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Roast Battles with Julie Seabaugh

INJ 62 | Roast Battle

 

Julie Seabaugh is the only full-time freelance comedy journalist in the United States. She has contributed to Rolling Stone, The Hollywood Reporter, GQ, Variety, Entertainment Weekly, The A.V. Club, The Village Voice, The Huffington Post, Spin, and Playboy. Julie has covered the modern roast and published the 2018 book, Ringside at Roast Battle: The First Five Years of L.A.‘s Fight Club for Comedians. She is currently producing the documentary Too Soon: The Comedy of 9/11.

Listen to Episode #62 here:

Roast Battles with Julie Seabaugh

Our guest is Julie Seabaugh. Julie is the only full-time freelance comedy journalist in the United States. She’s contributed to Rolling Stone, the Hollywood Reporter, GQ, Variety, Entertainment Weekly, The A.V. Club, The Village Voice, The Huffington Post, Spin and Playboy. She’s interviewed the who’s who of comedians, Amy Schumer, Andrew Dice Clay, Artie Lange, Carl Reiner, Cheech and Chong, Christopher Guest, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Joan Rivers, George Carlin, Don Rickles, Drew Carey, Howie Mandel, Jimmy Kimmel, Key and Peele, Judd Apatow, Lily Tomlin, Mitch Hedberg, Roseanne, Seth Meyers, Wanda Sykes and Zach Galifianakis. She’s covered the modern roast and published the 2018 book, Ringside at Roast Battle: The First Five Years of LA’s Fight Club for Comedians, and she’s producing the documentary Too Soon: The Comedy of 9/11. Julie, that’s officially the longest bio intro I’ve had. Welcome.

Thank you. I feel like I should take Roseanne off that list to make it a little shorter, a shortened bio.

I like how you eliminate the one person with a single name.

It used to be cooler to say I’ve interviewed Roseanne. Not so much now in news.

It makes it more interesting.

She was a terrible interview by the way. It was probably the worst one I’ve ever had.

Let’s just jump into that then. I’m going to hold off on the first question. Why? Is it because she wasn’t into it? She seemed like the person who would be a good interview if she wanted to.

That’s maybe part of the key to it as she was not in the mood that day. As I recall, she was driving to the airport or from the airport in Las Vegas. I was doing this for Las Vegas Weekly.

Which I left off your list.

It’s not quite as cool as Rolling Stone, Variety and all those you mentioned but I still do it. That was the one and only staff travel I ever had. I was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly for two years and then freelancing since then. Roseanne has one-word answers and not a lot of expounding. It was like, “I heard you worked with Sam Kinison once and doing the thing.” She was like, “Yeah, I don’t know. It wasn’t great.” “Let’s talk a bit more about what you’re doing in Vegas. Do you have any personal connection with the city? What is it like to visit when you’re here?” “I don’t know. I’m just doing my show.”

Let’s look at the flip side of that. I want to ask a follow-up. The tables have turned. Julie, you’re being interviewed. What makes a good interviewee?

I would say being in the moment for sure. Sometimes you can get people, comics since that’s who I interview, who have their rote answers, who know what they’re going to say. You get the same stories in every outlet, the same jokes. They only want to promote the current project, which is understandable. That’s often how you get to interview them in the first place, but especially for me who’s a fan of the people behind the comedy that’s being created, I always like to know the context for the material. That’s more of the stuff that I want to hear about and how your persona fits into what you’re telling us. It’s more about the person than the jokes for me. Anytime you could see more of that side, it’s something I would love to dive into whenever possible.

You’re looking for the podcast experience in some ways.

I’ve never thought of that. That’s interesting.

I think you get a lot of that stuff in a podcast. The people are usually someone they know or there’s enough time to get past that first level.

That’s true and of course, it depends on the podcast and whatever the structure is going to be. I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always been more interested in figuring out how to express those things you’re talking about on the page, the proper word order, less off the cuff and conversational and fashion it into, “This is a project, this is an item that I have created for you to read hopefully.” Not as many people read it these days. I used to do much more of like 5,000 words cover story types of things we could definitely get into people’s backgrounds and personas a lot more. It’s not quite as popular to read online anymore. It’s more listy and quick soundbites but that was what was my jam.

Hence a writing a book. We’re going to get to that. I want to follow up though. Of that who’s who, did one stand out as an outstanding interview? The opposite of Roseanne.

I might automatically go with Mitch Hedberg on that one. I was supposed to have fifteen to twenty minutes with him on the phone. I remember I was talking to him when he was in Phoenix about six months before he died on that last tour he was doing. It ended up being over an hour and fifteen or something like that. This was back in the days I had the little microcassette. This was a while ago and I still have it. You know it’s a long interview when the tape cuts out and you have to flip it over. “Hold on Mitch. Stop talking about like drugs for a second. Let me get this all on tape,” which I still have. I’m going to have it forever. That’s a very treasured possession. He went on and on about a lot of life, love happiness things and like being his Hedbergy self. “I just love what I’m doing and I want to make everybody happy.” He was definitely one of the sweetest, a guy who loved what he did and took every day like a blessing in a cliché sense. He was probably one that I’m very glad that I did have that opportunity. I hung out with him a couple of times too. Nothing too intense, but yeah.

