A lot of it has to do with my first exposure to the concept, the Harvey Pitnik roast scene in Amazon Women on the Moon, which set an impossibly high bar -- it had Steve Allen and Rip Taylor, after all -- and because none of the current roasts have that great "bunch of funny friends getting together to bust another friend's chops" vibe. Like, to pick a totally random example, the 1971 Friars Club Roast of Jerry Lewis.
The roast was taped on January 27, 1971 and broadcast in prime time as part of the Kraft Music Hall series, which means the comedians couldn't work blue. And since I don't already sound like enough of an old-timer as it is, I'm going to say it: This era of comedians didn't have to be dirty to be funny. Oh, it often helped, and I'll bet Jerry used to do an amazing version of "The Aristocrats" when the cameras were off, but otherwise they did just fine without making dick jokes or swearing. (Now, if you'll excuse me, my AARP card just arrived in the mail, and it's time for the four o'clock buffet at the Moose Lodge.)
Besides, cursing becomes less important if you're kicking someone when they're down, and Jerry Lewis was very much down in early 1971. His film career had shuddered to a halt, he'd had quite a few television shows over the past decade including an ABC talk show that died after 13 weeks, and of course the ill-fated Jerry Lewis Cinemas venture (which I wrote about last year!) was just starting up. Roastmaster Johnny Carson touches on all of these.Alan King riffs on Jerry's astonishingly self-aggrandizing bio. I'm fairly confident that it is indeed Jerry's official press release, considering that this newspaper article from a few years later uses the same general language, including calling Jerry a "20th century phenomenon" on par with atomic energy and the moon landings.
To everyone who makes jokes about the French considering Jerry Lewis a genius -- it inevitably comes up when I tell people I'm in the middle of a mission to watch every single one of Jerry's movies -- you should probably know that not only is that joke tired now, it was already tired when Charlie Callas made it in 1972.
This clip of Carson riffing on Callas is a textbook example of how much comedy depends on the context of its time. Unless you're well-versed in mid-twentieth century comedians, Carson might as well be speaking in another language. Charlie Callas himself is largely forgotten now, for that matter.
Next up is Milton Berle, who gives a master class in how to rescue a bombed joke. (I'm partial to "Why they ever took him out, I'll never know," myself.)
Rex Reed is there to represent film critics, and, eh. They really should have gotten Pauline Kael, not Judith Crist. Also, was calling someone's blood Type B somehow insulting in 1971?
(To get a better sense of Rex Reed in his element, where he can be his bitchy self without worrying about having Don Rickles nearby, check him out on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970. And I gotta give Rex credit for still being on the job forty years later -- he does not like Rock of Ages very much.)
Jack Carter does not only a mean Richard Burton, but an even meaner Anthony Quinn. It may help that I'm a sucker for Anthony Quinn impressions.
When introducing Don Rickles, Johnny Carson lays on the Nazi jokes pretty thick. (Don Rickles, for the record, is not a Nazi. Though Peg Leg Bates might've been, for all I know.)
Rickles does what he does best, insulting the crowd, particularly a civilian in the front row by the name of Bill Anderson, who probably considered Don Rickles calling him a hockey puck to be one of his proudest moments. Rickles also busts out his Anthony Quinn impression, and closes the clip by reminding the guest of honor that his career (Jerry's, not Don's or Anthony's) was dying.
The entire roast is available for viewing in various shady parts of the Interwebz. If you want more Rickles -- and you know you do -- I can't recommend John Landis's documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project highly enough.