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. (…)
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.