Between The Rell Battle Battle and the upcoming Naughty Roast of Samta Claus, I've been thinking about roast jokes a lot. And I've been fortunate enough to live with Tony Hinchcliffe, writer for The Comedy Central Roasts and The Burn, and to watch the Roastmaster General, himself, Jeff Ross, work out his sets for both the Roasts and the series. So I've picked up a thing or two.
So if you want to write a great roast joke, keep these three things in mind:
- Keep it short
- Keep it simple
- Keep it obvious
Roasts jokes with a lot of potential fail when they forget these basic rules.
Roast jokes should also basically follow the standard format of either:
- Setup - misdirection
- Hyperbole/comparison (essentially, grown up "yo mama" jokes)
Take the Willie Hunter vs Pete Cornacchione battle last week. Willie landed his best blow with a simple misdirection of epic proportions:
"Actually, I want to take a second from roasting Pete to honor Paul Walker with a moment of silence.. so, Pete, can you do your act?"
Short, simple, drew on the common knowledge of Paul Walker's recent death. Perfect.
Willie came up short later with a jab at Pete's oral hygiene with a punchline about George Washington's wooden teeth. As judge Moshe Kasher pointed out, that required too much education to get.
Similarly, Pete, who was throwing down killer lines the whole way through, came up short when he referenced Willie's former roommate, a person the younger generations of comedians never met or knew existed.
Which gets to a rule that comes from all of those - don't get too personal. Digging up dirt on a roastee means it's either not going to be obvious or you'll have to explain a lot of backstory, so it's neither short nor simple. And if you get just plain mean-spirited, the crowd will turn against you. Follow Jeff Ross's edict and only roast the ones you love.
Of course, once in a while a genius can come along and subvert the entire format and expectations of the crowd, but you're not Norm MacDonald, so don't.