Weren’t you doing blow?

Off the record. No, nothing like that. It was once in Montreal and once in New York. The last one has been 2004 and then the New York was actually at Mike Birbiglia’s release show for Dog Years, his first album that is not in print anymore. Hedberg opened that show for him as a personal favor because that’s the kind of guy he was.

That’s neat. He’s quite an extraordinary joke writer. For our audience, I’ll put a clip in the exhibits because I think he’s beloved by big comedy fans. His ability to do wordplay and misdirection, it’s just incredible.

He’s so compact and concise.

It’s true there’s no fat on any of his jokes. What’s fascinating about it is that in my opinion, he succeeded despite his terrible stage presence. It was endearing, I would say, but it wasn’t the charismatic delivery that we’ve become accustomed to. The Chris Rock, the preacher style or even Birbiglia was like who’s got this, “Aw shucks,” likability where you’re willing to let him tell long stories because you just liked the guy so much kind of a thing.

I think in Hedberg’s case, it was one of those things where the industry may have hated that and it may be held back in that sense but it made his fans and the people who got it to love him even more. It’s like this is a guy who’s telling great stuff and we can see that. We know it’s a challenge for him and that makes him more human, endearing and authentic. Maybe some people who when you get people who are watching comedy just to watch comedy and they don’t know actually know who they’re seeing, haven’t done any prep work for that and it might throw those people off a bit. When you had all those young fans that he started getting right in those early aughts, who were looking for a new comedy and he was leading the charge in that sense. It’s the post-Dane Cook era.

The Anti Rock Star Comedian.

He was the perfect model for that and what was his, “My fans live in apartments,” was his joke and that was like precisely on the nose. Those were the people who got him and adored him. They were the reason he’s still living on after his death. It might’ve hurt him industry-wise but it’s not like he was hurting. He certainly wasn’t hard up.

I could see that and also, I think there are comics who want to be comics. They’re not Steve Martin who started out doing the magic, the comedy and then outgrew it and then moved on. Eddie Murphy, these folks who do it, there are those guys who were truly stand-ups and then moved on to other things. You live in Los Angeles. We are at NeueHouse, which is like an old CBS studio. It’s a historic place. There are entertainment ghosts walking around this place. You’re living in a world. We were talking about living in LA and coming to LA for a sabbatical. There are those folks who are comics but only in the sense that they’re really actors who are trying to get noticed. Mitch was none of those things. He’s a joke writer first and then a joke teller second. I don’t know what he is third.

A drug user maybe?

Just a regular guy.

It’s also like he couldn’t have been anything else. What could he have done?

I don’t know. I think the counterfactual is what would Mitch Hedberg be doing if he were alive? Would he have a million followers on his Twitter account?

His Twitter would have been massive.

That is the style of joke, but is he the guy who would have done that thing and done it well?

He did do a little bit of the dabbling in acting, the Almost Famous and Lords of Dogtown, if that’s the name of the film that he’s in, a skateboarder movie. One of them was a documentary and the other one was fictionalization and he has sold a special wheel in the fictional one. About five seconds of screen time and he made his own film. Los Enchiladas! was at Sundance 1999. It’s not like he wasn’t interested in that thing but it was also a controlling factor. When the reception of Los Enchiladas! was not as he was hoping, people offered him other stuff that he just didn’t feel like was a good fit for him. It was when he was like, “I don’t know about this whole Hollywood thing.” Hence the joke like, “You’re a good cook, can you farm?” I think he was very aware of who he was, what he did and did not want to do and whatever links or compromises he was willing to make. Eventually, it wasn’t many of them. Who knows what he would’ve been doing? If you look at Brian Regan, he’s massive. He tours constantly. He doesn’t act.

He did something for a Google Talk. He’s starting to branch out a little bit on things, but you’re right. You do what you love doing if you’re good at it and keep doing it. Let’s stop talking about these comics for a bit and talk about you. Julie, if you weren’t working as a journalist or a filmmaker, what would you be doing?

That filmmaker has to definitely come with a bit of an asterisk because this is certainly the first thing I’m doing in the filmmaking world but we can get to that. I would like to be a dog whisperer. I had dogs growing up back on the farm in Missouri, out in the middle of nowhere and I’ve always been good with them. They’re better than people in a sense. I’ve had a connection with dogs, comedy and maybe not much else in between. I went for several years without them, living in New York, in Vegas, back in New York and other times in LA. I was dog sitting for a little guy who opened my heart back up to them again. He passed away and I started volunteering for a couple of rescue groups. I have seven foster dogs over two years and kept one of them. I had a foster fail I guess I’ve almost had for four or five years. Shout out to Piddy back at home. He’s a Beagle Chihuahua. He’s a Chigle. He’s about cat sized, not very smart but very sweet. He can sit and that’s about all.

