I was idly playing videos on You Tube recently and I came across Dean Martin’s Roasts from the 1970s. I had a jolly old time watching some comedians from yesteryear engaging in humorous roasts. So I figured I should write a post about roast speeches and provide some roast speech examples. I talk about roast speeches in the Toastmasters context, but the advice is absolutely applicable whether you’re giving a Toastmasters roast or not.

You can sometimes forget the skill of some of the old school comedians when they’re either a) not on TV so much anymore, b) Recognisable through films that aren’t really shown that much like The Cannonball Run or the original Ocean’s Eleven, c) they’re dead d) all of the above.

I realised that one of the Advanced Toastmasters Manuals includes a Roast. Interestingly, it’s not part of the Humorously Speaking manual. I find this quite an interesting module to include because in the U.K. we don’t really have roasts. In the U.S. they were originally done by the Friar’s Club then on Dean Martin’s show and are currently on Comedy Central. There are plenty of examples of roast speeches to be found on the internet.

Take a look at Don Rickles roasting… pretty much everyone. It’s a great example of a good roast speech:

Roast Speeches History

Here’s a quick lowdown on this curious American past time…

In North American English, a Roast, or roast speech, is an event in which an individual is subjected to comedic insults, praise, outrageous stories both true and untrue, racial stereotypes and heartwarming tributes. All for public consumption.

Generally speaking the roastee takes the insults in good faith and as a result, show off their good nature. From what I can work out it is seen as a great honor to be roasted, because the individual is often surrounded by friends, fans, and well-wishers, who sometimes receive the same treatment during the course of the evening.

In the U.K. part of our sense of humour is like this. We are generally insulting and frequently rude to our closest friends. Why this happens I’m not entirely sure. I guess, like the Roast, it is meant as a sign of affection and meant in good faith. But we tend not to give roast speeches.

The thing is, with the roast speech, I think it’s easy to do badly. I know, I’ve seen one…

Roast Speeches or a Series of Humourless Insults?

What I think is difficult at a Toastmasters club is the fact that, often, we don’t have people to roast who are well known to the audience. Toasmasters roast speeches can be a little flat and insipid. Not only that, but the nature of a Toastmasters club is that you don’t use explicit language or content, but that’s what a speech of, say, a Club President needs.

On Dean Martin’s show that I saw, and the subsequent ones on Comedy Central where they roast celebrities and comedians, everybody in the audience and watching at home on TV knows the victim. They know their background, they know they successes and failures.

Take, for example, the moment where Don Rickles insulted Dean Martin by referring to him as Jerry at the 1 min 50 mark. The audience of the day would’ve known that he was originally part of the double act Martin and Lewis with Jerry Lewis. They also would’ve known that the pair split on bad terms and so Rickles’ deliberate confusion would’ve been a perfect insult.

Whereas roasting the president of your Toastmasters club, might not necessarily be the same. Unless they are particularly well known for certain successes and failures that everyone in the audience is aware of. Otherwise, it can come across as actual insults and result in tension in the audience as they don’t know how to react to the content.

How to Give a Roast Speech

Here is a brief outline of How to Give a Roast Speech. The following tips on roast speeches is based upon the legendary Milton Berle’s own advice which I’ve cribbed from one of his joke books.

1. Choose someone worthy
- Berle advises that “the bigger the face you can make blush, the higher the gate receipts”. As I said earlier, it’s got to be someone known to the majority of your audience.

2. Marry the roastee to an event if possible - if your target is connected to an event somehow then the roast works even better as it can help give your insults in your roast speeches structure. Berle says: “Occasion give momentum, and an occasion can always be found: a birthday, an anniversary, a retirement…”

3. Make certain the roastee has some characteristics at which fun can be poked – Your target should have character idiosyncrasies or physical traits that are easy to ridicule. “The difference between average and dull, for roast purposes, is that put-down comedy is a matter of extremes. Cheap is not funny. The cheapest person is”, advises Berle.

4. A roast should last between four and six minutes - Berle talks about how professionals can conduct roast speeches that lasts between forty minutes to an hour and a half. However, “for non-professionals, the shorter the better. Each turn… should run between four and six minutes. Again, the shorter the better” advises Berle. I think that by keeping it short you keep the evening moving at a good pace at stop everyone from getting bored.

5. The designer of the affair should try to ensure that each speaker cover only a specific topic or topics – each speaker should focus on only one aspect of the roastee to ridicule. Berle advises against being too harsh with insults; “a word of caution in assembling spots. Consider the thickness of the roastees skin. The purpose of the roast is to “honor”, not make a roastee bleed red. The roast tell the guest of honor he or she is loved”.

6. The M.C. need not be a born clown – The M.C. should at least be witty, but doesn’t necessarily need to bust out punchlines on a regular basis. Berle adds that “not every guest on the dais will speak. There are almost always a half-dozen VIPs who will stand up and take a bow”. So remember not to introduce these VIPs as if they are going to speak. You may just want to acknowledge that they are there.

7. Speeches need not be memorised - while it’s not a prerequisite for your to memorise your roast speech, you still need to get very familiar with it if you are reading off index cards. As Berle says “the purpose of the card is a remidner only. Don’t recite the words”. They are there merely as your safety net.

8. Don’t rely on jokes, use your own sense of humour – this is one of my own additions here. I would outline your speech with your opening, body where you include any points that you want to make, and also your conclusion. Then work to uncover the humour and capture your own wit. One of the best methods of doing this that I’ve found is the Fast Start Guide to Stand-up Comedy. Don’t let the title put you off. As I’ve said before, the mechanisms for developing funny roast speeches are the same as stand-up, which are the same as humorous speeches.

Update: 30/07/2008

I found a link which supplies a bit of additional “how to” knowledge for penning funny roast speeches. You can check out that info right here: Comedy Roast.

Humorous Speech Roast – Outside the U.S.

As a Toastmasters speech module for speakers outside the U.S. I’m not completely convinced that it’s a good idea. From a speaking perspective away from Toastmasters a little gentle ribbing of a person who is being honoured might be a good avenue.

The main content of this type of humorous speech are the roast insults, you still have to be careful with what you say in the Toastmasters environment. Obviously, there are certain subjects that shouldn’t be mocked; politics, religion, sex and disabilities.

Even though the roastee may be fine for you to deal with these subjects when it comes to them, you run the risk of offending someone in your audience. And in a corporate or business environment that’s not something that you really want to do.

If you’re more interested in day to day business presenting this article might interest you might like to know how to create a funny presentation.

Addendum April 7th 2010: It seems that the Brits are attempting to tackle their own version of this American institution. The first being a roast of entertainment legend Bruce Forsyth. Check out the review of Bruce Forsyth: a Comedy Roast. Some newspapers didn’t quite get that it was supposed to be an evening of insults.

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