I was never that into roasts. I don’t like “mean” comedy, so I didn’t make it to the legendary Roast Battle in the Belly Room at the Comedy Store until December of 2015. I realized instantly this was something different. The room was vibrating. From the moment host and co-creator Brian Moses took the stage and yelled, “LET’S ROAST!” followed by a bell sound effect, I was enthralled. Comics traded insults, weaving wit and snark, attacking everything from the color of each other’s skin to a mother’s heroin addiction. Dave Chappelle was a judge who then ended up getting roasted himself. It was absolute goosebump-inducing mayhem.
Jon Mayer has called the Roast Battle “a church of free speech.” And that’s exactly what it is—a safe space in a PC world where you’re truly free from thought-policing. Nothing is off limits in this church. No racist, sexist or 9/11-pegged joke is too much; all that matters is that the jokes are good.
For the last two and a half years, Moses has juggled all of this chaos effortlessly. His title in the trades, now that he and Jeff Ross have sold the show to Comedy Central, is “referee,” but he’s more like the conductor of an orchestra or the ringmaster of a very profane circus. He keeps the energy moving, and his big-picture outlook on the whole experience and everyone’s role in it, despite being the least provocative part of the show, is what grounds it in reality. He’s the straight man, the constant. His vision is what binds this operation, which feels like it could come undone at any moment.
Moses and I sat down at my place earlier this week to talk about the evolution of the Roast Battle, what exactly “the All Negro Wave” is and his hopes and jitters leading up to the show’s Comedy Central debut.
Tell me how the Roast Battle came to be.
It started as an open mic in 2013 on Tuesday. The Comedy Store had got rid of the most popular open mic, the Sunday Night Potluck—basically every comic in town would come by and try to get time—so suddenly there was less stage time and less guys were coming around. Once it was gone, that mic culture kind of left the Store. And I was like, “How do we bring the community back to the Comedy Store?” In a way I was just looking to facilitate talent coming in. I just knew I didn’t want it to be boring.
So how did the Roast Battle evolve from that mic?
These two comics Josh Martin and Kenny Lion had beef. We were all like, “Fuck yeah, y’all should slap-box on stage.” Because who doesn’t love slapboxing—it’s the best! But I didn’t want to lose the mic, so I convinced them to come back and roast each other instead. Write some original jokes. Verbal boxing. The original battle was one round and everyone in the room decided “yay” or “nay.” So they came back like two weeks later and that was the first battle.
Did this just come to you on the spot?
Yes. It all happened organically. I’ve always said the Roast Battle is a community project. I suggested that they do it and then everybody just got behind it because everyone loves a battle, that’s everything. When kids get in fights in school, everyone gathers around and watches the fight. When I suggested slap-boxing at first, I used to love watching kids do that in High School. And you know rap battles—it’s such a sport. That’s where I come from.
And there was a battle every week after that?
Every week. When that first roast battle happened, everyone who saw it was like, and I hate to say this, “If these two can do this and get that response, we can all do it.” So everyone thought they could do it. And it was so new; you didn’t know who was gonna to be good at it. Even the best roast writers aren’t necessarily the best roast battlers.
Why do you think that is?
It’s a different skill set. I’ve never done it. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it. A buddy of mine said, “Those who can’t roast, host.” It’s hard, dude. I give credit to anyone who does it. I’m terrified of it.
I’ve noticed that the comics who are consistently going are getting consistently better at this new medium. What does it take?
They know what works. They do the prep work. They write 100 jokes and narrow it down to a great 30. They know how to order their jokes. They know how to work the room. It’s like 8 Mile in a sense.
There are only three rules. What are they and how did they evolve?
1. Nothing is off limits, except for physical contact; don’t fucking hit each other. 2. Orginial material only. No internet jokes. No “your mama” jokes. No basic street jokes. 3. At the end of the battle, everyone hugs. And that’s from Jeff Ross. He gave us the structure of the rules.
