Civil Liberties

As Nasty As They Wanna Be

How the Friars Club roasts expanded the First Amendment


On Sunday night, eight of the most medium-sized names in showbiz convened in Studio City, California to roast Joan Rivers and her anatomically approximate face sculpture. When the event airs on Comedy Central on August 9th, and the insults commence, you may forget there was a time in American history when it was not considered appropriate to crack jokes about a 76-year-old grandmother's toxic vagina. Lucky for us, that time is long gone, and for this, we owe a debt of gratitude to Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, and all the other mid-century yuk-meisters who practiced the art of speaking the unspeakable at Friars Club roasts years before Lenny Bruce got busted for subjecting audiences to obscene grammar lessons or George Carlin compiled his list of seven words you can never say on television.

Roasts are the Rodney Dangerfields of free expression: They don't get any respect. When we credit the iconoclasts who believed that the freedom of speech granted by the First Amendment should be as expansive as Sasha Grey's fun tunnel, we turn first to literary sorts, like H.L. Mencken, Henry Miller, and Larry Flynt, and second to more cerebral funnymen like Bruce and Carlin. In part, this is because the Friars Club roasts, along with similar events held at The Masquers Club and other locales, were private affairs, with no women or waiters allowed. But we also snub roasts, one suspects, because they had no greater goal than coaxing horse laughs from filthy-minded drunks. Which of course is why we should value them all the more: How free is free speech when the only way you can unleash masturbation gags upon the public is to write a masterpiece on the order of Ulysses?

The Friars Club was established in 1904 and began holding rowdy testimonial dinners for prestigious pinatas shortly thereafter: "Veteran Theatrical Manager Butt of Jokes at Dinner," reported one newspaper article from 1910. But as Friars Club historian Barry Dougherty recounts in the book A Hundred Years, A Million Laughs, it wasn't until the 1950s, when Milton Berle started choreographing these bashes, that they turned "vicious beyond belief" and started using language that could make a statue of Freud blush.

"The biggest shock of my life was to hear Jack Benny, who was on the microphone, telling a story about George Jessel, and he used very, very salty language… " Ed McMahon told Dougherty. "It just blew me away." Larry King, reminiscing in David Weddle's Amongst the Mansions of Eden, was similarly traumatized. "Seeing someone say 'fuck' is nothing now, but when I was thirty years old and went to my first Friars roast in New York and I heard Maurice Chevalier say, 'Fuck,' I thought I'd die."

Apparently, the transgressive, take-no-prisoners approach that characterized the Friars Club roasts back then was enough to send these nascent cathode conformists scurrying toward the mainstream. But others were no doubt more inspired. The Friars Club roasts may not have been open to everyone, but they were formal performances before sizable crowds—and if you could tell dirty jokes with such gleefully offensive candor in that almost-public setting, with none of self-censorship that public discourse required, well, what was the next obvious step? While Berle and his Friars Club brethren are generally regarded as Borscht Belt joke-mongers whose mercenary approach to comedy would soon be superseded by revolutionary upstarts like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, they were actually engaged in a little radical action of their own.

"Erotic humor is far & away the most popular of all types, and an extremely large percentage of the jokes authentically in oral circulation, in this and apparently in all centuries and cultures, is concerned with the humor—often unwilling, unpleasant, and even purposely macabre—of the sexual impulse," wrote folklorist G. Legman in his encyclopedic analysis of smutty humor, Rationale of the Dirty Joke. Finally, thanks to the Friars Club roasts, America's comics were acknowledging humanity's intrinsic comic baseness rather than ignoring it. Finally, they were using their comic skills to push against the bounds of propriety, instead of merely tickling the public with childish euphemisms and coy innuendo. Cursing with abandon, reveling in their unconstrained crudity, erstwhile Catskills tumlers elevated themselves, at least temporarily, from jokers to truth-tellers by way of the completely liberated dick joke and their willingness to turn a roastee's pretenses and peccadilloes into comic fodder, no matter how squirm-inducing the process.

In the 1970s, the public got its first prolonged exposure to Friars-style mayhem via Dean Martin's celebrity roasts. Airing on NBC, these specials may have resurrected the euphemisms and innuendos the Friars had abandoned decades earlier, but they were also besotted with the casual, self-conscious irreverence that pop culture would eventually adopt as its lingua franca. Compared to, say, Saturday Night Live, Martin and those who populated his dais were incredibly visionary. While the Not Ready For Primetime Players stuck with characters, narrative, and all the traditional tools of live theater, the roasters sailed by on a wave of lightly rehearsed, heavily liquored up verite. Never had so many mediocre one-liners prompted so much feigned laughter, and yet in those instances where the show's sloppy spontaneity trumped its black-tie professionalism, Martin and his aging, nicotine-stained pals emerged as the slapdash forefathers of gonzo porn, Jackass, and YouTube.

By the early 1990s, public expression was both freer than it had ever been and also highly proscribed. In 1992, the world's biggest star, Madonna, sold 1.5 million copies of Sex, a glossy slab of coffee-table eye candy that offered a softcore take on hardcore porn. A hip-hop album that didn't warrant a Tipper sticker was artistically suspect. But bragging about the size of your slide rule to a co-worker could result in a sexual harassment lawsuit, and hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities were micro-managing student discourse via speech codes that banned everything from "insulting sounds" to "faxes sexual in nature."

In 1993, Ted Danson donned blackface, said the word "nigger" more than a dozen times, and ate a watermelon at a Friars Club roast for Whoopi Goldberg, his girlfriend at the time. Talk show personality Montel Williams stormed out of the event, and for weeks afterward, the news media reported on the fallout as Goldberg tried to explain the caustic traditions of the club's roasts and why she wasn't offended by Danson's performance. (According to Jet magazine, Goldberg also wrote much of Danson's material for the event, and set him up with the make-up artist who painted his face.)

The Friars issued a public apology, but the descriptions from Goldberg and others about the club's everything-is-fair-game atmosphere apparently piqued people's interest. Over the next few years, subsequent Friars Club roasts got more coverage in newspapers than they had in years, and in 1998, Comedy Central partnered with the organization to produce a televised roast of Drew Carey. "Ladies and gentlemen, Drew Carey is to comedy what Mariah Carey is to comedy…[He] looks like Buddy Holly and Barney Rubble had a baby and then peed on it," first roaster Jeffrey Ross exclaimed, setting the tone not only for the rest of the show, and all the televised roasts that have followed in its wake over the last decade, but also for cyberspace at large.

Emphatically blunt, hyperbolically caustic, eager to slaughter sacred cows, or really, any animate creatures that wander into their cross-hairs—is there any better way to describe the voice that speaks from the Web's message-boards and online comments sections than the voice of a comic in full-blown roast mode? At exactly the same time millions of people were venturing online and experimenting with how best to express themselves in this medium, Jeffrey Ross, Greg Giraldo, Lisa Lampanelli, and all the other heirs of the mid-century Friars were offering up a template to emulate on Comedy Central's roasts: Be ruthless, be shocking, and don't shy away from speaking the unspeakable.

Naturally, lots of dreary material results from this approach, especially as anonymous verbal snipers try to one-up each other. But while the Web's endemic snarkiness—and the outright contempt that is regularly expressed toward gays, minorities, Christians, atheists, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, Muslims, and journalists on countless online comments sections and messageboards—can be tiresome, it's also the Web's rude, unfettered, no-holds-barred mentality that makes it the most vital medium we've ever known, and the one that offers the most accurate and expansive portrait of humanity to date. As a bonus, it features an extensive collection of dick jokes.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.