You’re not making a case for a being a dog whisperer.

I was good at fostering and I’ve been doing a little bit more of dog sitting as I’ve been writing a little less. I’m just trying to fill in those financial gaps as we’re all doing in this current climate. Who doesn’t like dogs?

You’re the first dog whisper to answer for that question. I’ve gotten more people to say they’d be dead.

We use laughter to get through a lot of tragedy in life. Click To Tweet

That’s a good one too, I didn’t realize.

That’s a comic answer of course.

Yeah, but true.

I can see that for many of them. Do you want to talk about your book or the documentary? Let’s talk about the film stuff because you’ve already made a comment, what’s going on with this project?

It’s called Too Soon: The Comedy of 9/11 basically looking at how 9/ 11 affected comedy from the point where the comedy stops, the clubs closed and the talk shows go off the air. Are we ever going to laugh again as I already did? This whole period of obviously everything else was shut down, everything was weird and uncertain at that time but as a person who enjoys comedy, I’m following the comedy story in this case through when the clubs do open again. Can comics talk about it, if so, how? What were the fights that were happening backstage, they were having and then the talk shows come back on the air? How do they handle it? The Onion comes out with its famous 9/11 issue.

That was like ten or eleven days after 9/11. We talk about this in the Humor Code as this counter to the notion of too soon.

We’ve interviewed a handful of people from that time at The Onion and it was really interesting to have him talk about how they actually started back at work for that issue before all the talk shows were back. We were like, “I don’t know, we’ll probably avoid it. Maybe just one joke about it,” and at the end, it’s every single item in the whole paper. It was all 9/11 and it’s all real-life turns into, “Bad Jerry Bruckheimer film hogging up 76,000%, not knowing what else to do. Woman bakes American flag cake.”

The famous headline was, “Hijackers Surprised to Find Themselves In Hell.”

God Angrily Clarifies ‘Do Not Kill’ Rule.”

You’re making the movie about it but I’ll interject my opinion. Having met Todd and interviewed him for The Humor Code, my co-author and I, Joel Warner, spent some time in Todd’s Brooklyn apartment. Have you been to that apartment?

I have.

We could talk about that, but I actually think those two jokes, the God Angrily Clarifies and the Hijackers Surprised to Find Themselves In Hell, in many ways paved the way for those other jokes in a sense. We have a quote from Alonzo Bodden where he said, ”It’s not too soon if it’s funny,” which I think is a very comedian perspective on things. Of course, it’s hard to make things funny and so when you’re in Too Soon territory, you risk failing at that. The clever thing was to turn the terrorists into the butt of the joke.

That was the first wave which as we explore in the documentary, there were certainly a few racist undertones there. How are we going to get into and address it? People started there and they worked their way into the political climate at the time, the George Bush, the Cheney, the color-coded terrorist system, duct taping your windows against anthrax and the American flags everywhere. 9/11 per se, it was making all these jokes around the topic.

Especially the government’s reaction to it which seems two-fold. On one hand, the fear-mongering that was designed to push policy and then the other one is the fear mongering around, “We don’t want to get into a situation where were we look surprised again and so then everything is scary and threatening and so then if something bad happens.” You’re like, “We told you, we knew it,” which of course, as we know, the 9/11 was such a surprise and they’re like, “We’re not going to get blamed again, duct tape your windows.”

As the film progresses that’s the 2003–2004 territory, also at the time when you see The Daily Show becoming The Daily Show in response to the warmongering, fearmongering, march to war, Fox News and Air America. Not a lot of people remember at this point. It was the liberal radio countermeasure to all the conservative talk radio which had Lizz Winstead, Marc Maron, Janeane Garofalo and Al Franken who was the star of it, Rachel Maddow, Chuck D who were taking the position, “We have to counter some of this conservative radio.” It ultimately failed. There was a lot of mismanaged money but if you look at who came out of it and the legacy, everyone’s gone onto these different jobs since then. We’re also exploring what Janeane Garofalo was facing at that time where she was going on a lot of talk shows and taking an antiwar stance. She got a lot of blowback, which is still reverberating. Tracing all that up through the point where a couple of years later, 2006 and 2007, you have lots of 9/11 jokes appearing on albums, specials and it wouldn’t have seemed possible at the time. How does that change, how do we get from point A to point B and learn to heal through laughing over time?

