted to do and hearing some of the jokes that we had written. She claimed she wasn’t drinking up until then, but was getting pretty wasted, though still having a good time and going back and forth. I left there with a confirmation. Not to say it was a reliable confirmation, but I felt pretty good when I left she was going to come to the show. She did come the next day to rehearsal so she could get comfortable with the Teleprompter and environment, so when she showed up to that I was pretty confident she was gonna come. She got roasted as much or more than Pam did—and she was very entertaining to watch.
Ross: I just remember it being so out there. Courtney Love, Pam Anderson, Andy Dick, we all got so wasted. I’m not even a big partier, and I had to be carried out. I’m pretty sure Andy Dick roofied me. He said he didn’t, but I’ve never been that messed up before.
Carlos Alazraqui: The Pam Anderson Roast was one of my first ones, and I was drunk. They were getting us drunk in the green room and letting us drink onstage. I remember Eddie Griffin getting up in somebody’s face, and Greg Giraldo being really funny. It was surreal: I was standing onstage wearing a porkpie hat next to Eddie Griffin, like, “I am drunk. But they’re not going to call on me; I’m just here to watch. This is fun!”
Gallen: Bea Arthur was a also a friend of Pam’s, and a big PETA supporter. We thought she’d also be what we call in Roast Language “a good target.” We thought there were a lot of good jokes we could make at her expense, and we also thought we could write something for her to come across sort of dramatic and serious, reading excerpts from Pam’s book, but doing it so dramatically that it would become so funny and over the top. Bea, although she’s of the age she should know what a roast is because of all the Dean Martin Roasts from the ‘60s and the Friars Club Roasts, she seemed to not take to the roasting very well. As you know, everybody gets roasted. Nobody is safe, even if you’re just a guest on the dais. I think she was getting bombarded pretty hard. This is the first roast I ever did, and it’s the only time this has ever happened, but literally after Bea went up third or fourth in the rundown—after she took a lot of jokes already and then did her thing—she never came back to her seat. The word was that she just was not having a good time, so she took off. I think one of Jeff Ross’s jokes—or maybe two or three or four—were just too many for her to handle. I thought maybe this was something that would happen again in the future, but that was the only time it happened.
Ross: People say Bea Arthur didn’t take it well. She took it like a man! She was great; she was hilarious. She’d been to the roast before, so she knew what she was getting into. Courtney Love, however, not sure she knew what she was getting into. Right before we taped, she sort of pranced off to a bathroom with Andy Dick and came out really out of her mind, where she had to be physically held down to her seat by Jimmy Kimmel during the show.
Kimmel: Courtney Love would not be quiet for one second. I was the Roastmaster on that one, and as Sarah was getting up to do her set, she pointed at Courtney, like, “Shut her the fuck up during my set!” I didn’t hear one word of Sarah’s set because I had Courtney Love in a bear hug on the couch, just trying to quietly speak to her and distract her from interrupting Sarah’s roast.
Gallen: Somewhere there exists, because we have everyone on a little lavalier microphone, a really hilarious conversation during Sarah Silverman’s set. While she’s talking, delivering jokes, Courtney’s just taking to Jimmy Kimmel for the entire set, saying the most uncomfortable things for Jimmy to hear, because Jimmy and Sarah were boyfriend-girlfriend at the time. I remember sharing it with Jimmy, so he’s heard it, but I’ve also sworn to him that nobody else will ever hear that. But if there’s ever a documentary, maybe we can convince Jimmy to allow that tape to get out.
Carolla: Courtney Love was kind of threatening to pull her top off or pull her skirt off up onstage, half out of her mind. The audience was screaming, “No!” You know your boobies have jumped the shark when you’re up onstage threatening to lift your top up and everyone’s screaming “No!” That’s a tough realization for a blonde who is used to being onstage and every time she lifts her shirt up, the crowd goes nuts. And everyone was literally yelling, “Put ‘em back!”
Ross: At one point she was flashing her panties, pulling out her boobs, and humping an armrest of her chair. That’s when I realized I had to shut it down, so I dropped it like a stun gun. I said, “How is it possible that Courtney Love looks worse than Kurt Cobain?” And he hadn’t been dead that long at this point, so it was a pretty vicious joke. She looked at Pam Anderson and both their jaws just dropped. And after a beat they both started laughing. There’s pictures around of Courtney Love basically on her knees, pretending to blow me after that joke. So I know she enjoyed it.
Lampanelli: Courtney Love was misbehaving very badly throughout the entire show. But for some reason, she behaved during my set. It’s almost like she was afraid of me because I was closing, going last. And I’m so loud and I’m so “Don’t you even think about it!” without even saying it. I kept glancing her way, almost threatening her but teaming with her at the same time, like “Okay, we know who’s the boss here.” She just sat quietly, and ran up to me after the roast and—it was so gross, you can see it on the tape—she kissed me on the lips. And as I used to say, “I was high for five days!”
Ross: The next morning she checked herself into rehab. So yes, roasting saves lives.
Lampanelli: It made so many headlines that it made people watch the roast who weren’t even comedy fans. The minute that roast aired, I started selling out clubs and theaters. Courtney Love was kind of my savior. She’s the one reason that I got to be bigger than I was. I never thought I’d say that, but it was true.
Ross: Chris Rock always tells me, like, “Joke for joke, minute for minute, it’s one of the funniest things in the world.” He said it’s his favorite roast, and maybe one of his favorite comedies ever. So I’m very proud when I hear that.
2006: William Shatner
Gallen: I’m a big Star Trek fan and had worked with William Shatner several times before this on other shows like the MTV Movie Awards, so I had a little history with him. I do know that it started a new trend: When we got Pam Anderson, Comedy Central really coughed up a big chunk of change to donate to PETA. I thought it was great, because this is going to be a real way to attract other talent in the future. Everyone is connected with a charity and will want to donate the money. I learned really quickly that is not the case. The following year when we came to Bill Shatner and asked him what charity he would like those proceeds to go to, he was like, “Charity? I want the money!” So it became a nice payday for Bill Shatner himself, and that basically became the trend. Not to hold that against any of them, because they’re all good sports.
Ross: This guy was my hero. Growing up, I was the biggest Star Trek fan in the world. I really admired William Shatner. I had a meeting with him to go over his material and his take on the roast at the Nate ’n Al’s deli, and I realized after talking to him for two minutes: He’s a frustrated old Jewish comedian! He was dropping all kinds of shtick, and he was living out his dream of being a comic by doing this roast. And he was a great sport: very much an anything-goes type of roast.
Gallen: I think by the third or fourth roast we got more into a groove where the tapings were much tighter and much more enjoyable from start to finish. They were still long because we always wanted the comedians to do more then we need, so we can take only the jokes that we really need and broadcast only the best stuff. The Shatner one we were still finding our groove, but it was successful. To sit there and get made fun of for a couple hours, it takes a certain type to have a sense of humor about it. I think Shatner was a little shell-shocked by it. I think he was nervous about it, but I think he enjoyed it. There were so many great comics and so many great sets.
Lampanelli: Betty White was phenomenal. I learned that if you are a professional actress and you have the right script-writers—because you know that Comedy Central writes the roast jokes for the celebrities—you are going to kill if you prepare. They told me she was in there rehearsing, being a pro, and for someone who’s had three leads in three sitcoms, she didn’t have to do this. The juxtaposition with the cute character and the dirtiness, I went, “Wow, she just cemented herself as someone who young people now know who she is.” I don’t think it revived her career, but it definitely helped her. And she nailed it. She was one of those where you sit there and you’re gasping at how good she is.
