As the clock flips from late Tuesday to early Wednesday, the capacity crowd of 125 swells. The Comedy Store's upstairs Belly Room swelters. Roast Battle host Brian Moses takes the stage amid shouts and whoops.
"You guys know the rules," he reminds undercard competitors Lance Allen and Jay Mandyam. "No. 1, nothing is off-limits except for physical contact. No. 2, original material only. No. 3, every battle ends with a hug. First round, you guys are going tit for tat, back and forth. Ladies and gentlemen, let's roast!"
"You guys don't know this, but Lance treated this roast like high school," Mandyam begins. "He kept dropping out!"
"Haaa!" the crowd mock-groans.
"Jay Mandyam's jokes are so weak, you would have thought them bitches went on a hunger strike," Allen retorts.
"Ooooh!" the audience hoots.
Insults fly back and forth and back again. Then Mandyam tosses out a one-liner — "You look like a Colombian Dennis Miller!"
"You look like D'ziz Ansari!" Allen retaliates.
The room explodes. From a reserved row at stage right, five guys leap from their seats, arms akimbo, mouths gaping, eyes agog, exaggerating their reaction to the Parks and Recreation star's name-check.
Moses rejoins the two comics onstage. Turning to the crowd, he instructs, "If you like Lance Allen, make some sounds with your hands and mouth!" A roar of approval fills the room.
"If you like Jay, make it loud!" A second roar. "All right, Lance gets that first one," Moses declares. "Second round, 30 seconds to tell as many jokes as possible. Let's roast!"
"Lance actually has a Grammy," Mandyam says, "the Grammy that raised him when his dad left! Lance, I heard you got a holding deal — you hold your entire race back!"
"Jay, I don't know what you was thinking challenging me," Allen counters. "I'm a real nigger, when you're just a regular-ass sand nigger! I'm not sure which Jay Mandyman is more unsure of: how to deliver a joke, or his sexuality!" The crowd — racially diverse, predominantly young, vocally engaged — is going crazy. The guys in the reserved seats turn somersaults at the edge of the stage.
Latecomers overflow through the doorways and down the stairs, craning their necks just to hear the put-downs land. Moses kicks off the third and final round: "Let's roast!"
"You walk more people than a cure for AIDS!"
"Weird that you'd say that, 'cause you're built like an AIDS victim!"
"Of course you're so skinny, you got fed on 50 cents a day!"
"Lance, you look like you're fighting back tears. I don't know if I'm watching a minstrel show or a menstrual show!" Jumping on one another's shoulders, the reserved-seaters spin in piggyback circles. As Mandyam emerges victorious, they hoist him aloft and carry him offstage.
Most comedy shows are passive, moderately civilized affairs. Roast Battle is different. It's a raw, unpredictable, word-of-mouth event with no admission fee or marketing push. Contentwise, anything goes. From botched abortions to comparing a competitor's onstage bombing to 9/11, nothing is off-limits. And while just about every syllable is offensive, no one takes offense.
"It seems kind of barbaric, but it is," Moses explains. "It's a gladiator sport."
The Comedy Store regular, a SoCal native, began transforming the tail end of a previously sleepy 10 p.m.–to–2 a.m. open mic into a weekly free-for-all in August 2013, when peers suggested warring comics Josh Martin and Kenny Lion settle their differences with a slap-boxing match.
"Then cooler heads prevailed," Moses recalls. The compromise: "You guys trash-talk each other. We'll do three rounds, one minute apiece."
Relentless instigator Terrell "Rell" Battle (Comedy Central's Key & Peele) proclaimed himself the judge. Fisticuffs averted and fellow comics buzzing over the war of words, Moses and Battle ended the open mic the same way the following week. The Belly Room has been packed every Tuesday since.
Originally named the Rell Battle Battle, the show experimented with its format for months. "Moses would bring them up, and I would kind of knock them down," Battle recalls. "He's such a nice, affable host, he would be the Ryan Seacrest; I would be the Simon Cowell."