I was impressed with the loving vibe; it wasn’t mean-spirited. You feel like everyone really wants everyone else to succeed.
It’s like being at dunk contest because the reaction is the same from the crowd. There has to be a loser, but ultimately everyone is going to win because you’re still gonna see these badass dunks. Instead you’re seeing these badsass jokes. And there is so much more to it. You have DJ Tyrell, “Coach Tea,” scoring the entire thing live. He’s incredible with the perfect sound effect at the perfect moment. The audience is a character too, and everyone is reacting to their reactions. The “All Negro Wave” is just an accent on what the audience is already thinking, either good or bad.
How did that come about?
That was Jack Knight, Keith Seoul, Jamar Neighbors… One night Jamar starts doing the wave and then Jack and then Keith join him and it’s this whole section of all black dudes. And I was like “Wait, black guys do the wave?” And every time I said, “the wave” they just kept doing it. I was like, “Is that an all nigga’ wave?” and then we just lost our minds. We lost our fucking minds. It was beautiful.
Who are “The Haters” and how did that evolve?
The Hater is comic Earl Skakel, he’s been there since day one and it’s whomever Earl invites to his table. Imagine Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets, but super racist.
Who haven’t you had judge at this point?
We haven’t had Louis. We haven’t had Chris Rock. We haven’t had Kevin Hart. Or Kat Williams. But other than that, we’ve had the who’s-who of the comedy world: Chappelle, Dave Attell, Mike Judge, Jeff Ross, Bobby Lee, Bill Burr, Sarah Silverman, Joe Rogan, Whitney Cummings, Dane Cook, the whole cast of Undateable, Pete Holmes, Moshe Kasher, Natasha Leggero, Leslie Jones, Trevor Noah, the Sklar Brothers, T.J. Miller, Jason Reitman…
How has the show evolved since LA Weekly wrote it up in 2014?
The show has gone on the road. To places like SXSW, New York, Montreal (Just For Laughs), opened for Dave Chappelle. Jason Reitman did a short film on the Roast Battle that made it into Sundance. The show has been around longer so people have gotten better at the game of Roast Battle. We have a screening process called undercards where literally anyone can get on and we see who’s good from that pool. We’ve had legends of pop culture drop by and hang out with us, from Jim Carrey to Russell Simmons to Too $hort.
Jeff Ross is known as the Roastmaster. When did he come into the picture?
About four months into the show, Jeff came by to be a judge and immediately saw the potential. He helped formulate things in the early days and became a part of the community project. He really believed in it and thought it could make a great TV show. Roasting is his specialty, so we’ve been working together ever since.
Comedy Central announced that it’s picking up Roast Battle. What are your fears about the show moving forward?
That’s it’s not as dope as Tuesday.
I don’t know if anything will be as dope as Tuesday.
Well you want to get it as close as you can. You want to get it so that when people come through to Los Angeles on a Tuesday night they’re like, “Oh this is even better.”
Now that you’ve sold it to a big network and there are a lot more cooks in the kitchen, are you afraid that you and other integral characters are going to get pushed aside?
If this is my baby, I’m hoping I’m giving it a better life. The best life it can have. I’m giving this baby to Daddy Warbucks. Am I worried? Fuck yeah I’m worried, but they saw something in that room that we created and they want to do it. They’re taking a chance on us, too. We do a lot of dangerous things in that room. That’s what makes that show so sexy: it’s dangerous.
Was yours the first that you know of? Or were Roast Battles already going on?
Ours was the first Roast Battle. I know that. Now it’s a movement and I support that movement. We’ve created a culture or a fabric in the genre of stand up comedy and we’ll always have that. But as for The Comedy Store Roast Battle, there’s nothing like it. The energy with the antics, the format, the characters, the cast, that’s what makes it so special—especially in that room. We got to birthing in that place. The Belly Room created the Roast Battle. Now you have so many personalities, and as the guy who runs that room my job is to figure out how to accommodate everybody and put on the best show possible. It’s not about me. It’s about the Roast Battle.