Gallen: Betty White stands out in my memory as one of the best, and of course for the room, George Takei was also pretty amazing. Not so much for Bill, because George told a lot of jokes with, I think, a little personal vengeance in his voice. I think there’s no secret that George and Bill were not best of friends.
Lampanelli: George Takei was on it, and you know me and the gays; I enjoy the gays. I don’t think Andy Dick was admitting at the time he was gay, but it was good to have two gays on. It’s also one of the ones Andy Dick looked most uncomfortable at, and there’s nothing better than making Andy Dick uncomfortable. And Shatner and Takei, they don’t have a lot of good blood between them. You could tell there was a weird “Am I kidding?” thing between them.
Ross: George Takei had the best line of the night. William Shatner is very into horses, and he rode in on a beautiful horse. And an hour later George Takei goes on and says, “I always wanted to say this to you, Bill: Fuck you and the horse you rode in on!”
Alazraqui: I just remember George Takei saying, “I always wanted to say to you: ‘Fuck you and the horse you rode in on!’”
Lampanelli: Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura, was on. She looked very regal and beautiful, and I was afraid to make jokes about her. When I finally did, she laughed harder than anyone. I learned just because people are classy, it doesn’t mean they can’t take a joke.
Gallen: I remember his rebuttal being really wonderful too, because he sort of went into character and gave us a little bit of Captain Kirk and a really great delivery—overdramatic—the way Shatner always is, which was the key to the way he can make something be very funny: by being very dramatic.
Ross: It was the last time anybody really got to see Farrah Fawcett. I wrote all these jokes ahead of time about how she was my first crush, how I loved her as a kid, and how she’s kind of old now. And then I got there and looked at her, and she still looked so beautiful I couldn’t do the jokes! I was sort of star struck, still in love with her. She turned me back into a teenager. And I have very fond memories of how funny Artie Lange was that day, and of course Greg Giraldo, and Shatner himself.
Gallen: I think at the end, Bill was very happy. He’s come back and been on another roast. It takes a lot to do it, but the guests of honor have never not been happy. They come off afterwards saying they are so glad they did it, they had such a great time, what an honor it was.
2007: Flavor Flav
Ross: People always ask me what my favorite roast is. It’s a tough question. For some reason I always gravitate towards Flavor Flav because he was just so roastable. One of my best opening lines ever: “I don’t even know how to do this roast. How do you embarrass a crackhead that wears a Viking helmet?” I remember going to probably eight or 10 different clothing stores to find the right fedora and hot-pink suit, like, “I really want to stand out and fit in at the same time.”
Jesse Joyce (roasts and @midnight writer): I was Greg Giraldo’s opener, and he sort of jockeyed himself into being—in my opinion—one of the best guys who did the roasts. We were on the road, and he had the Flavor Flav one coming up. He said, “Hey man, I don’t know if this is your bag, but if you have any thoughts…” I took it real seriously and wrote, like, twenty pages of jokes, and he used a bunch of them. I ended up writing about half of that set. After that, he said, “We’ve got to do this every year!”
Gallen: Greg, who was always amazing, that one, he just crushed it. I always used him as the opener. He came out of the box, and he just destroyed. We had a great dais that included Jimmy Kimmel, who came back to sit on the dais after he hosted it a couple years earlier.
Kimmel: I definitely remember the Flavor Flav Roast. That one was rough. 2007? It might as well have been 1989 for the people that were there. I mean, Brigitte Nielsen?
Ross: He brought along all the Flavor of Love girls, Snoop Dog, Ice T. I knew that this was going to be different, that this was going to be a no-holds-barred Super Roast, Roast to the Death kind of thing.
Lampanelli: That was awesome, because it was finally time to make some black jokes! My favorite memory was seeing all those girls from Flavor of Love in the audience and calling them “the 3 a.m. shift at Waffle House” and calling them nappy-headed hoes,” and fighting with Comedy Central, saying, “You have to keep in ‘nappy-headed hoes!’” Which they did.
Gallen: Snoop Dogg was amazing. That was not his comedy debut, but maybe his stand-up comedy debut. He was delivering jokes with uncanny timing and from what I remember was the best of anybody, because not everyone expected him to be so funny, and he was fantastic.
Lampanelli: That was the first one Snoop did, and he just killed it. Snoop’s not just some big stoner; he’s a businessman, he’s a pro, and he was one of my favorite parts. I never knew he could do this.
Gallen: We had a little bit of a Bea Arthur type situation, but only he stayed until the end. Katt Williams was our host, and he saw all the material and the tone going in. But he didn’t appreciate some of the jokes made at his expense, and came out in the press shortly thereafter saying that the roast is racist and this and that, and really didn’t have a great sense of humor about it. We did everything with a smile, we do everything very tongue-and-cheek, so we didn’t see any place where we really crossed the line. Greg Giraldo came up with some real great zingers that Katt may have thought crossed the line, sure, but they were funny, they worked, and they didn’t get edited out.
Lampanelli: He wasn’t mad at me, for a change, because I usually pissed somebody off. I think he was mad about all the short jokes, but at the time it would have been like me being mad at all the fat jokes. Like, “You didn’t see that one coming?” But that’s the problem with not doing your homework and watching roasts. If you watch roasts, you go, “Oh, they make fun of everybody!” So just know what you’re getting into before you sign up.
Joyce: Sometimes everyone ends up assigning an attribute to someone. For a couple of years Anthony Jeselnik was “really poor.” So all the jokes were about “We’ve got to get him out of here so he doesn’t miss his bus.” It’s arguable how many black dudes Lisa Lampanelli hooked up with, but that became the thing we made sure the audience knew about her.
Gallen: I do remember Flav’s rebuttal not being one of the highlights of the show. We worked with him on how to tell a joke and how to do the rebuttal—and he would never finish the punch lines. He would start laughing at his own jokes. We had to do a very delicate editing job to try to make his rebuttal make some kind of sense, and we cut it down really tight. I think his rebuttal was like eight or 10 minutes, and we got it down to a good two and a half.
Kimmel: You look down the list and you see these iconic figures that have been roasted. Then Flavor Flav gets in there, and you go, “What? How did that happen?” He did love it, though. He probably loved it more than anybody ever loved it. Not one thing bugged him in the slightest. He ate it up.
Gallen: He was definitely like a kid in a candy store. He was laughing his ass off—and he has a very, very, very recognizable and identifiable laugh. He was loving it. I think some of the jokes he didn’t even get, he was loving it. Even the jokes that bordered on racist-type jokes, he was loving it. He didn’t care!
Ross: I remember the sheer delight of making fun of Flavor Flav. He was so happy. His feet were just kicking like a little kid in a high chair eating candy. He loved the attention more than anyone I’ve ever roasted. He hugged everybody afterwards. He was the last one to leave the afterparty. He didn’t want it to end. I think it was a highlight of his life, and maybe my favorite roast.
2008: Bob Saget
Ross: Bob Saget’s roast was sort of a throwback roast, in that it was mostly comedians roasting another comedian. That was the most Friars Club-like roast we’ve gotten. It was also the closest pal of mine that I’ve ever roasted, so it had a real nice poignancy to it. Bob’s a good pal of mine, and I remember being part of the team that talked him into doing the show. And Bob took it very, very seriously. He really was honored by it, but he was very protective about certain things because he also has that family-TV personality. But deeper down there is a real nightclub performer inside Bob, and to see him elevated to the roast chair and to make it all about him I think was really a great time in his life. It was sort of a culmination of his resurgence and all his hard work over decades of doing stand-up and acting and directing.
Gottfried: My running joke through that was, “Why should we be honoring a man who raped and killed a girl in 1990? First of all, it’s not true. It’s not true that Bob Saget raped and killed a girl in 1990, so if you have no proof that Bob Saget raped and killed a girl in 1990, then you shouldn’t be repeating it.” I spoke to Bob Saget not too long ago, and he said that to this day, people are still tweeting him that he raped and killed a girl in 1990.
