After years roasting such pop culture figures as Justin Bieber and Pamela Anderson, Jeff Ross is diving into the past with his newest project, Netflix’s Historical Roasts.
“Nothing is off-limits because no one’s going to complain,” says the Ross of the series’ long-dead targets, among them Bob Saget’s Abraham Lincoln and Jaleel White’s Muhammad Ali. “When I roasted Donald Trump, he was very sensitive about jokes about his finances.”
But just because Cleopatra (Ayden Mayeri) and Freddie Mercury (James Adomian) can’t call Ross to whine about his jabs doesn’t mean he was any less serious about getting their stories right. One of the first things the comedian did after he became attached to the project was to buy a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Producers also hired a historian to sit in on the brainstorming sessions and made sure to stock the writers room with a wide range of comedic voices, from veteran writer Lance Crouther (The Chris Rock Show, Real Time with Bill Maher) to up-and-coming trans comic Robin Tran, who broke out on Ross’ Comedy Central series, Roast Battle.
“I didn’t want this to be an old white guy’s history show,” explains Ross. “I wanted it to represent what’s going on in the world now, so you need a very diverse writing staff.”
Historical Roasts began as a live comedy show from Eddie Furth, Ryan Pigg and Samee Junio that is held regularly at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. OBB Pictures CEO Michael D. Ratner saw a performance and optioned the rights but knew he’d need Ross, known as the “Roastmaster General,” to make the project work. “For anything in the roast space to feel authentic, you’ve got to bring it to Jeff,” Ratner says.
Together, they developed a format for a half-hour show in which a historical figure is roasted by a panel of his or her contemporaries. David Bowie (Seth Green) and Kurt Cobain (Nikki Glaser) hurl insults at Freddie Mercury, for example. “As the son of a caterer, I thought, ‘Let’s throw Abe Lincoln a party. Let’s throw Cleopatra a party,'” explains Ross.
Setting the right tone started in the writers room, led by head writer Frank Sebastiano (Saturday Night Live), where debates over the legacies of these figures was encouraged. And while Ross acknowledges that at times they dove into potentially more controversial subject matter, that didn’t hinder the creative process. “The more weighty the subjects were, the more we felt obligated to go there,” he says. Crouther, who has been writing comedy since 1990s, adds, “You’ve got to make people laugh and then stop and think. You can’t make them stop and think and then try to get them to laugh.”
Historical Roasts, which bows May 27, was filmed in front of studio audience, many of them friends and family from the comedy world, dressed in appropriate period garb for each episode. Ratner, who also co-wrote and directed the episode on Ali, says the goal was not only to mine history for comedy, but also to bring the events of the past into the present: “We really did look at this thing like a history lesson for millennials.”