Here’s What Ripping Someone A New One in the 1950s Sounded Like
Celebrity roasts are all good clean fun until someone loses an eye (or whatever the self-esteem equivalent of “losing an eye” might be). Check out this sampler platter of vicious takedowns from Comedy Central’s barbaric brawls:
Triumph the Insult Comic Dog scorching the portly Rob Reiner: “Even David Crosby thinks you let yourself go."
Whitney Cummings destroying Pamela Anderson: "Pam, you've slept with Bret Michaels, Tommy Lee, and Kid Rock. Why don't you just save yourself some time and drink a vat of Magic Johnson's blood?"
Amy Schumer charbroiling Charle Sheen: “Charlie, you get a bad rap, but you're just like Bruce Willis. You know, you were big in the '80s and now your old slot's being filled with Ashton Kutcher."
We seem to have come a long way from the days of George Jessel, a mid-20th century do-it-all entertainer known as the Toastmaster General. (His modern-day counterpart, Jeffrey Ross, goes by “Roastmaster General,” a signifier that things were going to get meaner in the decades to come.) Jessel, one of the founders of the west coast version of the Friar’s Club in 1946, was considered the master of the roast.
The Friars Club, whose motto was “we only roast the ones we love,” made regular events of “hauling the guest of honor and one another over the coals,” according to Jessel’s how-to manual, The Toastmaster General’s Favorite Jokes. But be careful, he warns. While it’s all in good fun, “the remarks might sound pretty rough to an outsider.”
An insulting joke, “though very funny, is also very satirical, and you must know your speaker, your guests, and your audience very well to get away with it. When you do, it can be a real gas.”
OK, Georgie boy, we get it. Your wit can be as sharp as a brand-new box cutter, and if a fellow isn’t careful, he’s likely to get cut and bleed all over the floor. But we’re all friends here, and friends can get away with a little ribbing, right? So let’s do this!
Using his Toastmaster General instructions as a guide, let’s reconstruct what Jessel might have sounded like ripping a celebrity pal a new one in 1955. (We’re randomly choosing William Frawley, I Love Lucy’s lovable curmudgeon Fred Mertz.) Take it away, George!
Hello friends -- we’re here tonight to honor our old friend, Bill Frawley. Did I say old? I wouldn’t exactly say he’s aging, but the only gleam in his eye is the reflection through his bifocals!
I’m kidding. Have another Old Fashioned, Billy, I’ll drive tonight. Yes, folks, Bill has decided to be a plain old drunk instead of an alcoholic. Now he doesn’t have to go to all those darn meetings.
Oh, he still believes in a higher power. In fact, he found someone to help him contact the spirit world -- a bartender!
We were sorry to hear about your divorce, Bill, but we understand. Why, his ex’s dresses were cut so low I had to look under the table to see what she was wearing.
I asked Bill why he cheated on his wife. He said, “somebody’s got to do it.”
But it was never destined to work out. Edna used to complain about how cheap he was. According to her, Bill would have asked for separate checks at the Last Supper.
Yes, Bill is always on the lookout for some extra cash, but you have to question his methods. Once he called the post office, told them it was a stick-up, and asked the clerk to mail him ten thousand stamps.
Bill is a little overweight but maybe that’s why he’s so good-natured. He can’t fight and he can’t run. Why, the other day, a tramp approached him for a quarter, crying that he hadn’t eaten for three days. Bill shook his head and said “Boy I wish I had your will power.”
At least he doesn’t let his weight ruin his self-confidence. In fact, he’s so conceited that on his last birthday, he sent a letter of congratulations to his mother.
But seriously, Bill, you’re great. We love you, buddy!
It would never work today, you say? Norm Macdonald would have disagreed. In fact, we suspect he mined The Toastmaster General’s Favorite Jokes when he stuck it to old pal Bob Saget. The brilliance is the audience slowly getting the bit, with its collective stunned silence nearly as hilarious as the hopelessly dated punchlines.
A simpler, gentler time, yes? Maybe not. It seems that Jessel and friends weren’t as genial as the Toastmaster claims in his how-to handbook. While George provided advice for mild ribbing, the actual Friars’ Club roasts that happened when the cameras weren’t rolling were way more off-color and cruel than the Dean Martin versions aired for public consumption.
Behind closed doors, Milton Berle took over the roasts and they became (by 1950s standards) “vicious beyond belief”, according to Friars Club history A Hundred Years, A Million Laughs.
In fact, Jessel himself presided over a Friar’s Club roast of film producer Harry Joe Brown that featured beloved comedians getting nastier than we’ve ever heard them. In this little-heard recording, mild-mannered Jack Benny jokes about fornication, while acknowledging Ronald Reagan as the only celeb who understood the word’s meaning. He accuses the Friars of masturbating to all his dirty gags (he references tampons and diaphragms, so you can guess why they were hot and bothered). Take a listen -- it’s likely the only time you’ll hear the legendary Benny use the word “shitheel.”
And then there’s George Burns, the man who played the Almighty in Oh God. He was in love with Gracie, but that didn’t stop him from telling stories about the time he and Harry both got STDs from the same girl. “Cupid’s eczema?” Classy, George, classy.
The lesson? While Jessel and his brothers put on a polite public face, behind closed doors they were the same kind of antagonistic a-holes that we love today.
Top image: Creative Commons/Public domain