Herzog: Cloris Leachman was a trip. She’s a great actress with a great history, and a little bit of a wild card.
Chris Hardwick: I covered the red carpet interviews for Comedy Central’s digital team for the Bob Saget Roast. One of my favorite memories there was talking to Cloris Leachman after the show. She was amazing—probably 80 years old at the time, but just rapid-fire. She was so fast and such a genius, and she was making really inappropriate vagina jokes just out of nowhere. I was riffing with her, and to riff with someone who is one of your comedy heroes, she was incredible. That to me wasn’t just a greatest roast memory. It was a Greatest of All Time memory.
Gottfried: Then we started doing a lot of the jokes about the Olsen Twins, that’s unavoidable. I remember one of them was “The Olsen Twins walk into a bar. They say, ‘We want an Ass Hurts.’ The bartender says, ‘How do you make an Ass Hurts?’ They go, ‘Well, that’s when Bob Saget makes you a glass of chocolate milk, you drink it, and you wake up an hour later…”
Gallen: I loved Norm Macdonald’s set. He hadn’t done a roast before, not even the Friars Club Roast. But Norm had committed to doing the show, and as I do with everybody, I check in with them a couple of weeks before just to see how their set is coming along. Norm kept saying, “I don’t really have anything yet.” After a few of those conversations I said, “Why don’t you watch some of the old Dean Martin Roasts and get some inspiration? That may lead to something.” He says, “All right, good idea.” So what does he do? He watches Dean Martin Roasts, and I think he basically pulled one of these hokey kind of sets—I don’t know if it was word for word—basically inspired by some of the more run-of-the-mill celebrities that would have done one of those roasts, telling these very obviously cheesy jokes. Norm took the slant that “I’m going to bring that to present day—and not change anything.”
Gottfried: I think he felt uncomfortable doing the whole roast thing, so he came out with these really old and not-particularly-funny jokes that he was reading off of index cards. It definitely made me laugh.
Gallen: He put them all on index cards, and looked down and read the jokes. I think initially a lot of people in the room weren’t sure about it. They weren’t sure how funny it was. But I was in the truck cracking up, because it was very Norm to think about doing that. As his set unfolded, more and more people caught on what he was doing, and I think he did really well. Especially when we had the luxury of editing his set down a little bit to four and a half minutes or so on-air, I think it really played well on TV. Not everybody was a fan of it, but I loved it.
Hardwick: That was so much fun to witness that, because the audience members were probably people they’d gotten from an audience company. So the people who weren’t comedy-savvy didn’t know what to make of it, and all the comedians were folded in half laughing at what he was doing.
Ross: That’s when alternative roasting got big. Norm kind of created his own roasting genre; he read from a, like, Friars Almanac with the venom of a real roast, and he was just super funny. I wish Norm would do the roasts more often.
Joyce: I don’t know how widely known it is that Norm Macdonald has a degenerative gambling problem, but it’s definitely good fodder for a roast. So my joke was, “Norm Macdonald’s dropped more coin at a casino than Michael J. Fox at a parking meter.”
Ross: George Carlin had just passed away, so it gave a real relevancy to stand-up. I remember working him into my speech. I said, “Here’s another seven words you’ll never hear on television: ‘And the Emmy goes to Bob Saget.’” Bob was really being known for sort of dirty comedy now. And to prove that I didn’t have to be dirty, I did my entire roast set without cursing. So I was proud of that. I’d never done that before, but I did a dirty set without being dirty.
2009: Joan Rivers
Gallen: It was amazing to get the legendary Joan Rivers. And God, Kathy Griffin did a great job hosting that one.
Gottfried: Joan Rivers was the one where I did a whole monologue about her vagina. It was kind of a point-counterpoint, because everybody was talking about how dried-out and dusty her vagina was, so I did a whole thing in favor of her vagina.
Joyce: Whoever’s roast it is, they get a couple of things where they get to say, “Hey, do me a favor and don’t make a joke about this.” The guest of honor gets a few of those; the people on the dais can go fuck themselves. If Jeff Foxworthy was like, “Don’t dick on my moustache,” we’d be like, “Fuck you. Don’t have a moustache!” If Shaq said, “Don’t make fun of me because I’m a dumb Sasquatch…” “No, that’s what you are!”
Jonas Larsen (SVP Talent and Specials): We don’t really allow the roastee to tell us what the material is that will be out there, unless it’s something like someone close to them died and we don’t want to make fun of it because it’s in bad taste. We’ll respect that.
Gallen: There is gonna be one or two jokes at every roast that the guest of honor—or in this cast the daughter of honor—just felt we went a little too far. Normally we try to justify them or keep them in if they got big laughs, but if they didn’t and got more groans, we have no problem taking them out. But usually the racy stuff does stay in. Also most of the people that have agreed to be in the hot seat are not calling us and saying, “Please cut this out!” because they know what they got themselves into, and they got paid well for it, so they sit back and take it.
Joyce: Joan’s was “Don’t make fun of Melissa.” We thought that was weird, especially because her husband committed suicide. That was okay, but “Don’t make fun of Melissa, who I made and forced on you!” The fact that she had a famous daughter—who wasn’t a child—and we’re not allowed to make fun of her? Even though that was the mandate, I wrote this joke, and Giraldo and the producers were still like, “Yeah, that’s a good joke. Put it in!” It was “Joan and Michael Jackson had a lot in common. They both spent millions of dollars at the same plastic surgeon to look like a creepy old white lady. They’re both more popular now that they’re dead. And they both raised a chimp!” Melissa wasn’t on the dais; she was in the crowd. She made a big show of grabbing her purse and storming out. They had to shut down the show for, like, ten minutes in order to get her back. So if you watch the roast, Melissa Rivers comes up from the audience, goes to the podium, and all she does is go, “Hey, thank you all for being here to honor my mom, and fuck you Greg Giraldo.” That’s in there because that’s the deal they made to get her back in—but the joke isn’t.
Gallen: I recall her being very upset. I just don’t remember her storming out, because if she did I would have shown it, because that would have made for good TV. I do know she had a look on her face and was very upset about it. I do think there were a couple jokes at Melissa’s expense that they really wanted us to cut out of the broadcast, and I think we did.
Ross: I remember Melissa definitely berating Greg and reminding him that she was supposed to be off-limits. But of course when your mom’s getting roasted and you’ve been in show business your whole life and you’re in the front row in a bright, beautiful dress, you’re going to get roasted. I think in the end all was forgiven. Anytime I see Melissa now she has fond memories of that night, and that’s good. You want everyone to leave a roast in a good mood.
Gottfried: I remember one line she said about me: “Sitting here, watching Gilbert Gottfried, I want to drive to Malibu and blow Mel Gibson.” I’d seen her do for years the fashion things on the red carpet, and stuff like that. And then to see her up there performing like that, you go, “Oh wait, this is what Joan Rivers does so well!”
Gallen: Joan was such a pleasure to work with. If you saw her documentary, there were all kind of excerpts about the roast: when she got the offer and why she did it, little clips of her yelling at me in fun in rehearsal. I got a kick out of getting scolded by Joan.
Ross: This roast will go down in history as perhaps one of the most vicious. Joan Rivers had been making fun of celebrities her entire career. So we all thought, “All right, let’s line up all her young protégés: Kathy Griffin, Whitney Cummings, me, Lisa, and really give her the respect she deserves by really roasting her as hard as she’s been roasting everybody since the ‘60s.” And much to our surprise, she went on at the end and ripped us all new assholes. She will always be the one person who was the funniest person at her own roast. She was heckling the entire night, and showed everybody why she’s the boss.
