Manner of Speaking: Make Your Roast a Tip-Top Toast
How to prepare a ribbing that’s appropriate.
By Gene Perret
What better way to honor “Good Old Charlie” for his outstanding dedication to your organization, profession or community than to invite all of his family and friends to a special banquet in his honor…and then insult him? That’s right – insult him. Tell all of those assembled that “Good Old Charlie” doesn’t have an enemy in the world…although a lot of his friends don’t like him.
You express your admiration and appreciation for your guest of honor with a “roast.” The basic idea is to show respect for a colleague with a generous helping of friendly, harmless “disrespect.” The Friars Club, a group that is today composed mostly of comedians and other celebrities, first introduced the roast in the early 1900s to honor distinguished members of its organization, mostly those in the theatrical profession. Entertainer Dean Martin popularized the concept with his television show, The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, which aired from 1973 to 1984.
Like most good comedy, the roast appears spontaneous, as if it’s almost being delivered off the top of your head. However, it actually requires much research, preparation and planning to produce an effective evening of friendly, dignified, put-down humor. (For Toastmasters members, the Advanced Communication manual Special Occasion Speeches [Item 226N] provides information about how to present a roast.
Once you decide to roast “Good Old Charlie” (or “Good Old Charlene,” for that matter), your first task is research. Begin gathering information about your guest of honor. Where did he go to school? What activities did he participate in back then? Does she have any hobbies? Any heroes? In short, assemble as much background data as you can.
Even though you may know the person pretty well, there are good reasons for trying to learn even a bit more:
- The information may provide material for writing gags about him, or even provide a unique subtext for those things that you do already know.
- For a full evening’s presentation, you’ll need diversity. You’ll have to provide jokes on more than just those attributes that people already know about your guest of honor.
- Humor is a big part of this event and surprise is a major element of humor. The more detailed facts you can uncover about your roastee, the more surprising the material will be to the honoree and to the audience.
You can begin your research by meeting informally with a few close friends of “Good Old Charlie.” Brainstorm ideas that you might kid the roastee about. The friends may relate a few embarrassing or funny stories that could become part of your show. This is not a writing session, so nothing has to be finalized. At this point, you’re simply gathering information.
Next, contact Charlie’s family. They’ll provide a different perspective than his friends and colleagues. How did he and his spouse meet? Do his children have any anecdotes about him? Do they have any interesting family photos or mementos that could possibly be used?
Obviously, you won’t use all of the information you uncover, but it will add depth, variety and surprise to your final script.
Limit the Time
The next assignment is to plan the presentation. You’ll probably want a few speakers, presenters or performers to populate this event. It’s advisable, though, to limit each segment of the show to a reasonable amount of time. This helps to keep the evening fast-paced. Some of the presentations will be sparkling, others less so. Your audience can endure the less-impressive segments if they’re short.
Once you decide on your cast of presenters, you can assign each one a different facet of Charlie’s life to focus on. Presenter “A” might talk about his childhood and early years. Presenter “B” could handle his college years. Presenter “C” might discuss his hobbies. And so on.
Delegating different topics to various presenters gives the entire presentation a continuity, avoids monotony and sidesteps any conflict among the presenters.
It’s also wise to vary the style of each presentation. For example, you might begin with a clever monologue explaining why Charlie is deserving of this honor. Then if you have a presenter with musical ability, you could do a song parody about the roastee. The next presenter might have a slide show featuring some of those old photos the family thoughtfully provided, accompanied by appropriate, and amusing, commentary. Then a series of speakers might present the honoree with several “gag” gifts. All of this, of course, depends on the talent and preferences of the people you’ve selected as presenters. The different formats provide a variety that helps keep the presentation interesting for the audience.
Once you’ve decided on the presenters, assigned topics and selected the style for each segment, the roast must be written. Here you can do the writing yourself, assign a team or several teams of writers, or allow each presenter to fashion his or her own script. One person or committee, though, should approve and finalize each segment and position it in the program.
Make Jokes, but Don’t Offend
The most daunting challenge of pulling off a successful roast is to guarantee that the evening is not offensive. But how can you have insult humor without insulting? Following are three guidelines to help you accomplish this:
1. Kid about things that are obviously fabricated or generally not true. At one recent roast, an association was honoring a man who had organized parties for the group for several years. The emcee said, “He doesn’t do it for applause or for the thanks he might get. No, he does it simply for the few bucks he can manage to skim off the top.” At another farewell dinner for a different honoree, the speaker kidded the man about his “drinking.” He said, “The local tavern is going to light a perpetual flame in his honor: They’re going to set fire to his breath.” These jokes could not have been used if the basic premise might be believed. However, as gags that none in the audience would take seriously, they were usable.
2. Laugh at things that the guest of honor jokes about. A speaker at one party ribbed the honoree about his erratic golf. He said, “He never uses a golf cart when he plays. Where he hits the ball, it’s cheaper to take public transportation.” Because this person told jokes about his own bad golf, it was acceptable for the presenter to do so.
3. Poke fun at things that are of no real consequence. One speaker kidded the guest of honor about his former athletic prowess. “When he was younger he was a powerful man with big muscles and a barrel chest. Of course, that’s all behind him now.” That’s just a generic type of gag that has no real relationship to the person or his accomplishments. It’s an insult gag, but a harmless one.
In the final stages of the roast’s preparation, be sure to double-check the tastefulness of all of the humor in your presentation. If any gag seems suspect to you, try it out on a friend or family member of the honoree. And if they agree it’s inappropriate, it’s out. Drop it or replace it.
Then be your own ultimate censor. If you’re in doubt, the gag is out. It’s better to lose a joke than a friend. Keep in mind that this is an event to honor a colleague. Keep it fun, keep it slightly irreverent, but keep it dignified. Someone once asked Will Rogers how he could kid so many prominent people of his time and yet remain friendly with all of them. Rogers said, “If there’s no malice in your heart, there can’t be any in your jokes.”
So prepare, plan and pull off a fine roast. Have fun doing it and make sure “Good Old Charlie” has fun too.
Gene Perret is a three-time Emmy winner who has written for Carol Burnett and Phyllis Diller, and was the head writer for Bob Hope. To learn more about his latest book, the comedy novel Breakfasts with Archangel Shecky, visit www.writingcomedy.com.