Everything I know about doing roast battles
Here is what I've learned from doing a dozen roast battles
Disclaimer: I am not setting myself up as a roast battle expert. My credentials are that I have done 12 roast battles (far fewer than many roastin’ regulars) and some of them were pretty funny, and I got into the final of the Roast Battle UK Knockout Tournament 2022 by winning three battles in a row.
A couple of people have asked my advice about doing roast battles so I thought I would write down what I told them. Most of this is advice I got from more experienced comedians.
The format explained briefly
This is specifically about the format of Roast Battle UK - I haven’t done any other roast shows.
You apply with another comic as a pair, or you can ask to be paired with whoever’s available - I suggest applying with someone you know, at least a bit, for your first battle.
You and your opponent will send each other 10 facts about yourselves that could provide ammunition for jokes - usually at least a week in advance.
In the battle you do 5 roast jokes, taking turns. After your opponent does a joke about you, you have a chance to rebut it in a funny way before you do your next joke - you can say why their claim isn’t true, or why it applies to them even more, or just take another opportunity to insult them (“thanks, Aldi Matt Damon”).
A panel of (usually 3) pro comedians then judges the battle, often giving their opinion of the overall quality of the roasts and making fun of both of you before voting for who was best.
Here’s an example battle:
Remember that the audience doesn’t know your opponent. You’re not roasting Joan Rivers where everyone knows something about her. If you’re going to introduce a true fact about them, it’s important to explain (even over-explain)
You don’t have to use their facts in every joke, or at all. Sometimes it’s better to mock their superficial appearance or overall vibe. A well-chosen comparison to a celebrity or an archetype can work well. If you don’t know them, make sure to look at recent standup clips/podcast appearances/Instagram reels.
You can frame your opponent how you want. (Peter Bazeley told me this). I made fun of Steph Aritone for being a desperate 30-something single with dwindling fertility, which isn’t actually true (she’s only 30 and brimming with viable eggs), but it worked on the night.
You can be too dark/mean and lose the crowd. Not everyone who shows up knows what a roast battle is, or is down for no-holds-barred edginess. It’s often useful to establish that you’re the underdog in some way, to make your mean jokes seem more acceptable. If you’re a man roasting a woman, there’s a fine line between applying a sexist trope to this one particular woman and coming across as sexist and losing half the crowd.
Sometimes it’s funny to pick one characteristic and mock it from a few different angles. Establish that your opponent is lazy, and then keep doing setups that lead back to that ‘fact’. It’s funnier if it’s not obvious that you’re going back to the topic from the setup - don’t do three “X is so lazy that” jokes, start with a seemingly unrelated fact and then tie it back to what you’ve already established. On the other hand, coming back to the same characteristic can get you marked down by the judges for being repetitive.
If you can combine several established ‘facts’ it’s even funnier. Caroline Hanes destroyed with her final joke in this battle by tying together several things she’d already established (I dress up as a dog, I’m sexually inadequate, I’m dating a younger woman).
Try to avoid reading your jokes from a phone or notebook during the roast. (Rick Kiesewetter told me this). Just like with normal stand-up, reading creates a barrier between you and the audience. Rehearse your material just like you would your stand-up set. At least try to memorise the first couple of jokes and look at your notes in between roasts.
Rebuttals really elevate a roast. You know the facts you’ve given your opponent, you know what aspect of your looks is most mockable, so think about what you could say if someone makes fun of you for playing D&D or whatever. Listen to what your opponent is saying. Even a really obvious route one joke seems more impressive if you can come up with it off the cuff.
Obvious point, but definitely go and see a few roasts live or watch videos of them before you do one. You will see that there are certain stock jokes and tropes that come up.
Don’t be discouraged if your first couple of roast battles don’t go well. In my first two battles, I only had 1 joke out of 10 that really worked (and that was a bit I’d done a few times before that I’d repurposed). Roasts use some of the skills you have from stand-up, but they’re also different enough that you’re starting at the bottom of a learning curve. Just like you weren’t put off from doing stand-up when you bombed early on, don’t be put off roast battle if a joke bombs and you get the ‘crickets’ sound effect.
My final tip is: do roast battles! Roast Battle UK is a great gig in front of a real crowd, you get £20 if you win, and you get to meet the pro comedian judges. It’s a useful joke-writing exercise and it’s a good way to get an idea of what an audience finds funny about you.
Especially do roast battles if you’re not a middle-class white man. There’s a lot of lip service to ‘diversity’ in comedy, sometimes in ways that I don’t think are actually helpful to the ‘diverse’ acts. But diversity in roast battles is important, for the simple reason that there’s more comedic juice when the roasters are different races or sexes or orientations or whatever.
Don’t use your opponent’s self-deprecating jokes from their stand-up word for word against them as roast material. That seems like cheating to me.
If someone writes a good joke about the way you look, you can use that as a self-deprecating joke in your own stand-up. Probably better to ask them if that’s OK, but I will always say ‘yes’ because I have no use for a joke about being really tall or painfully thin. I have a bit about computers that I get into by saying “I work in IT - obviously” and at first I didn’t even realise that I was channeling Joe Bingham roasting me when I started saying that.
The official Roast Battle UK position is that your opponent is allowed to rule out certain topics in advance, and you have to honour that. In a ‘friendly’ where you’ve gone in as a pair, that’s fine if you’re both OK with it. But in a tournament or random pairing asking for special treatment seems like cheating - it’s like challenging someone to a game of chess, then telling them they’re not allowed to take your queen because that would hurt your feelings. In future, if someone does that to me, I will simply ask to be paired with another opponent, because I think that’s inimical to the spirit of roast battle. I would encourage other people to do the same. I’ve heard stories of comics trying to rule out a pretty obvious topic 10 minutes before the show. Fuck that.
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Thanks Ben, I'm an undercard rn and I appreciate your takes on last minute topic bans. It's best to be respectful, but I think if someone isn't mentally in the right spot to handle roasts, they should withdraw themselves from the gig.