2010: David Hasselhoff
Lewis Black (The Daily Show): Greg Giraldo was astonishing at the roasts.
Joyce: Greg would very purposefully guard his material. He wouldn’t even run it onstage. The first time he did it was during the taping of the roast.
Larsen: Giraldo was a special comic. He kind of straddled that line of being incredibly funny and crass, but also incredibly smart. The thing about his comedy—and why he was on the roasts for so many years—was the intelligence behind his jokes, and the way he would craft them. The layers in his jokes were just incredible.
Gallen: He was the best. I met him doing the Pam Anderson Roast. Obviously I had seen his stand-up comedy before and on one or two of the roasts that Denis Leary’s company had produced, so I knew how good he was, and I had a good feeling about him. So he was my opener—he opened every roast except one.
Lampanelli: That wasn’t a coincidence. That was because Lisa Lampanelli said, “I’m not doing the roast if I have to close again! That’s the hardest spot! I refuse!” It was a big negotiation, and I got sick and tired of doing twice the work, because when you have to write 30 pages instead of seven because you’re crossing out jokes and stressing the whole time, I was just like, “I don’t need it. I just won’t do it.” I forget if I went first or fourth, but I was like, “Let Giraldo close it; I don’t give a crap.” It’s the hardest job there is.
Larsen: It’s a coveted spot, because obviously it’s the last roaster before the roastee goes up and gives his or her rebuttal. He had done enough roasts that we felt this was the right thing to do for this particular roast. Every roast is a little bit different in terms of how we structure the dais and the order in which they go up, but this just felt like his year. He had reached that point in his relationship with the roasts that he should close the show.
Ross: The Hasselhoff Roast was very special. Greg was nervous about closing, but of course he destroyed. Hasselhoff, he’d been going through a really hard time. He was more of a tabloid figure than a superstar at this point. He’d been embarrassed by his family for eating a hamburger on the floor drunk on YouTube or TMZ, and he was sort of a joke.
Fox: What’s really served the roast franchise well is talent—big name talent—tend to use it as a way to cleanse a sordid or negative past in some ways. That’s certainly what David Hasselhoff did after his drunken videos on YouTube.
Lampanelli: He was another one who, when they’re in a roast situation, isn’t taking themselves too seriously. I would say him, Flavor Flav, and Trump were the best ones. First, there’s a lot of material on all of them. They have a lot of foibles. But also they laugh at the jokes; they’re gentlemen about it. Those are the ones I like to roast the best. Hasselhoff was an endless font for us.
Ross: It’s hard to roast somebody who’s already a punchline. So I was really reluctant, and I pushed back. I said, “I don’t think we should roast him.” I talked to John Mayer about it. He really understands me and roasting and show business, and he said, “Listen man, sometimes I wanna play the blues, but the fans wanna hear the hits! And roasting David Hasselhoff is like a hit. People are going to want to see that. You realize that this one’s for the fans.” And I did it, and I wound up embracing it fully. I came out dressed in a leather g-string the way Hasselhoff used to wear back in the ‘80s. I definitely made it a tribute, but yet made it mine as well.
Gottfried: I was backstage and one of the producers came back and said, “Pam Anderson agreed to do this at the last minute.” She originally wasn’t going to take part in it. “So go a little easy on her.” Which is the worst thing you can say to me, because then the whole thing was about Pam Anderson’s vagina, very derogatory. Less sympathetic than I was toward Joan Rivers’s vagina.
Joyce: You know there is always a connective piece of tissue between David Hasselhoff and Jerry Springer, and you’re looking for what the best connection between them is. Whoever does unlock that joke, it’s like, “Goddammit, that’s the one! That’s the one I’ve been dancing around for three weeks and didn’t figure out!” It was always fun to see who won with the angle of the joke we were trying to get at. (By the way, I’m the one who figured out the best Jerry Springer-David Hasselhoff connection. It was the fact that Jerry Springer was an aide to Bobby Kennedy. So his connection to David Hasselhoff was “I guess you like hanging around dudes whose careers end on a hotel floor!”)
Gallen: I know Jesse wrote with him, but Greg Giraldo himself was a great writer. From start to finish, his energy was a great pace-setter for the show, and his jokes were always smart. He was always edgy, he was always pushing the envelope, and at the end of the day he was smart, he was funny, he was a brilliant writer.
Lampanelli: He was a hugely intelligent, good comedian. He was intellectual, but his jokes were still accessible. They were highbrow and lowbrow at the same time, and that’s really hard to achieve. He had a really unique voice and such a different way about him than anybody else. Also he was so sensitive. I just know every joke I said about him, “He’s really going to kill himself!” He was so sensitive, you were almost afraid to go there. But then it’s like, “Well, that’s a roast. He gets it.” So it was pretty weird when he died. It’s like, “Well, I don’t think I drove him to it, but maybe somebody else did.”
Gallen: In 2010 Greg, as a favor to me, was going to perform at my high school reunion. He had set up a gig in Long Island, where I’m from, to do two shows at a comedy club. I was going to send a car to pick him up in between comedy shows so he could come do, like, 10 minutes at my high school reunion. But my reunion was on October 1, and Greg passed away on September 29th.
Gottfried: I’d heard he had an overdose but he was still alive. I was on The Tonight Show, and while I was backstage, I figured I should call and leave a message with him. I called, and I think I spoke to his manager. I said, “Just tell him that I called and wish that he Gets Well Soon.” Then ten minutes after I left the phone call, I heard somebody say to Jay Leno, “Greg Giraldo just died.” So I called back the manager and said, “Well, once again I’ve got lousy timing.”
Kent Alterman (Comedy Central President): He brought a really high level of intelligence and humor to everything he did, including the roasts. He had a really particular skill at roasting, and in some ways the greatest testament to that is how overtly and openly every other comedian revered him. He was just one of those people that was able to transcend; he could really rise above anything expected. He brought so much insight and wit and intelligence to what he did. He really elevated the art form.
March 2011: Donald Trump
Fox: A number of people have sort of gone through that process and come out better on the other side, and Trump, believe it or not, was one of them.
Joyce: I was a writer who got a credit, even though I wasn’t on the staff. When Greg died, I got kind of grandfathered into the staff. There’s a core of about five of us, and every year they bring in a few more: friends with somebody who’s on the dais or comics who do it once or twice.
Ross: I had already roasted Trump at the Friars Club, not on television. So I got a second crack at him. He really is the type of guy that you could roast every year like a gold watch.
Joyce: That motherfucker stopped us from doing ninety percent of the jokes we wanted to do. He would redact stuff in his script. He would not play ball. He thinks he’s funny, and that’s the fucking problem. He’s, like, Dick in a Bar funny, but he’s not professionally funny. But he gets laughs when he says the most obvious, heavy-handed stuff. It’s like he writes jokes with a chainsaw. No nuance to it at all.
Larsen: It was less about being heavy-handed with edits: His time was very scarce. It was hard to get him to engage on the details. I remember when we shot the promos for it, I was told, “Listen, Mr. Trump is very good at doing promos. He’s very efficient; everything just has to be ready and he’ll come in, do his lines, and he’ll leave.” I thought, “Okay, that means we’ll have him for a couple hours.” They were like, “No, for a half-hour.” I said, “Really? Normally we spend half a day with the talent, shooting these things.” They said, “You’ll have him for 30 minutes.” To his credit, he came in, he did his lines—they were very simple—and he got out. One of the promo crews that was shooting elements for our show open was stuck in an elevator, and we were about to lose him. I had to personally jump in and take still shots of him and direct him, because he was literally out the door and on to the next thing.