Looking to up the show's credibility, Battle added a panel of celebrity comedians to critique participants and throw a few jabs of their own. One week, comic Virginia Collins dragged boyfriend Jeffrey Ross upstairs after his regular Main Room spot to fill in for an absent judge. Known as the Roastmaster General for his appearances on numerous Comedy Central roasts and panel series The Burn, Ross recognized the environment offered more than verbal sparring. It provided a temple of free speech.
"I was immediately enthralled by the energy," Ross enthuses. "I told Moses it was like Fight Club for comedians. Comics insulting one another instead of a celebrity seemed to be the next incarnation of roasting. Of course I wanted to be one of the competitors, but Moses encouraged me to be a mentor and offer advice and coaching between rounds. Plus, that way I got to rip on everybody in the room."
Ross also encouraged his comedy pals to judge; stand-ups Dave Attell, Bill Burr, Sarah Silverman, Bobby Lee, Natasha Leggero, Hannibal Buress and Russell Peters all have taken the dais.
The show's precursors include underground rap battles, the rapid-fire faceoffs featured in the 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile. Perhaps less known is insult game the Dozens. In the African-American contest of words, two competitors trade escalating "snaps" back and forth. Like the Dozens — which birthed the ubiquitous "Yo mama" genre of one-liner — the ultimate goal of the more pugnacious rap battles is social dominance.
Joke writing is paramount at Roast Battle. Material is meticulously researched and crafted and, in the vein of traditional roasting, respect is a key component. As with the Friars Club and Comedy Central, roasting honors a comedian's body of work. Being asked to participate is a compliment, and those who agree to go onstage are naturally eager to affirm their own writing prowess, rising to the challenge of surprising, impressing and entertaining their peers. The only material deemed beyond the pale are insults that are lazy, nonspecific or repetitive. The title of Ross' 2009 memoir/how-to book — borrowed from an old Friars Club motto — illustrates the idea: I Only Roast the Ones I Love.
"There aren't many places left in the world where you can do this type of humor, so it's fun to see it fly so freely," Ross says. "It reminds me of what the old private Friars Club roasts must have been like, when you got to hear wholesome TV stars like Milton Berle use words like 'cunt.' I like the idea of me and the other judges helping newer comics navigate their way around sensitive words and subjects. I always attest that no area of life is off-limits when handled by a professional. Tuesdays at midnight is now a breeding ground for the next generation of roasters."
"Battle! Battle! Battle!" the crowd chants as sirens and air horns shriek from the rear sound booth.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Cobra Kai dojo for stand-up comedy!" Moses booms, introducing the evening's main event. The Rocky theme trumpets and the reserved row leaps to its feet, conjoined arms forming a raised arch as competitors Frank Castillo and Jayson Thibault pass. "Let's roast!"
An opening undercard and DJ Tyrell "Coach Tea" Blanche became battle fixtures this past spring. Blanche, who has known Moses since their days in rival junior high school orchestras ("Moses says I'm the Questlove to his Jimmy Fallon"), keeps the energy high via music and sound effects.
"I see myself as a live foley artist taking cues from the host, judges and battlers," he says. "I score the entire thing live and help everyone entertain."
Another addition: Jamar Neighbors, an early Roast Battle competitor, channeled a magnetic physicality into the creation of the Negro Wave cheering section. When material hits, Neighbors, Keith Seoul, Jack Knight, Garrick Bernard and "random white guy" Jeremiah Watkins ignite the audience with everything from fist-pumping, roof-raising and chanting ("Comeback! Comeback! Comeback!" for example, or "More hate! More hate! More hate!") to dumping water over themselves to alleviate a joke's heat. They've even crowd-surfed Ross to the stage for competitors to roast in an impromptu sudden-death round.
Across the room in a designated "Whites Only" section, the House Racists, portrayed in uptight, nasal-voiced caricature by Earl Skakel and Whitney Rice, cheer according to skin color. Their contribution, according to Moses: "Just to say the most racist shit they possibly can."
