In 1949, Maurice Chevalier was the first member of the Friars Club to be roasted. The tradition began as a raucous and sometimes obscene way of honoring members of the entertainer fraternity—by making them the butt of the joke. In the 1960s it evolved into a spectacle broadcast as part of The Dean Martin Show, and more recently it became a staple of Comedy Central. The events are no longer contained exclusively within the walls of the Friars Club in New York City or limited just to men, as the club was until the late date of 1988. Now one midwestern comedy show is proving that the target of a roast doesn’t even have to be a real person.
The Roast started in Louisville five years ago as a chance for stand-ups to write jokes as a character and try their hand at insult comedy. The guests of honor are always historical figures, celebrities, or fictional characters played by comedians. Local comics Tyler Jackson and Andy Fleming saw the Louisville show and brought the concept to Chicago in 2015 (with the blessing of the Louisville crew), dubbing it Character Assassination. Since then local comics have had the chance to lay into the likes of Kanye West, Darth Vader, the Doctor from Dr. Who, and the entire year of 2016. The Roast of Harry Potter on May 7 marks the local show’s one-year anniversary and features Louisville’s Kent Carney as the title character, with Adam Burke as Snape, Mary Jordan as Hermione, Dan Drees as Ron, and more filling out the cast.
“We have a president who just tweets mean things about people all the time—bullying is really having a moment,” Fleming says while trying to make sense of the roast’s current popularity. (Trump was roasted on Comedy Central in 2011.) “That translates to comedy where we can sort of do that but have fun with it. Roasting, for comedians, has always been a form of love.”
For Fleming and Jackson, relevancy plays a part in who will be targeted for Character Assassination. For instance, Wonder Woman will be roasted in June in honor of the release of the latest film based on the DC Comics character. Roasters are chosen based on characters that exist in the target’s world or in adjacent worlds, and local stand-ups are assigned the role they best fit. When Kanye West (Sean Smith) was roasted, Fleming knew that they had to find talent to play hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z (Eli Hamilton) and Rihanna (Brandi Denise), but they also brought in George W. Bush (Danny Maupin) and Steve Jobs (Steven King) to mix things up. Fleming refers to Character Assassination as a “homework show” for comedians, meaning those involved are required to write material outside of their typical open mike or regularly performed sets, a practice that he says has helped him expand as a comic.
“I have trouble prolifically writing stand-up jokes, but when I have an assignment like ‘roast the Terminator as Bill and Ted,’ then I get it,” Fleming says. “It becomes more about getting into character than getting to the roast jokes.”
While the Chicago edition is primarily a one-off event in a comedy club, the Louisville show has a level of theatricality that stand-ups rarely get to experience: there are multiple-night runs that allow performers to perfect jokes, elaborate sets and costumes, and scripted opening and closing scenes (sometimes involving music numbers) to add a narrative structure to the roast. The local shows do include costumes, but Fleming hopes to introduce more elaborate stagecraft as Character Assassination evolves.
For now Fleming and his collaborators continue to find joy with the postmodern take on the tried-and-true format of the roast. “It’s fun because no one’s hurt by it,” he says. “Plus, when else am I going to get to roast Doc Brown and Marty McFly?” v