Joyce: When we would send him these jokes, he would just redact the punchline like it was a real-estate contract. We’d get pages faxed back completely blacked out, and it was like, “Who the fuck does this guy think he is?” His only contribution to any of the jokes was he was constantly crossing out numbers and jacking them up. There was some joke about him having three billion dollars; he crossed out three and put seven. There was something about him living in a space station after causing all the scabies and bedbugs and famine problems of the world, and then he just sits there in his hundred and fifty-thousand square feet marbled penthouse space station that orbits the earth. He crossed out a hundred and fifty and put three hundred. He needed people to know that his fictitious space station was bigger. That’s what a piece of shit that guy is.
Ross: For the first half of the show he doesn’t really laugh. He took it almost too seriously. He was trying to show that the jokes didn’t bother him, so he stayed stone-faced. When we finally had a commercial break, I went over to him and said, “Hey, listen man, if you can just smile, at least we’ll be able to cut to you enjoying yourself and being a good sport, as opposed to just cutting to everyone else laughing at you. We need to be laughing with you for this show to really work.” He kind of understood that, and you can sort of see him start to relax a little bit as the hour goes on. So I give myself some credit with coaching him through that one.
Larsen: Jeff had one of the best jokes of the night: He looked over at Trump, and Trump is sitting there kinda looking rather surly. He goes “Hey Trump, ya having a good time?” And he sort of grunts “Yes,” and then he goes “Well why don’t you tell your face!” And it sort of crystallized how we all felt looking at him. It was like, “You’re supposed to laugh. This is a good time.”
Joyce: Trump just scowled the whole time. Not to mention that he insisted it was done in New York, and he invited seven hundred of his dickhead friends. Who is the worst comedy audience in the world? Guys from Wharton Business School. They started booing The Situation immediately just because he didn’t go to college.
Larsen: Some of the roasters, like Mike Sorrentino—”The Situation”—didn’t do quite as well as we’d hoped. We want everybody to excel on the roast. The roast is only good if everyone is having a good time and killing. We always go out of our way to rehearse with them and give them an opportunity to shine. That for me felt it like a little bit of a letdown.
Gallen: He completely tanked, but it worked sort of to our advantage because it made for good TV. It was really our first and only trainwreck we’ve ever had on the roasts, that someone was just so bad at delivering jokes. Our head writer worked with him and tried to get him to be better, but he got there and was just too into the party. Maybe he was drinking, maybe he was smoking, I don’t know what. He just couldn’t deliver a joke to save his life. Jeff went up there and tried to help him towards the end. It was a great moment for Jeff, because he did save The Situation and showed that he really is the Roast Master.
Ross: I was very much on my game because I was going up last. For the first time I was asked to close the roast. And that can be intense. So I’m really studying the crowd; I’m studying Donald. The Situation went up and started bombing and getting booed. I knew Anthony Jeselnik was up next, and then I was coming on after him. I didn’t want the show to devolve into a booing rodeo. I wanted it to be a comedy show and not turn into a UFC fight. So I stepped in and saved The Situation from bombing.
Lampanelli: People like Snoop Dogg, they get there, they prepare, they kill. Then there’s the people like The Situation on the Donald Trump Roast, who don’t bother coming to read-through, and he dies like a cock. He’s not a bad guy. He was so nice afterward, and took pictures with my nephew and was really sweet. But part of me is like, “Dude, all you had to do was come in and practice.” Again, it’s just being a professional.
Gallen: It was another great set for Snoop Dogg. He started becoming a semi-regular on the dais. Certainly Larry King held his own. Gilbert Gottfried sort of came out unannounced because Marlee Matlin was on the show, and she needed an interrupter. She would deliver a joke, and then Gilbert would come up with something completely different that wasn’t anything she was saying.
Gottfried: Every time Marlee Matlin’s on a show, her interpreter is usually off-camera doing the signing and translating for her and for the host. More times than not, the host will make a joke like, “Oh, I see you’ve brought Gilbert Gottfried with you,” because he looks like me. The whole thing was she’s roasting Donald Trump, and her interpreter is supposedly so offended by the whole thing that he walks off, and then I replace him.
Gallen: Gilbert sort of looked like her interpreter too, so that was a funny set. I felt like some people were great, and some people were disappointing. I don’t think we had the consistency that I like to have at these roasts. I feel like one or two people weren’t as prepared as they could have been. Some of the sets early on weren’t as great, and I didn’t think Trump’s rebuttal was as great as it could have been.
Lampanelli: Trump was an awesome sport. Practically the day after, he offered me Celebrity Apprentice because he just loved the jokes so much. Even now when people ask me about Trump, I say, “He never did me any harm. He laughed at all my jokes and put me on TV; what do I care?”
Larsen: I don’t know if Trump had a good time doing it. I think he did. He was just launching his political campaign, like literally the day after the roast. So I think he was going, “Oh, this may not go well with my political aspirations.” So maybe that was what was in his head, but thankfully we got it. It’s still a fun roast, but certainly not one of the best ones we’ve done.
Joyce: It was my least favorite one by far.
Ross: Really, really one of the great roastings of all time. Now we look at it, and it’s almost like a historic moment in the history of the country. It’s up there with the Gettysburg Address and Nixon going to China: Trump coming to Comedy Central to get roasted. It’s going to go down in the history books; not just Comedy Central’s history, but what’s left of our Republic.
September 2011: Charlie Sheen
Ross: The Charlie Sheen Roast was a lay-up. This is a guy who had me out of the road with him. Live Nation put a tour together where Charlie was doing these giant, giant arenas: “The Torpedo of Truth Tour,” or something like that. I used that time with him to tell him how much I thought a roast would help him sort of reboot his reputation and give him a new career trajectory so he wasn’t the Warlock from Mars, but he was a TV star again. He liked that, and he agreed to be roasted on Comedy Central.
Larsen: We’d reached out to him many times in the past and offered to do a roast around him. He’s obviously been an icon for many years. Then he had that whole very public meltdown, and I think his team saw an opportunity for him to go out and kind of redeem himself taking one on the chin, showing that he’s not insane and he has a sense of humor. I think we were all initially a little skeptical. We obviously didn’t want to celebrate someone who was not 100 percent there. The roast takes a lot of focus, and we wanted him to really be a part of it.
Alterman: It happened at such a combustible time. He was everywhere when he famously walked away from Two and a Half Men. It was such a media frenzy during that whole period of time, and there was never a better intersection of forces in terms of the timing than that roast.
Larsen: Kent and I had a conversation with his manager Mark Burg and said, “Why don’t we sit down and talk to Charlie and before we commit to doing it?” We drove out to his house and had a fantastic meeting with him. He did look like he had just come off a three-day bender, a little worse for wear. But both of us were so impressed with how sharp and smart and self-aware and funny he was, and how open he was to the whole idea of the roast. He was like, “I need this. This is going to be a great time.” His thoughtfulness and his knowledge around the roast was really impressive. He really was in a great place mentally, and we realized he was also having some fun in his own way with the media and how he was being perceived. We left going, “Holy shit, this is gonna be a great roast!”
Gallen: When I first met with Charlie he looked a little disheveled. He looked thin. I was worried he was having a bad spell. I knew the roast would come together, but wondered whether or not he could come together and actually be there. But as we got closer he seemed to get more into it. He got healthier, more focused, and really worked hard on his rebuttal and on making sure he understood what he was about to encounter. And he was amazing. His was probably the best rebuttal we ever had, because he knows how to sell that kind of thing. Obviously his comedic instincts are strong.
Adam DeVine: The guy has a gold front tooth! I interviewed him on the red carpet, and he paints his front tooth white! It’s fully gold; he’s really a pirate!