We have Pete Davidson have dead dad jokes on Comedy Central Roast. Tracing the twenty-year history, it’s directed by my friend Nick Scown, who’s a filmmaker. It was his idea. He came to me through a mutual friend and said, “I have this idea and if you think it’s interesting, I want you to help me with it.” We’re going to try and have it ready for the twentieth anniversary. There’s going to be a lot of stuff done around that time but this is the one that’s looking at I don’t want to say the lighter side of it. We use laughter to get through a lot of tragedy in life. That’s no big news to anyone interested in comedy and how did we do it during the greatest tragedy on American soil? There are also a lot of stuff in it that there are so many younger comedy fans that don’t remember all of this stuff, where the government was actually proposing speech bans. What Greg Giraldo was doing at that time and the beginnings of Tough Crowd which came out of 9/11.

I’m not familiar with this. What is Tough Crowd?

Tough Crowd was a show that Colin Quinn hosted. It started in 2003 and branched out of the Comic’s Table at The Comedy Cellar. Manny Dworman, the late owner, he was always a rabble-rouser devil’s advocate for political debates and discussions. When you see comics still going at it back there, that was one of the things that he implemented. He took a more conservative approach to talking about 9/11, obviously not on stage, but a more conservative approach than the comics was. There were a lot of debates at the table and at some point, it was like, “We should have a show about this.” Colin Quinn hosted and Laurie Kilmartin was the head writer, which was a huge thing for female head writers in the post 9/11 era actually discussing these things not in a joking manner but in a natural, sitting around shooting the shit. This is where materials start gestating from that position. I believe it only lasted, I would say two years but it was influential for having that round table discussion thing. I think Comedy Central still has some DVDs out there somewhere. I know there’s an oral history of it on maybe Splitsider or Interrobang.

Tell me again the name of this.

Tough Crowd, Colin Quinn.

This is before my interest in comedy as a scientific study. I also was probably an assistant professor. I had my head down during much of this. In any case, I want to talk to you about your experience now making a film because clearly, you’re probably stretching yourself in a lot of ways. I actually wrote a paper with Lawrence Williams and Caleb Warren, a colleague of mine and then a former student who’s at the University of Arizona and about this idea of Too Soon. The argument that we make in the paper is there’s this thing that comedy is tragedy plus time. A variety of people have said it. Carol Burnett gets attributed to it. It’s, “Who knows who first said it,” kind of thing. The argument we make in the paper is comedy is tragedy plus the right amount of time. We use the Benign Violation Theory.

It’s not surprising that that’s our theory to explain this transformation. How a joke might be upsetting could become funny. What we argue is eventually it becomes not funny again but in a boring sense. That is the distance, what we call psychological distance, which is predicted by other objective forms of distance most notably the passage of time reduces the threat of things, makes things less upsetting. Getting stood up, last night is more upsetting than having been stood up a year ago that kind of thing. The notion of in the moment, of course, it seems impossible to make these jokes but 9/11 clearly is less upsetting than it was in those moments, hours, days and weeks that passed. What ends up happening is eventually you become so far away from it. You don’t have the violation side of the equation to be balanced by the benign side.

This country has done better than many in terms of tragedies on its soil, but obviously what happened to the Native Americans is an incredible tragedy. No one makes jokes about that. The Civil War, the lives lost is just incredible and especially in terms of percentage of the population. There are no Civil War jokes and that kind of a thing but I guarantee you, there was a time where there were no Civil War jokes because it was too soon, then there were civil war jokes. We didn’t have Vaudeville back then but still there were Civil War jokes and then no more Civil War jokes. That’s my prediction of courses. At some point there will be no more 9/11 jokes in the sense that it’s going to be so far away that it doesn’t spark that challenge inside us which I think comedy needs. It needs that sweet spot between threat and safety that’s there.

Janeane Garofalo was talking about her “9/11 joke” is actually a joke about the Spanish Civil War. It was like, “Was it too soon to joke about the Spanish Civil War?” We talked to Jesse Joyce, a great Comedy Central Roast writer. He still has a joke about Pearl Harbor, about the Lincoln assassination. When you bring that up, it’s a meta joke about the Too Soon concept of, “Nothing is too soon given enough time.” “Spanish Civil War, is it too soon to laugh in the face of 9/11?” You’re layering on a couple additional. You’re saying something about 9/11 under the guise of the Spanish Civil War. It also depends on what the subject of the joke matter or the target.

There are multiple ways and, in our vernacular, there are multiple ways to make a violation benign but the victim.

There were a lot of firefighters getting laid after 9/11 and there were like firefighter pussy jokes. It’s not 9/11 specific. It’s not laughing at the buildings and the dead people. It’s about our reactions to a reaction. There are a couple of layers built in or stuff like that.

What’s slightly more important than getting a laugh is changing the way people think. Click To Tweet

A bad thing makes a good thing happen.

If you’re talking about kill all the Muslims, even Mike DeStefano. He was talking about, “Be an American. Punch a cab driver in the head.” That, in hindsight, is not a great target for a joke but at the time apparently, it was killing.

