Article by: Robert Dean
People love talking shit.
If you've ever sat at a high school lunch table, the art of roasting is a deadly sport that can crush someone's spirit and make them howl with laughter at the same time. And like crowd work, roasting has significantly impacted how many comedians are excelling in their comedy careers.
Roasting is all over our social media feeds with comedy troops like All Def and Roast Battle, and the thirst for someone to get clowned on for their whack shoes or how their breath stinks bring out things in people they didn't know was even a conscious decision.
Getting dragged because you have bad teeth and having to think of what to say in the balance of this is mean, but it's also funny.
We love watching two comedians battle with one another, to see who can give us the deadlier joke that levels the other person, that their quick wit and sharpness lords over the other, that no matter how funny they may be, you cannot be fucked with.
To learn more about the art of roasting, I reached out to some pros, those out there on stage, dishing the shit talk out, but realizing as hard in the paint they go, someone else is coming for them just the same. Some of how roasting works can come from a place of the science of personalities, but also how it's a mental chess match, too.
Jon Carden had an interesting take on how he approached the roast: "I love roasting because it's not about airing someone's darkest secrets or exposing their insecurities, it's about showing that I care enough to know those secrets and I love them enough to notice those insecurities. But more than that I'm trusted with that knowledge to make you laugh."
Expert flame thrower Holly Johnston was more interested in the tactical approach to joke writing, "I like how it challenges you to write under pressure, there's a deadline and an exact number of jokes, and a particular topic. It's usually on short notice. It challenges you to write super tight but also be in the room and ready for rebuttal. I like how fun the crowds are. When done well, it (roasting) can give you a lot of confidence."
Some of the folks in Austin are no-holds-barred with their relentless ability to find the nuance in someone, take what someone said about them, and use that tactical bait for their own jokes. Mix that with the audience's laughter, and the combination is deadly.
For Mike Eaton, roasting is more than jokes; it's an exercise in stamina, chess, not checkers. "Growing up as a fat kid, I've heard every different variation of fat jokes. But getting into roasting, now I get to hear those jokes but with the fine tuning and comedic styling of some of my favorite people. And I get to repay them with a joke of my own. While there's a competitive nature to anything with a head-to-head element like that, the core of the roast battle remains the same - it is paying respect in the form of joke writing and the closer you are, the more devastating and hilarious the joke will be. It isn't just being mean - there's an intimacy and vulnerability that come from sharing your funniest flaws and foibles with another comic and seeing them through their lens. If tragedy + time = comedy, then, your tragedy + my time = roast battle."
I've witnessed some roast jokes that are absolutely humbling and destroy the room. To whittle down the opponent to just a few lines of comedy takes skill and precision, which is a skill that doesn't come easy; it takes time and effort to hone a joke that lands, but it also has the accuracy to nail the person on the other end of the conversation.
Allison Wojtowecz, like Holly, enjoys the joke-writing breakdown of the roast and how to prepare for a verbal car wreck wrapped in a duel. "Roasting gives you a super specific thing to write about with a time limit. When I'm just sitting down "to write comedy," I have ALL these ideas in my head. Even if I pick one joke to work on, I might write something and go ‘Oh, that's better for this other joke,’ and then I'm derailed. Maybe I'm undiagnosed ADHD, but it's just a super different process than writing roasts. I have used roast writing as a way to help my other joke writing. When you get picked for a roast, you know the structure of jokes they're looking for and have JUST that person to write about. It's way simpler. And all your friends want to be involved - I can't tell you how many comic circles I've been in where we hear someone's got a roast, and we immediately all start shit-talking the person they're up against to try and compile the best roasts. It's specific, collaborative, flexes your short joke skills, tests your memorization and quick wit during the performance…and makes you stop taking yourself so seriously.”
Whatever the emotional and mental tally of getting shit on maybe, roasting isn't going anywhere.
There's too much fun watching someone die inside.