Forget the toast, let's have a roast! A look back at Friars and roasts
May 19, 2017 10:24 PM   Subscribe

If you were to define 'comedy roast' by the modern Comedy Central Roasts, you could get the impression that it's a chance to heap scorn on celebrities who are already the focus of some level of public disdain. "Who wouldn’t want to see a similar thrashing, leveled at, say, Lady Gaga or every one of the Kardashians," asked Punchline Mag, but then they looked back at the origins of roast, where "they were originally done in honor or respect — real respect not the contemporary feigned type." Let's look back at the original roasts at the Friars Club in New York City, where things were different from today's TV events, yet some crass elements remain.

"It began for the oldest reason there is... folks were getting swindled." It was 1904, and fake reporters were getting free passes to shows, which wasn't good for actual reporters. "So eleven agents began meeting weekly at Browne’s Chophouse in midtown to sort out who was legit and who was full of it." They became the Press Agents Association, who were so good at quashing the imposters that their group almost disbanded.

They reformed in the Fall of 1906, opening membership to theatrical press agents across the United States, and the next year, they became the Friars (Google books). They found a permanent home the next year, when the "Monastary" opened in 1908 (Gb) and their dinner speeches were so widely known by 1914 that Famous Speeches by Famous Friars were published in the Green Book Magazine, a theater publication (not to be confused with the Negro Motorist Green Books [previously], which were published from 1936 to 1966).

1907 saw the first Friars Club Frolics, which were extravagant song-and-dance numbers, but as recalled (Gb) by western film director Harry Fraser, there were no women allowed, so men dressed in drag to play ladies. For the following decades, women could be invited to be roasted, but otherwise were excluded from the Friars Club until 1987, when Gloria Allred became the first dues-paying woman member of the Friars Club . The next year, Liza Minnelli was "lauded and loved" as a new member at the California Friars Club, though perhaps they went easy on her as it was also a fundraising event for Friars charities, which benefit children. Unfortunately, sexism still plagues the Friars Club, now also mired with financial problems, 50 years after the California Friars Club card scandal that involved mafia men spying on card games (Gb). Same club, different generation, but similar problems.

There's a conflicting history of when the roasting started. The Friars website say they've been at it for over a hundred years, while other sources say that the first official roast came in 1950 with Sam Levenson as the roastee. From 1968 to 1971, the final years of the Kraft Music Hall were also the first that Friars Club Roasts were televised. In 1974, Dean Martin had his own series of televised roasts, tailored after the Friars Club Roasts, and that ran for a decade. Between 1998 and 2002, Comedy Central produced and televised the annual roasts of the New York Friars Club, and in 2003, the Comedy Central Roasts started, which have continued through last September, with the roast of Rob Lowe.

If you're looking for the old Friars Club Roasts to fully redeem the modern batch of CC Roasts, you're going to be disappointed. As noted by Hallie Cantor for the Spitsider article The Roast: A History:
I also watched a clip from a 1974 Dean Martin roast of Lucille Ball, in which Foster Brooks turned to Ball and said “How about you, Luce? — That’s what the football team used to call her.” Oh hey, that’s exactly the same thing as Greg Giraldo calling Lisa Lampanelli slutty today! The more things change. In the same speech, Brooks said that he and Ball were drawn together like moths: “I was a lusty larva and she had a cute co-coon — No offense to the co-colored man on this dais,” he said, turning to Nipsey Russell. Hey, a joke with a serious racial slur in it!
Another writer on Splitsider, Eddie Brawley, draws a line from the old Friars Club and Dean Martin roasts, through Comedy Central Roasts, to teenagers on Twitter, but also highlights the problem with CC Roasts, as posed by Hannibal Burress at the Justin Bieber roast: “I don’t like you. I don’t know why I’m doing this. We’re not friends. I don’t give a shit about you and I sincerely hope this hurts your career.” [paraphrased]

That's not to say that Comedy Central Roasts are without redemption. When Rolling Stone recalled the 18 worst-to-best CC Roasts in advance of the aforementioned Bieber roast back in 2015, even their low ranked roasts had some highlights, from Andy Samberg's mocking the practice of roasts at James Franco's roast, where Seth Rogen sums it up best when he rhetorically asks. "Why are we here, James?" [NSFW], to Norm MacDonald deciding to be the opposite of shocking [NSFW}, telling old retirement party jokes at Bob Saget's roast and
Patrice O'neal's anti-roast at the Charlie Sheen roast. which would be his final television appearance. And of course, there's the roast of Donald Trump back in 2011.

With that dreary recap of 12 years of roasts, let's look back to the "golden years" when roasting was about insulting the people you respected. Let Me In, I Hear Laughter... A Salute To The Friars Club is a documentary of the club's history, featuring never-before-seen clips and new interviews with old members, including Jack Carter and the trouble with with being first; Harry Einstein (aka Parkyakarkus); Don Rickles, Friar Extraordinaire; Pat Cooper and a very young Jeffrey Ross; Sid Ceasar's fake multilingualism, and Garry Shandling at Billy Crystal Friars Club Roast.

And then there are the hours upon hours of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts on YouTube, from Johnny Carson and Governor Ronald Reagan was roasted in 1973, Evel Knievel in 1975, Dean Martin himself in 1976, and Mr. T in 1984.

