Fighting Fun, with Lessons from the Roast (Battle)

Hannibal Buress is having one hell of a moment when it comes to speaking truth to power. While most of the world now knows him as the comedian who reigntited the fire around Bill Cosby’s storied rape allegations at a time when they could, at last, mature into the present inferno, he has another moment of note to his credit: his appearance at last year’s Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber. Invited to roast the musician, Buress instead said this from the podium:

They say that you roast the ones you love, but I don’t like you at all, man. I’m just here because it’s a real good opportunity for me. Actually you should thank me for participating in this extremely transparent attempt to be more likable in the public eye. And I hope it doesn’t work.

That moment came to mind this past week as I laughed through the second edition of Boston’s Comedy Roast Battle– not because the atmosphere was so similar, but because it was so different.  This take on the roast formula, brought to the area by local comedian Matt Kona, felt considerably less like the present-day idea of a roast, and more like the classic Friars Club or Dean Martin roasts (never seen one? Tune into your network stations around 6pm on a Sunday, Time Life will try to sell you the complete collection on DVD). For the unfamiliar, these older roasts are full of laughs at the expense of the honoree, but are done by people he or she knows well. The jabs are grounded in truth, even when they elicit groans or winces, but are also backed by respect and love. Had Twitter existed back then, you’d know the material delivered from the dais wouldn’t spark subtweets or extended ordinal rants. It all came from a good place, a fun place.

comedy roast battle

That energy was evident in the room, as comics faced off with tit-for-tat trades of barbs and roast-style jokes, the winners of each “bout” being declared by the audience for preliminary face-offs, and by a panel of judges for the main ones. The jokes were about…well, anything. Haircuts, kids, defaulted mortgages, failed marriages, roommate habits- nothing was off limits (not even Muppet jokes, of which I counted three!). But you never really worried that a comment would ascend to the point of true pain, because no one in the room wanted it to. No move exemplified that more than comedian Mike Pincus ending most of the jokes during his bout with “Sorry.”

As is my way, my mind always comes back to: what can we learn from this? I think about the Comedy Roast Battle format, and the roast concept as a whole, as instructive for conflict. I think about the conversations we’re all afraid to have with coworkers or friends when we feel undermined, unsupported, let down, or just plain angry. What stops us from confronting those worries head-on? Odds are, our imagined horror stories in some ways look a lot like…well, Comedy Central roasts: deeply personal exchanges designed to shock at best, and wound at worst. This fear can be worsened if you don’t know the individual or group well enough to gauge how the criticism will be received, as Buress clearly stated was the case for this new breed of roast.

But the kind of roast I saw Thursday night- especially in its “battle” format, where both parties get to participate- seems like a fun alternative to the tense exchanges that we all fear. Consider a tense departmental issue that needs to be talked about, but no one wants to hurt any feelings or put things out there that can’t be taken back. Call me silly (I’d understand), but…couldn’t this format work for that? I imagine “fight” posters circulated through email to invite interested parties to the conversation, the opportunity to submit issues to the “ticket” (beats the hell out of a bulleted agenda), or other ways to heighten excitement and amusement about something that could otherwise seem too overly confrontational to address.

I often shy away from the present day iterations of roasts because they felt like coordinated attacks on easy targets (how else do you explain a slate like Bob Saget, Charlie Sheen, and improbably-possible-presidential candidate Donald Trump?). And I’m appreciative to Hannibal for affirming my instincts on that assessment. Comparatively, trying to settle concerns with the principles of the classic roast or the roast battle in mind- poke fun, but laugh, and do so with people you know well- feels like a constructive way to lessen the stigma that can come with addressing a tough issue. Ground your concerns in respect for the individuals behind the words, allow people to respond, and find ways to laugh if you can!

And if you’re in Boston, LA, Toronto, or another city that hosts Comedy Roast Battles- GO! It’s a silly, hilarious, blast 🙂

Monthly (next show is February 18th)
Davis Square Theater
55 Davis Square, Somerville

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