With a particular audience.

It’s what some people were feeling and could connect on. That’s something this movie does, is where what I’ve always liked about comedy is being in a room with all these diverse people and laughing at the same thing at the same moment. We’re all in this together, we’ll go out and do different things but at this moment, we’re all on the same page. It wasn’t the case for a long time in the comedy rooms even behind the scenes, the industry, the comics, everyone was at each other’s throats about like what is and is not appropriate.

Which is interesting because comedy plays on breaking the rules. There are people trying to set rules which makes a lot of hardcore comics want to break those rules. It’s in their DNA and then it’s also something that they get rewarded for. If you play by the rules as a comic, your stuff is usually not that good. Let’s talk a little bit about the process of making the film rather than the topic. This director comes to you and says, “Do you want to do this?” You obviously said yes and so you’re doing some writing, I assume you’re producing. What do you do?

I have so far set up all the interviews and conducted them. Transcribed most of them, had some help with some other ones when I get a little inundated and then had been creating a paper cut. You’re chopping up those transcriptions and putting them in an order that makes sense. Figuring out what the chronology is in the different segments we want to tackle. Obviously, I’m not the visual audio person on the project but also gathering a lot of B‑roll mostly on the comedy side of things. There’s a lot of new stuff that’s going to get used as well. Giving my opinion as a journalist on what it is we’ve created in the process. Looking at it, I’ve always covered comedy from a super fan point of view, as an audience member. Looking at it like what would I think of this if I was watching as a comedy fan. There are a lot of funding requests, a lot of applications for grants so writing those as well.

You need a Canadian on there to get some of that Canada money. The Canadians are good at funding documentaries.

Good to know. I’ll put that on my to-do list.

Perhaps the topic would make that hard in any case. Documentaries are hard to make for a variety of reasons. One is it’s easy for a documentary filmmaker to undercut the movie because they have so much stuff and they love it. It’s all very important. I’m always speaking as someone who’s watched a lot of documentaries. The other one that I think is a rookie mistake is too much classic interviews, like watching someone sit in front of a mic and answer it versus all the stuff you’re talking about, having B‑roll, having new stuff, having energy, action and so on.

On stage clips.

That movie has to be funny. It’s unfortunate the expectation is that the movie, because it has the term comedy in it, is that it’s going to be funny. There are going to be some laugh out loud moments. The last one is you don’t even know how it’s going to turn out. You don’t even know the story arc until you’re done or at least you get into it. I have to assume a lot of documentaries have that risk to them, maybe less so with this one.

In this case, it’s actually advantageous that we’re following chronology.

You’re not waiting for who wins the Air Guitar International Championship, you don’t even know.

He’s never going to come to terms with his family life in Staten Island. I’m talking about the Bitter Buddha. You’re not just following a person, figuring out the story and edits. The stories are there and I do have the advantage of being a journalist. I know a fair amount of how to edit a story down to keep the good stuff. There are a few layers.

Can you give me a primer on how to do that?

In this case there are a few layers. If there are sections in the interview that I know are not going to be used, don’t even bother. If it’s talking about some random, “I was eating breakfast. I had the yogurt but it was spoiled. I didn’t know what to do but then I turned back.”

You don’t even transcribe that.

I leave that out and then as you’re putting everything together, there are obvious cues of what’s going to fit and what’s not. The overriding rule with this is we’re following the comedy. Comedians have different personal storylines that came out of 9/11. Janeane Garofalo got sober on 9/11. We’re not going to follow that. It’s about the material and the reaction from comedians. How it reverberates in the comedy community, what people did and did not laugh at. It’s in that way self-tailors a little bit, but you are correct. We’ve done, I’d say maybe two-thirds of the interviews we’re going to need at this point. We’ve only been interviewing people that were personally affected by 9/11. Like Rob Riggle was a Marine and he went down and worked at Ground Zero. We have a guy who was a cop who before he became a comedian. Cris Italia of the Stand Comedy Club, was a journalist and an EMT. He was down there. Seth MacFarlane was supposed to be on one of the planes that kind of thing or if comedians had specific material about it. We could talk to comedians all day long about what it means.

They will happily talk to you.

There’d be no end in sight. We are only talking to those people who we need to drive the storyline forward or else it’s going to be bloated.

I look forward to seeing it.

Thank you.

In the meantime, you’ve been following Roast Battles.

At this point, I’ve now been writing about comedy for several years.

As the only full-time freelance comedy journalist in the United States.

There’s a few in the UK and obviously people write about comedy. Otherwise, my only job is covering the comedy and the documentary is an offshoot of that. I’m still writing about comedy, the history, covering it. It’s in a different format but Roast Battle was something that I started hearing about in 2013. The summer of is when it started at The Belly Room upstairs at The Comedy Store. The tiny, the third of three rooms.

