Inside the Live ‘Jeff Ross Presents Roast Battle’ at Just For Laughs in Montreal

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When Dana White became President of the UFC in 2001, he turned what was once a chaotic, near criminal human cock-fighting consortium into a legitimate sporting event.

The rise in popularity of the UFC has mirrored the explosion of the celebrity roast in America, with Jeff Ross fulfilling White’s role as Roastmaster General. That synergy was on full display Sunday night at the live finals of Jeff Ross Presents Roast Battle; the marketing (Ross’ image was plastered all over downtown Montreal), set-design, logo featuring a skull and two flaming microphones as crossbones, chants of “Battle… Battle… Battle…” and even the fashion in the crowd was all eerily reminiscent of the time I attended the finals of UFC’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter in Las Vegas.

An hour before the taping, celebrity judge Judd Apatow is being led to the backstage area by a production assistant, and can be overheard saying “They’re nervous, I’m nervous” before taking his seat. The disposable nature of a roast means there is no greater high for a comedian than killing with a one-off set and, with only 48 hours to prepare material for their specific targets, no greater pressure or degree of difficulty at this televised Thunderdome.

The challenge for this show is that the four finalists are not yet household names, limiting the depth of available material that will resonate with the audience relative to when a celebrity is the target. In their opening round, Sarah Tiana made a number of pedophile jokes at Earl Skakel’s expense that allowed her to advance, but they could easily have been applied to any of her other potential opponents (e.g. “Earl doesn’t have kids either, unless you count the ones on his hard drive at home”).

If there are to be future iterations of the show that referee/comedian Brian Moses launched at the Comedy Store to settle a near physical altercation between two comedians, perhaps this is where Roast Battle could borrow from The Ultimate Fighter or Last Comic Standing, by giving more behind the scenes access to each comedians’ life prior to the battle to further mine material.

In the other semifinal, both the crowd and Twitter seemed to disagree with the judges’ decision of moving Mike Lawrence passed Canadian K. Trevor Wilson into the finals. Lawrence’s writing was tight during the set (“you look like if Mumford ate all of his sons”), but Wilson got the biggest crowd reaction of the night when he made a reference to Quebec comedian Mike Ward’s recent $42,000 fine by the Province’s Human Rights Tribunal.

In their battle for third place, Skakel (part of the Camelot Kennedy clan) had the best one-two combo of the hour when he said of Wilson “His favorite soda is ginger ale, not because he’s a redhead, but because he leaves every girl in Canada dry,” before dropping “With that size of head, if you were riding with my uncle he would still be alive.”

Lawrence dropped the best ad-lib in his final against Tiana, where following her joke about Lawrence’s previous career at McDonald’s and their decision to tear down all the playgrounds, he responded with “you’re really lucky both your opponents look like pedophiles.”

While Lawrence’s jokes largely targeted Tiara’s sex (“People think she’s a slut, but she’s a real prude, she won’t even put out new material”), which was called out by Sarah Silverman during her deliberation, his writing was superior, and his composure and ad-libs throughout the night carried him to the title.

“It feels great, I don’t know what to feel right now, I’m super fucking happy, this is the least funny I will ever be, but it’s also the second happiest I will ever be, besides my wedding day,” a visibly exhausted Lawrence said in the lobby immediately following his win.

“It’s ridiculous, I’m so burnt out, but I’m fucking happy it happened, and everyone was great. Trevor was amazing, Sarah was great, Earl… I’m happy with the result.”

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