WARNING: This sideshow podcast covers stand-up comedy. As a result, it features sexual humor, racial humor, and a lot of four-letter words. Hope you will listen anyway!
The roast is a sacred tradition for stand-up comedians – maybe a little too sacred. The form has essentially remained unchanged from the classic Friars Club roasts of the 1960s and 70s to the more recent Comedy Central installments featuring Pamela Anderson and James Franco. But a group of comedians is taking the roast to new, ever more insulting places at the venerable Comedy Store in Los Angeles.
Roast Battle is part-wrestling, part-rap battle. In two to three rounds of head-to-head competition, two stand-ups (typically unknowns who know each other) trade insults for a raucous audience and celebrity judges who eventually choose a champion. “It’s a new take on the classic Friars Club roast,” says Jeremy Craven, a participating comedian. “This is what happens if the person you were roasting was allowed to roast you back.”
Brian Moses created the Roast Battle after trying to settle a dispute between two fellow comics. After recommending they slap each other to a resolution, he reconsidered. “How about you guys write some jokes about each other, and instead of slap boxing, we’ll do verbal boxing?” he asked. “They wrote some jokes and everybody in the room loved it.”
What comics loved was a forum to test boundaries – sexual, political, or racial. While stand-up is traditionally an outlet for social criticism, mainstream comics have more to lose by tackling sensitive subject matter than those who perform at Roast Battle.
Each Roast Battle features a “Black Guys” corner where stereotypes run rampant, and a “White Racist” corner where America’s latent racism is brutally satirized. When a “Black lives matter!” chant breaks out after a racially themed joke, the White Racist yells out, “Not in Ferguson!” to boos and laughter. Moses and the other comedians are drawn to the anything-goes environment. “You can be as open and free as possible as long as it’s funny,” Moses says. “We’ve done a good job of being funny.”
The Battles generally take place between unknowns, but the establishment is impressed. “There aren’t a lot of places you can say anything,” says Jeffrey Ross, who is known as the Roastmaster General for his appearances at every single Comedy Central roast. “Roast Battle is that. It’s a temple of free speech.” Ross is a regular judge at Roast Battle, and he brings friends like Sarah Silverman and Dave Chappelle along to guest judge. “This is an extension of our animalistic instincts.”
Roast Battle has been compared to the brutal brawls of Fight Club and the rap cyphers of 8 Mile, but Ross has a different take: “It’s like the American Idol of insult comedy,” he says. Though he runs the judging, Ross declines the Simon Cowell part; “I like to think of myself as the Paula Abdul.”