Jokes can be written ahead of time and rehearsed and honed, but comedy is created in the moment. Click To Tweet

We covered The Comedy Store in the Humor Code also in the LA Chapter.

They’re probably the most historic club in the country. The story of Mitzi Shore and all that stuff which you can find plenty of places elsewhere. They’re like, “You’ve got to see this show. It’s crazy,” and I’m like, “I hear about this all the time. I see plenty of new shows and I’m not impressed.” I finally made it there. I was at the store for something else and went upstairs and it’s jam-packed, standing room only. People are chanting, screaming and jumping around. If you are not familiar with Roast Battle, it’s an insult competition, back and forth one-on-one.

As a teenager, we would call it busting on each other.

It’s called snapping, cracking and joning.

The Yo Mama joke was featured heavily in busting when I was fifteen years old.

You had the Friars Club Roast which is one thing but there was also the street version of what you’re talking about.

The Friars Club Roasts are affectionate. The roast has taken on a completely different scope since the Friars Club, at least in my observation, where it’s a lot less sweet.

There are definitely a ton of different incarnations of it and Roast Battle has had a lot to do with it. It did meld those two different traditions we’re talking about and there’s this the show busy part of it. The spotlights and the red carpet which is where the roast or the Friar’s Club side comes in. You can’t actually say anything you want at the Friars Roast but there are editing, TV, sponsors and all that stuff. It covers everything from race, religion, sexuality and your bad relationships, your suicidal tendencies. Your physical handicaps and mental handicaps. It is very equalizing in that sense. We all have stuff that we don’t like about ourselves, feel other or feel like we fit in better. When you see all this stuff out there on stage, it’s like, “We’re all the same. Why are we worrying about all of our little bullshit when we all have stuff like this?”

For someone who hasn’t seen a Roast Battle before, is there a format?

The undercard battles have three jokes a piece and again it’s one-on-one. People decide, they challenge each other to battle and in the case of Roast Battle, they often spend time with each other talking about their lives. You want to make it a good show. Oftentimes, people become better friends because of this. You have the main events, which can be anywhere from five jokes to three rounds of three jokes a piece. We can have a tit for tat, or what’s the middle? You think I would remember the names of a better, like a rapid fire. Just as many jokes in a row you can get in 30 seconds and those are for the more advanced battlers who are doing it a lot, who are the higher ranked, there are rankings. It’s like boxing. There are top ten lists in LA, New York and everyone’s vying for position all the time.

Jeffrey Ross seems to have made a career out of this.

He came on board as a producer at the very end of 2013 and helped it land at Comedy Central. There was a lot of competition. There were other places that approach that wanted to do it too and obviously being the roastmaster general, he lends a bit of credibility to it but it’s also the host, Brian Moses is just so rapid fire at the moment. There’s also these cast of characters of like the Wave who are these super fans who jump up and make crazy faces and throw props around. Dj Coach T was instrumental in setting the mood in The Belly Room. In earlier incarnations, there was the racist hater who said bad things about everyone. Now there’s like the Saudi prince who comes at it from an ethnic point of view and Jeff leads the judging panel. It’s rotating every week. It’s usually more advanced comics who are deciding who the winners are going to be. It’s becoming some of the more advanced battlers who’ve been on the TV version.

It’s like the past NBA dunk contest winners judging the new, Dr. J comes back and judges, a similar kind of thing.

INJ 62 | Roast Battle
Roast Battle: We all have stuff that we don’t like about ourselves. When you see all this stuff out there on stage, you realize we’re all the same.

 

They have the Comedy Central credit. There are three seasons on Comedy Central. There’s also a Mexican version, a South African version, they filmed one in France and they filmed the UK version of Roast Battle. When it first aired on Comedy Central, it was the highest rated series in all of Comedy Central UK history.

How does the Roast Battle gel in an age of outrage? How is it that it thrives when nowadays an ill-placed joke in a comedy club can turn Twitter on fire?

There’s definitely a climate that would seem to be detrimental to something like Roast Battle, but I talked about it a little bit in the book, it’s like precisely because of that, why it’s been so successful.

As a reaction?

You go up there and Moses always says, “It’s a temple of free speech. It’s fight club for comedians.” Anything’s going to go.

Is there a set of rules?

There are three rules, the original material only. No Yo Mama jokes, nothing you heard anywhere else. Rule number two, no physical contact except for rule number three. At the end of it, we hug. Jeff came up with those rules. They were grandfathered in from like the Friars Roast but this is all in good fun.

This is like Jimmy Carr would say, “These are jokes.”

It brings us closer together.

These are jokes.

I always leave every Tuesday night just a bit more optimistic, pumped up, ready to go out there and face life again. Tuesdays are my weekend at this point and you should definitely come while you’re in town.