Ross: I realized that if I was going to be sitting there between Mike Tyson and Charlie Sheen, I had to up my game. I already had great material since I’d been roasting him for months, so I said, “I’m gonna add an element of theatricality!” I dressed like Gaddafi, who at that point was about to be overthrown and killed. I wanted to look like a dictator to sit between two mad men. Now Don Rickles likes to remind me that every roast is like my Jewish Halloween.
Gallen: That one we had Amy Schumer on. It was her debut, and she came out of nowhere and crushed it. She was amazing.
Alterman: When we were putting that roast together, we had been developing with Amy for a while. We knew her really well and knew that she would destroy in that venue. When we first proposed her, Charlie and his manager weren’t so familiar with her. It was one that I personally put a stake in and just implored them to trust me that she would be fantastic. To their credit, they did.
Larsen: Amy was so perfect for it. She was relatively unknown at the time and we had to do a little bit of selling to both Charlie and Mark about her, but she was such a force of nature already as an up-and-coming stand-up. Her comedy is just perfect for the roast, and so we were just really excited about having her there. When they finally said yes and we brought her out, it was magical. She was so good and confident, and she really belonged there. It’s not a lot of comics that can come from relative obscurity and just go out and kill it like that. She just murdered that night. That was sort of her coming out party; people went “Wow, she’s special. There’s something about her.” It was the highest-rated roast we’d ever done, and there she is in all her glory. It was really special.
Alterman: That was right when he was putting his Anger Management show together, and I think at the afterparty they approached her about being in it. That’s how blown away they were by her.
Gallen: That really set off her incredible journey that she has been on. But she really proved herself as a really great, strong roast comic and comic in general. I remember that being a very, very big moment.
Herzog: There are people who have breakthrough moments on them, like Whitney Cummings or Amy Schumer. They seem to emerge out of nowhere, but that’s just us doing our jobs right and finding people that we think could be good at this and giving them a platform.
Larsen: Patrice O’Neal was sort of a late addition to the roast. J. B. Smoove had been booked and had to drop out, like, a week before due to some scheduling issues, and we thought, “Maybe Patrice O’Neal would do it.” We’d asked him in the past, and he’d always said no. As fate would have it, it just happened he was available, and he was interested.
Kurt Metzger: They used to ask Patrice to do it all the time, and he wouldn’t do it because he didn’t know the person. And he only did it for Charlie Sheen because he admired the guy because he kind of told the public to go fuck itself. Patrice liked living like that, so that’s why he agreed to it.
Larsen: You know, Patrice was a difficult person. He was never one that was easy to work with. That said, he was also one of the smartest and most talented stand-up comics out there. I was personally just really excited to have him be a part of it. And I knew he was going to do something really special and wasn’t going take any of our feedback into consideration. So we just kind of let him be him, as you can only do with someone like him. Typically we’ll look at all the jokes beforehand just to make sure there’s no duplication or anything like that. We don’t tell people what to do, but we certainly make sure no one has the same jokes. And he didn’t want to show his jokes to anybody.
Metzger: He didn’t want to let anyone see his jokes. He said he “didn’t want any smarmy white writers looking at this stuff.” He only would talk to me. I had to go to his hotel room, and was there until probably two or three in the morning, just going over his shit with him right up until the last minute. He was under a lot of pressure because they put him up last, which is not a good spot to be in. But at the end he killed it.
Larsen: He only trusted one person, Kurt Metzger, who was a writer. I remember him shuffling back and forth between the writers’ room and Patrice’s trailer with ideas. We started getting a sense of, “Okay, he has a set.” And then on the night of he went last, and had sat and endured all these, like, racist jokes and jokes about his diabetes, some brutal stuff. He got to the podium, and you could tell he mentally sort of threw out his jokes, and just went on this crazy rant that kind of deconstructed the roast. It was so honest and real and funny—for the most part—and was really spectacular. However, it was a real room divider. I remember going “Was that genius or a disaster? I can’t tell.” I came out of the truck after the show and polled random people that I knew: “What did you think of Patrice?” Half of them were like, “Wow, this guy’s a genius.” The other half went, “I don’t fuckin’ know. I have no idea what that was.” It became this almost legendary set. It’s one of my favorite roast sets of all time.
Gallen: The show itself was definitely a Top Five Roast of all time, in my opinion. It was great, and the ratings were the highest of the 12 I’ve done. Keep in mind we ran it on Monday night, which is not usual for a roast. Usually we run it on Sundays, but we ran it on a Monday right after the first episode of his show Two and a Half Men without him.
Joyce: Celebrities have realized that it is a real good way to get a second shot. Sheen had a whole second chapter of his career after his. It can make it seem like you don’t take yourself too seriously.
Gallen: He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew the roast was the perfect remedy to a lot of his shenanigans, so to speak, from the recent past. It was a way to cleanse the palate and get out all his demons. It felt like it helped turn him around. If we could say one really accomplished that more than any, it would definitely be Charlie’s. People stopped criticizing him and talking about all this bad stuff once the roast was done.
Larsen: It was really remarkable how everything that had happened prior to the roast went away. No one talked about Charlie Sheen in a negative light; they started talking about his new show on FX. It really became sort of like “Oh, the roast can do this,” and even for us was a little bit of a lightbulb.
Metzger: The Charlie Sheen Roast I got, like, five or six jokes on it, which is how I grade myself. I’m just a guy they brought in for a week. But the main thing about the Charlie Sheen Roast for me was that was the last time I got to hang with Patrice. That guy was really something else. There’s really no replacement for him.
Lampanelli: Patrice O’Neal was the biggest dick on the planet. When he died I said, “What? I’m supposed to pretend to like him now?” He was horrifying to work with, he wasn’t a good person, and everybody knows it.
Larsen: It was a sad day when he passed; I remember that vividly. He made people so uncomfortable. He was so brutally honest and knew how to push buttons. But when you take a step back and you look at him, he really was a genius.
2013: James Franco
Gallen: Franco was interesting because when he first met him and he came on board to do it, we assumed he’d watched the roasts before. He had never watched the roasts before. So he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. He didn’t really understand the extent of it.
Ross: I was so stoned I don’t remember anything. I remember I had corn rows. I remember something about Jonah Hill rolling around on the couch with Seth Rogen. I remember Aziz Ansari working months on his material and just annihilating. I remember Natasha Leggero exploding on that roast. I remember Bill Hader doing a character that just upended everything we’d been doing. He was like a throwback to the Dean Martin Roast by doing it in character. I remember Seth Rogen being a wonderful host. He loved James Franco.
Gallen: When you have Seth Rogen as your Roast Master, you know there’s gonna be some weed passed around. There’s a lot of people from that dais that take part in that, and there’s always a bar onstage or nearby, so if people are in a drinking mood that’s what’s going to happen.
DeVine: I just got really drunk at that one and then left before I embarrassed myself. So it was a win for me.
Gallen: It certainly didn’t short-change the comedy, because this one was a non-stop barrage of great jokes. I think everybody did well. Bill Hader coming out as that character was amazing. Aziz crushed it. Sarah Silverman was amazing. Jonah Hill delivered beyond all expectations. We knew he was a funny guy, but he was a great joke-teller. Jeff Ross, as always, did great. Seth was a great host. Natasha, it was her first roast, and she did really, really well.
Larsen: James obviously has his friends, but he isn’t someone who’s a comedy nerd and knows everyone in the community. Seth knew of Natasha, and was instrumental in helping get her on the roast. She was an obvious next up-and-coming comic that really felt right as a fun, complementary addition to the dais.