And between bouts there's Comedy Store fixture Boon Shakalaka, who takes the stage in drag to dance and shit-talk the audience.
"He's so wild and crazy that you get comfortable with everything else you're going to see in the show," Battle says. "You're Bill Cosby at that point, compared to what Boon's doing."
The regulars share a commitment to pushing the boundaries of their art form. That means tackling race (and racism) in a way that would be unheard of elsewhere. But it's not just about race, or racism. It's about challenging what's "permissible" at every given opportunity — gender, sexuality, parentage, appearance, bigotry, professional shortcomings. The cast of characters evolved organically, birthed from a collective desire to elevate the production. "If it works," Battle shrugs, "we say, 'Fuck it, let it stay!'?"
"Even the crowd is a character," Moses adds. "They're like the Smoke Monster from Lost or the Sandworm from Beetlejuice. They will eat you alive if you're not doing well."
Or as Battle puts it: "It's this big thing we can't even control anymore. The animals run the zoo."
Coach Tea punches a bell sound effect. The seasoned main-event competitors come out swinging. Their stances carry more confidence than the undercards; their insults are more personal.
Thibault: "Frank is an authentic Mexican: He has the height of his father, and the beard of his mother!"
Castillo: "Jayson, you look like Shaggy if Scooby Snacks were made of meth!"
Thibault: "Frank dealt with a lot of racism in high school. His nickname was 'That wetback that'll suck your cock!'?"
Castillo: "Jayson was on a podcast called Occasionally Awesome. He's also occasionally sober!"
The bell dings. From the judges' dais, Conan vet Mike Lawrence questions Thibault's knock on Castillo's beard, as the latter shaved clean in preparation.
"Making jokes about how someone used to look?" Lawrence asks. "It's not like 'Previously on Roast Battle.' ... It's not Game of Thrones! 'Oh, I've missed the last three episodes; what happened?'?"
Moses turns to the House Racists. "We've got a semi-white guy, and an actual white guy. What do you think?"
"Well, it pains me to do this, but I've got to give this round to the brown kid," Skakel whines, pushing his thick glasses farther up his nose.
Castillo forges ahead. "Jayson Thibault was raised by two lesbians, which is why he dresses like a faggot. ... Jayson goes to a lot of AA meetings. Mostly for the stage time. ... Forget getting your name inscribed on the Comedy Store wall, man, you should really try getting your name on a lease!"
Gunshot effects echo Castillo mowing Thibault down. The Negro Wave surrounds the winner, bowing in reverence, clasping his raised arms, spanking him with a black Roast Battle Champion belt.
As in wrestling, alliances, rivalries, heroes and villains have emerged. Women battle men, writers take on improv performers; alternative, urban and mainstream competitors from every imaginable background and ethnicity go head to head. With a level playing field ensuring anyone can compete, and a fluid format adapting readily to other local comedy scenes, Roast Battle is poised to go national.
July 28 marked the first road test, a sold-out Monday night at the La Jolla Comedy Store, where Moses got his start. Festival offers are now on the table. Between Ross' industry connections, Battle's promotional flair and Moses' administrative acumen, the three partners are evaluating television options with Ross' reps at William Morris.
The biggest hurdle? Preserving both the circuslike environment and a sense of authenticity.
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"You don't want to lose the core street element," Battle cautions. "We don't want people to soften it up."
"The show keeps developing organically, and I'm very cautious of interrupting that process right now," Ross agrees. "I'm not sure it would fly on TV unless we found a network with tremendous balls that could stay true to the integrity and grit of the live show."
For now, Roast Battle continues to allow comedians to blow off steam and cut loose. The intensity, unpredictability and conviviality can reaffirm what attracted even the most jaded comedy lifer to performing in the first place. It's the rare battle in which everyone's fighting for the same side.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Terrell "Rell" Battle. We regret the error.