I actually was just thinking of that. I need to do this. I will add it to my list of things to do. Key and Peele in Time Magazine, they did an editorial a few years ago. The title of it was Make Fun of Everything or something like that, where their thing was there is no list of off-limit topics. They strike me as pretty nice guys. I was a little surprised that they were the people who said this but their thing was to strike out someone because of a handicap or of a challenge or of whatever it is, is to discriminate against them. It’s to hold them down which I think is an interesting, certainly counter perspective but their thing is about execution of course. It’s not about if you’re going to make fun of folks, you need to do it well. That seems like a very Roast Battle thing is that if I hold back, I’m doing a disservice to this form of comedy.

One of my favorite battles ever was a Joe Eurell who has cerebral palsy. He’s in a wheelchair, slurs versus Robin Tran who is a transgender Vietnamese lesbian and they just went back and forth with the most heinous, wonderful, beautiful jokes. It went into double overtime and at the end of it, it was a tie because it was so good. You can look it up. It’s on YouTube and they’ve had it on the podcast. I like to use that as an example of we’re not looking at like two hot white dudes.

Comedy is the most important art form to express things that trouble us and frighten us. Click To Tweet

It’s not Dane Cook. Tell me again who the two people were.

Joe Eurell and Robin Tran.

I’ll put this in the exhibit.

They both were in season three in separate battles of Comedy Central Roast Battle both of which their opponents are both great. On the TV version, Joe battled Nicole Becannon. It was supposed to be for digital only and it was so good they put it on TV. Nicole was saying stuff like, “I may be like a five but Joe you’re a three. Literally, your body is shaped like a three.” Joe is coming back with suicidal jokes about Nicole cutting herself. Nothing is off limits. You can’t put any limits on things we can joke about because the world is a dark place. Our minds are dark places and we need to get some of this stuff out.

Like the Buddha would say, “Life is suffering.”

In “healthy ways,” in this room of people screaming, chanting and jumping around and we’re all in this together and it’s in a format where you’re trying to make it as good as it can possibly be. It’s something that’s all over the world at this point. This show that started on accident when these two open micers were going to fist fight each other. It was a complete accident that this show started and Moses was like, “You’re comic use your words so you’re going to just roast each other.” Other comics saw it and they were like, “I’m going to do that too and five years later, every major city with a comedy scene has their own version of this.”

One of my early guests was this young comic in Boston, Vally D. I remember talking to Vally D not on the pod but on the phone about her doing some of these kinds of things. It’s striking to me. Obviously, I’ve seen roast on Comedy Central for the Humor Code. We visited the Friars Club and so I find roasting really fascinating. I was a teenage boy who played sports and there’s that thing. Two things strike me about it from a scientific standpoint. One is because it’s back and forth, the violations are made okay because I say something bad about you. You say something bad about me. It was only me saying stuff that’s bad about you, it becomes hard to do. I think that’s one of the brilliant things that Comedy Central has done with their roasts. If you notice, not only is the guest being roasted but all the roasters are being roasted. It creates this atmosphere where you can say whatever you want because it’s equal opportunity insults, so to speak. I was going to say something else about that.

The equalizing factor in Roast Battle is it’s the funniest jokes that win. It’s not who’s more famous. It’s not who’s the hot comic of the moment and a lot of people who are getting good at Roast Battle aren’t necessarily traditional standup comics. In the book launched this theory that it’s a new fourth pillar of modern comedy, stand up sketch improv and you have roasting becoming pretty mainstream. There are all these different, not even like in the live comedy industry universe per se but there are people that get roasted for their birthdays, at their office parties, retirements and there are all these like MTV had a version. The Food Network had a web series called The Roast where they animate different foods roasting each other like potatoes versus chicken making jokes about each other and that’s because of Roast Battle.

These chef shows have their share of insults although it doesn’t have that roast to the back and forth, where I don’t watch these things but I know like these chefs yelling at their students all the time. It’s not out of love. Maybe there’s hugging afterwards. Obviously, you’ve interviewed lots of comedians. You’ve written about comedy. You said you’re a super fan and so on. One of the things I’m interested in is what makes comics different, how they approach their craft in a way that I think the average person doesn’t approach their work or their craft. First of all, comics think of their work as a craft which already differentiates them. I know this is a broad question, but do you have any interesting insights about how these people who have this incredibly difficult job make it look easy, their practices and their perspectives that you think is interesting that maybe you’ve used yourself? You’ve taken it from there or you just or you’ve written about or you’ve noticed?

I always think there’s obviously a lot of subjectivity to the comic a person’s going to be to sort the material, their goals. If it’s just like what you’re saying, to land a TV show and be financially comfortable versus someone who like Dave Attell, it’s like what they have to do. There’s nothing else that is going to get them through life. I definitely have had people say, “What else would you be doing if you weren’t writing about comedy?” Other than the dog thing, I don’t know.

You’re like the Dave Attell type of journalist.