Natasha Leggero: James Franco was the first time I did one, so I was so nervous. I just didn’t know what was going to happen, what people were going to say about me, how I would come across. But it felt like we were all friends. Me and Nick Kroll and Aziz and Jeff Ross and Sarah were all practicing our jokes about each other for the two weeks leading up to the roast. We would all be on the same shows in town, like, “Uh, can you guys not listen to my jokes?” because we did want it to be a surprise.
Ganeless: Amy Schumer was certainly a big roast breakout. More recently, Natasha Leggero was a breakout from the roast. Amy and Natasha would have been stars anyway, but I think the moment they appeared on the roasts it certainly helped their trajectory.
Larsen: It was another one of those examples where the roast is kind of a launching pad to get the right kind of comic out there, and it was Natasha’s turn. Her point of view and her type of comedy lends itself really well to the roast. She’s great at delivering these one-liners: She’s so charming and sweet and pretty, it’s sort of like she packs a heavy punch for such a small package. She just has something really special.
Ross: I remember James Franco’s grandma being in the front row. She was a very good sport. And I remember on a commercial break being backstage and saying to Jesse Joyce and the writers, “James Franco’s grandmother’s in the front row! Give me a joke, something something something!” And then finally Vanessa Ramos whispered a joke to Jesse to whisper the joke to me: “127 Hours, James Franco’s film, is also how long his grandmother has left.” It might be the one joke that Franco didn’t laugh at, but now that some time has passed we can all see it as a loving tribute to a nice lady.
Gallen: He was just very happy that other people were hit in addition to himself. He flashed that great smile and laughed throughout the night, so he was a good sport. His rebuttal was good, maybe not great. It was definitely one of my favorite roasts.
Erik Griffin: The whole Workaholics cast was there being silly on the red carpet, and the after-party was pretty spectacular. They had ice sculptures and this thing where you get hit in the face in slow-motion and then they put it on YouTube. It’s just fun to be a part of the Comedy Central family.
Leggero: It just felt like friends hanging out, which I think is the vibe that the old roasts had that people liked so much. It didn’t feel like a bunch of random people there to make fun of Donald Trump or Flavor Flav or whatever. So that one was really fun, and then I think I got a little more confident.
Gallen: It was an important one, because it was the first one in awhile where we had someone that was very relevant and relatively hot. Obviously Franco was doing everything: movies, TV, he was a professor, he was a scientist, he was an author, he was writing poems, he was directing. Now he has “roastee” to add to his long laundry list of things that he’s accomplished. He definitely did it with all the bells and whistles, and was a great sport.
2015: Justin Bieber
Fox: I think Justin Bieber is the most recent example of people sort of screwing up publicly/socially, and they use the roast as almost a cleansing to start fresh. And amazingly, it seems to work.
Larsen: There’s a pattern here. Like with Sheen, there was a certain redemption. “I’ve perhaps said and done certain things that weren’t particularly great, that have made me look bad in the public eye.” And to go out and show the world you have a sense of humor about yourself and that you can laugh about all the dumb things you’ve done, it makes people forgive you. It makes people like you. It makes people go, “Ah, it’s all right then.”
Gallen: We didn’t have to work that hard for that one. Usually we have to convince somebody to do it. We have to get 16 people to pass before we find someone who will say yes.
Ross: My jaw dropped when he agreed to be roasted. This guy didn’t just agree to be roasted; he volunteered to be roasted. It was his idea. This was something he wanted. And I thought, “Man, that is cool. That really says something about this young man, that he wants to break out of his comfort zone and get into some hardball comedy.”
Gallen: As I know the story, Scooter Braun—Justin Bieber’s manager—reached out to Comedy Central directly, and said, “He’d love to be roasted.” Bieber also needed some cleansing the way Charlie Sheen did. He had been getting a lot of bad press on a lot of controversy in his life, a lot of mistakes and things that he did. They thought a roast would tackle it head on.
Larsen: He had gone through a time where he done a bunch of dumb things—egged a house, pissed in a bucket—in a very public forum. But he was turning 21 and felt like, “This is a time when I’ve got to grow up and take responsibility.” The roast is a great way to go, “Yes, I was an idiot. Beat me up for it, I’ll have a sense of humor about it, and then we’ll move on.”
Ross: He wanted me to shoot the promos with him. He ran his closing speech by me. He took it very, very seriously. He wanted to do well. It was almost like in lieu of an apology tour, he did a roast to sort of get past his juvenile behavior. And I thought that was really ballsy and really cool, and I thought his comebacks at the end were really hilarious.
Leggero: The coolest thing about the Bieber one was being on stage with Shaq and Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart, and really getting to talk to these people and hang out with them. Right after my set we had a bathroom break, and Snoop was like, “Here, let’s smoke a joint.” So I smoked a joint with Snoop in a Porta Potty while the show was happening.
Gallen: Kevin Hart, getting him to be the Roast Master was pretty amazing, too. A huge superstar selling out stadiums, doing huge movies, making $100 million dollars, to be the Roast Master was a big get for us. If you think about those last two roasts—Seth Rogen Roast Mastering Franco, Kevin Hart Roast Mastering Bieber— our bar is set pretty high now. Our marquee names are much stronger than they have been from earlier roasts.
Trevor Noah: Kevin Hart was phenomenal on-camera and off. When the cameras weren’t rolling but the show was still going on, he was still amazing, still funny. Martha Stewart—that’s always the fun thing for me at a roast, the person you don’t expect—Martha Stewart was scathing and gangster. She really, really tore it apart at the roast.
Herzog: There are the times when people who are not comedians get up there and just kill it. A good example of that is Martha Stewart, who just stunned everybody.
Gallen: Martha Stewart was the shining moment. It was Bieber’s idea to get her. They were both on the same Letterman show, and I guess became friendly. So when we reached out to her, her people were like, “I don’t know.” But then she finally said yes.
Larsen: I hear through Justin’s management, “Martha Stewart is in,” and I was like “Really?” Does she know what she’s getting into?” A few nights later we were doing Night of Too Many Stars in New York, and she’s in the audience. I thought, “I’ll pull her aside and just make sure face to face that she knows what she’s getting into.” When I did, she looks at me and goes, “Oh, the roast! Honey, that’s gonna be great! Call me tomorrow and we’ll talk.” The next day she picks up and I go, “Martha, I want to make sure you know what you’re getting into.” She goes, “Honey, I have done two other roasts before. I totally know what I’m in for. And this is gonna be one for the biography. But I gotta ask you a question: They’re gonna beat me up about all that prison stuff, huh?” I go, “I would bank on it.” She laughed, but she committed to it.
Gallen: We wrote this really, really racy set for her, especially talking about her time in jail. Her people were like, “She’ll never do this.” I said, “Listen, you’ve got to get Martha to read it, and then let’s decide if she’ll never do it.” These people sometimes get overprotective of their clients, and I had a feeling Martha Stewart had a great sense of humor. So Martha got on speakerphone with me and the writers to read it out loud to us. I said, “Just read it like you’re hosting The Martha Stewart Show. Just read it in your normal, sweet, everyday delivery, and it will kill.” And that’s what she did. We were laughing our asses off on the phone, people were laughing their asses off in the audience, and they were laughing their asses off at home. We basically never changed a word of that script. We gave her a draft, she read it, she did it, she sold it, and it was so good. That certainly stuck out for me as the highlight of that show.
Larsen: I remember seeing the script she was gonna do, like, “Really, she’s gonna go there?” And she did! She was almost the break-out star that year, she got so much press and attention and people loving her for it. She was real. In this day and age we’re so used to people being afraid and protecting themselves. The fact that she did that just humanized her and made her lovable. In the audience people were just falling over themselves, they were just in awe of her. And so was I. It was really incredible. That’s the power of the roast: Whether it’s redemption or just showing that you have a sense of humor about yourself, it humanizes and endears you to fans and to the public.
