Learning Objectives

Define the characteristics of a roast.

A roast is a speech honoring someone, usually a close friend or colleague. The lead-up to the honoring part is full of humorous stories, jokes of all sizes and descriptions, and sometimes biting sarcasm and satire. It often pushes the bounds of decency a little, sometimes it pushes them a lot!

Roasting someone is a lot like toasting them. The preparation can be the same: brainstorm a list of traits or characteristics you associate with that person. But now rather than using this material to show how great the person is, use the traits to poke fun at them. Most characteristics that make a person distinctive can also be funny. In terms of our categories of humor (see the page on “Humor in Public Speaking), roast jokes are often a combination of character humor and hyperbole. Identify a distinctive trait, exaggerate it, and then see where it takes you.

Appropriate jokes for a roast are really hard to write! You should give yourself a lot of time to compose them, because you’ll throw out far more than you use. For instance, you shouldn’t actually embarrass or humiliate the guest of honor, or anyone else present. Even comedians who thrive on shock can push the envelope too far in a roast. In a roast of James Franco on Comedy Central, comedian Sarah Silverman made jokes about actor Jonah Hill’s weight. When it was Hill’s turn to speak, he joked about her being old and single. Afterwards, there was a brief flurry of commentary in the media about whether these jokes had gone too far, and whether feelings were hurt. Both Silverman and Hill admitted afterwards to being a bit wounded by the insults.[1][2] How is that possible in a roast between comedians? There’s actually an interesting lesson here: we might speculate that all roast humor should have an element of self-deprecation. Neither Silverman nor Hill were at all implicated in the jokes they threw at each other—and maybe that’s why the jokes seemed particularly mean. If he had joked about weight, and she about age, would it have been different?

Consider these two examples from a (hypothetical) retirement roast for Jane, the head of information technology at a university:

An older man speaking into a microphone

Todd, who is Jane’s age and has worked with her for a long time: “Jane and I are so old, we not only predate most of the technology in this room, we predate technology itself. When we started this job, we used to have to troubleshoot smoke signal problems. Jane would say, ‘Have you tried putting the fire out and then starting it again?’ Jane’s more up on technology than me, though. She’s always been an early adopter. She loves gadgets. I remember when she got her first tablet. It came with a chisel, too.”

young man speaking into microphone

Jeff, who is in his mid 20s and is fairly new to the department: “Jane’s so old, she got started in IT when it stood for ‘Information Theology.’ Moses called her up after the angel appeared in a burning bush, and she was like ‘oh no, did you click on it?’ She’s so old, when she started this job, she said, ‘Our network needs a firewall’ and they were like, ‘what’s fire?'”

Did you feel any different reading the two examples?

The first major difference is how well the two speakers know the guest of honor. Todd knows her well, whereas Jeff is new in the department. This makes a big difference in the kind of joke you can make (actually, if you don’t know them well, you probably shouldn’t be roasting them at all). However, even if you’re sure your friend will get a certain joke, that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for the audience! If you really want your friend to know all the outrageous humor you were going to throw at them, you can hand them a list of outtakes.

Another difference between these two examples is the age of the person making age jokes. If you can include yourself in the joke, you’re more likely to be laughing with the person, not at them. While brainstorming, you could even create a Venn diagram of your traits and those of the guest of honor—the overlap area is your best bet for jokes. Again, though, even self-deprecating humor doesn’t give you license to say anything you want. If possible, you should try out your jokes on a trusted friend of colleague (or several) to make sure they don’t cross the line into insensitivity or embarrassment.

Roasts tend to be done by a group of people who have a history with the guest of honor. They have a wider view of the person they are commemorating, often as a friend, co-worker, relative, or boss. This group has details of events often stretching back decades. Their job is to set the stage for the speech by the guest of honor. The atmosphere of good-spirited ridicule often spreads beyond the person roasted. Most often (and effectively) towards oneself, with self-deprecating humor, but also towards other presenters or people in the audience.

Save the best for last—the last person to speak before the guest of honor should be the person closest to them. They should not only have a long-standing relationship with the guest of gonor, but know how to turn the conversation from humorous to heartfelt and torturous to touching. Their job is to take all the energy, humor, and good will that was created during the evening, and focus it like a laser beam to build up the guest of honor so that the applause for them is as thunderous as possible. Standing ovations are often done at roasts!