It’s something that I saw him in college and I was already writing and I was like, “I’m supposed to be writing about comedy.” That clicked because I was doing TV and film stuff and music stuff before but comedy is very different. It’s a way of moving society forward in a lot of ways that film and music don’t because you have that immediacy. You can have that instant reaction and even more, I think it’s slightly more important than getting a laugh is changing the way people think. You go home and you’re like, “That was funny,” but then you start actually thinking about, “Maybe I am looking at that in a different way.” The reasons that comics achieve that could be the different.

Some people are pretty superficial. They’ll talk about dating and social media or whatever, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se. People just need to laugh. I was at the store, this was after the Brody Stevens memorial. There was a surgeon in the front row sitting all by himself and somebody started talking to him. I think it was Chris D’Elia maybe and he was like, “Look at this dude up here all by himself. What do you do?” He was like, “I’m a surgeon.” Everyone instantly was like, “We know why you’re here. We totally understand.” It’s his one night off. He needs to forget about all this stuff that’s gone wrong, the patient loss, that thing. Everyone comes to the club for different reasons whether it’s seeking truth in the highest form or wanting to bond on a first date.

INJ 62 | Roast Battle
Roast Battle: Comedy is a way of moving society forward.

 

Comedy is a great first date.

Whatever’s bringing you there. There’s something that’s happening in comedy in this second boom. Part of it has to do with the internet. Part of it has to do with the political climate but whatever it is, people are looking for something that only live comedy can achieve. It’s so different than watching it on YouTube or listening to.

The key is the audience, I think.

Even if when you have these pieces that are outrage, offensive, “This joke was bad,” and you just see a blog with a line cut from a set. You have to have the context there and understand that comedy is created in the moment. Jokes can be written ahead of time obviously, rehearsed, worked on, honed and then you create them for a special but it’s the process when you’re in the room. Someone like Mark Maron, he’s mostly off the cuff talking to people, dealing with stuff that’s happening to him, in the world and on the news. There’s something that we need from comedy and it’s the most important art form. It is an art form that there are ways to express things that trouble us and frighten us but when you can laugh in the process, there’s that physical release of, “I think it will be okay. We can laugh at it and get through it.” Not all comics are getting into comedy for that point but at its very highest form of being practiced, it’s the best.

Obviously, I share much of your same view. What are you reading, watching or listening to that stands out that you think is not just good, but great?

It would be a little hacky to say Historical Roasts which is streaming on Netflix Memorial Day, May 27 which Jeff Ross produced and I saw some advanced episodes of. It’s basically taking historical figures, Abraham Lincoln, Cleopatra, Frank and roasting them in the Friar’s format. Jeff is the ring leader of it and you have people like Bob Saget playing Lincoln and Gilbert Gottfried playing Hitler. It’s highly recommended. I saw that. I’ve been re-reading a bunch of old memoirs. The Moshe Kasher, Kasher in the Rye about growing up as a drug-addicted teenager around Oakland. He was in and out of rehab and more or less on the street before he was sixteen. I re-read Steve Martin, not too long ago. It’s class. You’ve got to go back to it.

Talk about something that doesn’t have bloat. I actually think it’s a lovely memoir. It’s a missed opportunity that he left a lot out of, that I think. It’s nice, it’s slim, it’s an easy read, it’s fun and so on but it really leaves you wanting more.

In my memory anyway, at least, it’s one of the first personal memoirs that weren’t about trauma in a way. A comedian can talk about the reasons. “I got molested and that’s when I went into comedy,” or something like that.

He downplays some of his challenges like divorce and things like that. He focuses on the craft a lot. He’s an okay guy.

There was a lot of revelation about, “When it all got too much when else are you going to see that in something?”

I do think there’s this common trope which is that comedy comes from darkness and that you need to be a broken individual to be funny. The problem with that is that storyline is fun to write. No one writes about a happy person who had a good, healthy childhood and became a very funny person because that’s not an interesting story. You get this skewed perspective as a result of that. Julie, I’m really glad that we had a chance to talk. I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a long time and that fact that we’re in the same place here thankfully made it happen.

Thank you so much.

I appreciate it. This was a lot of fun. Thanks so much. I’ll put all these things in the exhibits and I look forward to your forthcoming film.

See you at the Roast Battle.

That would be great. Cheers.

Resources mentioned:

About Julie Seabaugh

INJ 62 | Roast BattleJulie Seabaugh is the only full-time freelance comedy journalist in the United States. She has contributed to Rolling Stone, The Hollywood Reporter, GQ, Variety, Entertainment Weekly, The A.V. Club, The Village Voice, The Huffington Post, Spin, and Playboy. Julie has covered the modern roast and published the 2018 book, Ringside at Roast Battle: The First Five Years of L.A.‘s Fight Club for Comedians. She is currently producing the documentary Too Soon: The Comedy of 9/11.

 

 

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