Joyce: It’s a really cool thing for somebody to do one, to allow themselves to be made fun of publicly. I think it endears them to people. To be perfectly honest, I thought Bieber was a real turd before I worked on the roast. And then I met him, and he’s a really sweet little fella. He’s a nice guy who loves the roasts and is a super-good sport about it. Everybody called him a piece of shit for an hour and a half, and then I kind of liked him on the other end of it.
Ross: It turned me and a lot of other people into Beliebers. In fact, Pete Davidson was on that roast too; we just went to see a Bieber concert and it was amazing. It was so good that halfway through his concert I got my period for the very first time.
Gallen: They are certainly more selective than they were in the earlier days of the roasts. When I say “more selective,” there’s no regrets about anyone we’ve booked. But I think they are trying to focus more on people that are very, very relevant in the entertainment world now, not necessarily from five or ten or twenty years ago. With people like Justin Bieber and James Franco the last two roasts, we’ve all taken that leap forward and hopefully we’ll continue that with this year’s roast.
Larsen: We just announced Rob Lowe and are starting the booking process, but suffice to say I think this one is going to be really great. There’s obviously a lot of material on Rob, and he is 100 percent game. He really wanted to do this, is excited about it, and understands everything that’s going to be coming at him. I think he’s really relishing this. It’s been exciting to talk to him about the roast and how this thing will shape up.
Noah: I hosted the first Comedy Central Roast in Africa. It was very similar. Although I will say this: People weren’t prepared for what a roast was. It’s a very old American tradition that people have gotten used to over time. In South Africa, people did not know what had just happened. It was an assault on the senses.
Joyce: It’s the same thing I love about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The most powerful guy in the Western World gets his balls busted by some idiot with a late-night show. In a third of the shitty places of the world, you’d get executed for that, and we put it on C-Span. It humanizes them.
Gottfried: Anything that can hurt another person, I’m all for. The thing I’m most fascinated by with roasts is that there are things that people say to you that you have every right to punch them in the face for. You have to sit and laugh to show you’re a good sport.
Kimmel: They’re like a comedy version of bare-knuckle boxing. You’re there to fight, and it’s not just the person sitting at the center of the dais. Everybody gets it there; some more than others, obviously. But it is like a competition. You’re all given the same tools.
Joyce: They are really fun to work on from a writer’s perspective, because they really are the sharpest kind of jokes you can possibly write. It’s like the tip of the tip of the spear when it comes to joke-writing, because they have to be so sharp and precise, and you have to connect dots that are not easily connected. You have to find a way to tie Gary Busey and Flavor Flav together, then figure out a way to make them both look stupid in the same joke.
Metzger: They have an entire group that’s their main writers room, and they are just killer joke-writers. I’m very intimidated by how good they are at coming up with roast jokes. I always feel like I am good, but they specialize in just doing that all day. Jesse’s great. Mike Ferrucci’s fucking incredible, Chris McGuire, they’re all just demons of joke-writing.
Joyce: They literally come together in, like, a month. They want the comics to turn in the set they’re going to do, like, a week in advance so the writers can either punch it up or suggest “We already have a joke like this, so maybe you want to steer away from it,” that kind of thing.
Black I never enjoyed doing the roasts unless I really knew the person. People can write jokes, and that’s all well and good. If somebody really knows someone, that’s the key to a good roast: where there’s a personal involvement with the other person. It really sparkles when you’ve got someone who knows what the fuck they’re talking about—and aren’t talking about a public persona. And then there were people writing stuff for them. It got to the point where it just became more and more nonsense.
Colin Quinn: I remember how much fun it was doing roasts. But I feel like everyone starts getting writers and they start getting celebrities, and the celebrities need writers, obviously. But I like it better if it’s just you: What do you got? But you get, like, William Shatner and Shaquille O’Neal doing inside-baseball comedy jokes. It got a little bit too pre-packaged for me, inauthentic. I like it better if everybody has to write their own jokes, go up there, and live and die on your jokes. That’s part of the charm. So I don’t like when people have jokes written for them. I feel like even if your joke’s not as good as something somebody else gave you, it’s still funny because you can see the person behind it. It just makes it more fun.
Lampanelli: Unfortunately with ratings and things like that, you have to look at who will get the most viewership. That’s why on Comedy Central they roast a lot of non-comedians who are just “personalities.” But that’s fine if that’s what it has to be, and they really do have to roast people they want to watch be a little uncomfortable, like your Donald Trumps and your Pam Andersons.
Kimmel: It’s changed over the years, because now you get people who are clearly put up there for whatever casting reasons, and they’re loaded up with jokes they had nothing to do with writing. Maybe they don’t even know the person they’re roasting.
Alterman: We really try to put them together where it’s a mix of people who have a real connection to the roastee, and also comedians who we know are great in that art form. It becomes a platform for us to launch new people. They aren’t new to us, but they are maybe new to the big mass audience that’s going to watch a roast.
Metzger: When you get comics doing it who don’t know the person, it can kind of be taken as mean. It’s really hard to do that with someone you don’t know, and hit it right. Jeff Ross is the one who’s really good at that. When they just bring comics in, I think they did that because of how good Jeff Ross is. He really knows how to do it so it’s not cruel. It’s a fine line, but Jeff does it kind of perfectly.
Ross: They’re healing. They’re funny. They’re barbaric, but in a good way. We only roast the ones we love.
Alterman: There is such a deep history and tradition with the roasts. I think that in the last couple of years we’ve really been attempting to try to go back to those roots, and draw from them in a way that elevates the roast franchise. Part of it is just to not to make it a slugfest in the toilet bowl. The cliché line is “We roast the ones we love.” It came from the Friars Club; there was something very fraternal and collegial about that. Even though they really went below the belt and got vicious in their day, there still was enormous affection for the people being roasted.
Wallach: A roast really should come out of a place of love. We’re here to celebrate and poke fun of this person because we love this person. Sometimes a roast will get into mean for mean’s sake, but at the end of the day it’s a great tradition.
Gallen: When people are good friends and make fun of each other, it’s a good thing. It’s a funny thing. People get a laugh out of it. We’re just taking it a little bit further by making it a program that people can share in. That’s the idea of these roasts: It’s just an extreme way of friends making fun of each other, which has been happening since the beginning of time. I’m sure Adam and Eve even made fun of each other, you know what I’m saying?
Carolla: If someone a hundred or thousand years from now was trying to explain to whatever new culture’s taken our place one example of what is comedy, you couldn’t really show them a sitcom or a Dane Cook concert or even a monologue from a late-night show. I think if you showed them a roast, it would be the best representation of comedy. It’s very visceral, everyone loves them, and to me it’s just kind of the essence of comedy. Some people like Coen Brothers movies, Mel Brooks movies, or Woody Allen movies or broad sitcoms. You can have Girls and Modern Family and everything in between. But this is the one thing that everyone agrees that they all love.
Gallen: Roasts are just part of pop culture now. People refer to the roasts; there have been a lot of people that have tried to do the roasts off Comedy Central, not nearly as well and as successful as we have accomplished at Comedy Central. It’s a franchise that hopefully they will allow me to stay part of for many years to come. It’s the show I look forward to more than any other show I do. I’m very loyal to it, and I think we have a very loyal audience. We have a loyal comedy community.
Ross: Above all it’s a party. And Comedy Central throws a great party.
Julie Seabaugh grew up on a farm in rural Missouri. She now lives in Los Angeles and covers comedy for Rolling Stone, Variety, GQ, The Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, Vulture, Huffington Post and more. Follow her at JulieSeabaugh.com and @JulieSeabaugh.