Rewinding further, you can find some old Friars Club roasts via Kraft Music Hall, including Don Rickles roasting Johnny Carson and Jerry Lewis, and in return, Don Rickles getting roasted. Go back to 1958 in black and white and you can see Ed Sullivan at the first televised Friars Club Testimonial Dinner, where he was the Man of the Hour (and back when men actually dressed as friars to introduce the man of the hour), brought to you by Kodak Eastman and the Kodak Signet 80.
posted by filthy light thief (10 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
This moment in the Trump roast was painful.
posted by flippant at 6:03 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]


Trump Roast.

/beavis laugh
posted by jonmc at 7:33 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]


Thank you for this. Randomly picked the Harry Einstein segment as someone I'd heard of but had never seen/heard perform. I had not known anything about that incident. Amazing. So glad they were able to interview those present. Einstein was Albert Brooks' father. Researching a bit, there's a scene in Defending Your Life, a lovely film, that reportedly speaks directly to this incident.
posted by the sobsister at 7:47 AM on May 20 [3 favorites]


I haven't watched it yet but the odds are good that the Trump roast was well done.
posted by Lyme Drop at 7:50 AM on May 20 [11 favorites]


I haven't watched it yet but the odds are good that the Trump roast was well done.

[slow clap]
posted by entropicamericana at 8:11 AM on May 20


Thanks for this great post! You clearly put a lot of effort into it, please know it's appreciated.

There's a lot that's problematic about roasts, but the core concept of funny folks airing their grievances and being willing to put up with the criticism is sound. My favorites are the ones where they go outside the normal expectations, like the Andy Samberg and Norm MacDonald examples.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 10:40 AM on May 20


Yay a roast post! I've seen most of the CC roasts and Jim and I have been poking around at some of the older Dean Martin era stuff. The CC Roasts are so weird because of the odd assortment of people who are "chosen" to show up there. Like there are clearly some friends of the roastee but then some other random and B-list celebs where I'm always like o_O Like ... Ann Coulter at the Rob Lowe roast was just super distracting from what would have been an otherwise decently amusing event but people were vile to her and she was vile back and I left the whole thing being like "Wow was that what they thought would happen?" because maybe it was but I certainly hadn't thought that. Looking forward to reading some of these longer form articles, thank you!
posted by jessamyn at 11:36 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]


The Dean Martin roasts are flipping hilarious. There is a general sense of camaraderie, playful fun. The CC roasts get tend to be too on-the-nose, forced and crude.

Christ, is this what happens after 40? Maybe I'm just getting old.
posted by tgrundke at 12:49 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]


Enjoyed the Rolling Stone list but some of the later roasts aren't even on their list since it was from 2015. Have to complain about the Splitsider article. Anything claiming to be a History of Roasts where the author just does a cursory YouTube search to figure out what older roasts were about is someone who 1. should not be writing a history of them 2. needs to go to the library.

</onionbelt>
posted by jessamyn at 1:27 PM on May 20 [9 favorites]


Thanks for this great post! You clearly put a lot of effort into it, please know it's appreciated.

There's a lot that's problematic about roasts, but the core concept of funny folks airing their grievances and being willing to put up with the criticism is sound. My favorites are the ones where they go outside the normal expectations, like the Andy Samberg and Norm MacDonald examples.


Thanks! I stayed up too late to purge this topic from my brain. But I think your view of what a roast is may focus on the "modern" roasts. The more of the CC clips I watched, the less happy I was with the topic, and I also enjoyed the "anti-roasts," especially to hear that Norm MacDonald chose to be as anti-shocking as possible with a book of retirement jokes that his father had given him.

jessamyn: Yay a roast post! I've seen most of the CC roasts and Jim and I have been poking around at some of the older Dean Martin era stuff. The CC Roasts are so weird because of the odd assortment of people who are "chosen" to show up there. Like there are clearly some friends of the roastee but then some other random and B-list celebs where I'm always like o_O

Exactly. CC turned "roasts" from commemorations of great and notable people with scathing, raunchy jokes made by friends to the comedy equivalent of shock-jock radio, losing any element of respect for the roastee that there was from the Friars Club days. Mind you, there were plenty of shocking comedy in the Friars club, but they used to remind everyone "we roast the ones we love." CC turned it into something more like "would you look at this fucking asshole, who does s/he think s/he is, amirite?" As written by Nathan Rabin for his A.V. Club review of the CC Roast of Joan Rivers,
One of my most dependable guilty pleasures began to seem all guilt, no pleasure. Roasts are comic comfort food: you know exactly what people are going to say and how they’ll say it. In the past I’ve derived comfort and pleasure in this predictability. Tonight familiarity bred, if not contempt, than at the very least tedium and mild irritation. In perhaps the show’s most representative moment, Jeffrey Ross recycled his famous line about how he wouldn’t fuck Sandra Bernhard (or was it Courtney Love?) with Bea Arthur’s dick by subbing in Rivers and a post-operative Chastity Bono.
And that was in 2009, and Comedy Central has kept making more roasts.

jessamyn: Have to complain about the Splitsider article. Anything claiming to be a History of Roasts where the author just does a cursory YouTube search to figure out what older roasts were about is someone who 1. should not be writing a history of them 2. needs to go to the library.

I agree 100%. "I spent a while on YouTube and I now I'll write my own history" is not how historians record the past unless it's a history of a YouTube meme or scene. I was first motivated by last week's episode of RuPaul's Drag Race, and then when I started, I wanted to correct that half-assed Splitsider article ;)
posted by filthy light thief at 3:53 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]


« Older Tinkerbelle is retired but still lives   |   Hammock or safety net? Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments