Comedy roast are not all that common in the UK, despite this being the home of the Archbishop of Banterbury, Bantom of the Opera and the Bantersaurus Rex (lads! lads! lads!). While we’re very much at home with taking the piss out of each other in the pub, the playground and all-office emails, this kind of vicious verbal sparring in front of an audience is a format that we’re just not used to in merry old England. We leave that to the Americans, and a proud history they have of it too. Instantly this new Comedy Central show is a bit out of step for the British audience looking for funnies, with a post-apocalyptic set, macho gunshot sound track, and the studio audience expected to shout and point as well as drink and laugh. It’s all a bit too much to believe we can multitask like this.
I love stand-up comedy, on tv and especially live (shout out to the excellent Fat Penguin club nights in Birmingham – if you’re in the Midlands check them out), but I turned this on and watched it through my fingers. I didn’t was this format to fail, but it was bound to be a disaster, right? As The Guardian said “Roast battles and insult comedy? No thanks, we’re British”. But despite the silly gunshot noises and the heavy reliance on Paper Planes by MIA, the battles themselves were not as aggressive as I’d thought. If anything the style is collaborative; usually solo comics acting as a team, building on each other’s jokes, laughing at themselves and visibly enjoying the experience. I was all set to hate it but the four comedians in the first episode did such a good job they quickly won me over.
However it started badly. Some days Jimmy Carr is wonderfully abrasive, but on this he warns the jokes will be offensive (as does the really odd warning at the start of the show. Does asking people of a nervous disposition to turn over to sister channel Comedy Central Extra really work?) but Jimmy, if they’re not funny then they don’t qualify as jokes at all. Maybe stick to adjudicating. His fellow judges are Katherine Ryan and Russell Brand, with Russell suffering from verbal diarrhea as per usual and Katherine not getting much of a word in edgeways. Brian Moses, from the American show, is the referee who tries to keep a reign on the proceedings and make these weirdos stick to the rules.
Suzi Ruffell and Tom Allen are the first up. They’re real life best friends, and you can tell. A stylish gay man and a bitchy lesbian mercilessly taking the piss out of each other is classic weekend entertainment in the clubs on Hurst Street and now it’s on TV for all to enjoy. It’s beautifully done, if a little wordy. Easily the best joke was Suzi’s “Tom, if you were any more camp you’d be in Calais with a Syrian inside you”.
I didn’t expect much from Phil Wang and Ed Gamble. As they keep reminding us nothing is off the table and offensive jokes are encouraged, so it’s clearly going to be all about race when facing off with a British Malaysian. The best jokes are the ones that Phil is in on, undermining the whole concept of the roast. “Ed’s girlfriend is such a dog I tried to eat her” wins the night, but a close second is “Ed looks like a YouTuber who denies the Holocaust” to which Ed later adds that he’s not a YouTuber.
The judges are quite kind too, with praise for both comedians, but this part shows how well rehearsed the show is – they read back the best jokes from the prepared scripts in front of them. I don’t think any of them were taking high speed notes in shorthand. The fights are skillful and the jibes well placed for vicious entertainment. It’s really important that the comics are friends, or at least know each other’s work. No one can take the piss quite so deftly as your dearest friends. So maybe this American roast can work, as long as it’s got those British elements – self-depreciation, surrealism, loads of roast potatoes and rich thick gravy.