In his white T-shirt and dark blazer, Friars Club dean Freddie Roman looked like a vacationing Vulcan, but as he stood on the stage of New York’s Town Hall on the evening of June 9, he had some important business to conduct. “To those of you who are not members or guests of the Friars, this is the first time in our 97-year history that we’ve ever had a roast open to the public,” Mr. Roman told the crowd, which had paid $25 to $55 to see the bloody, filthy, heretofore private ritual of comedy’s stand-up warriors played out in a public arena.
Applause and a feral roar came back to Mr. Roman. The crowd sounded ready and willing for what was to transpire next: the public humiliation of comedian-actor Richard Belzer. But Mr. Roman seemed determined to leave no doubt about what was expected of the uninitiated and what they, in turn, should expect.
“To begin with, there should be no recording devices here. You’re part of something very private and very special,” Mr. Roman said. “We’re counting on you to keep our secrets.” And “anyone with rosary beads or muttering the Torah, I’d consider calling it a night.” As for “the prudes in the audience,” he added, “I’m giving you fair warning: You’ll be plotzing-but you’ll also be laughing your ass off.” The crowd bellowed with anticipation. “And if you love Richard Belzer and have a soft spot in your heart for him, we’re about to change all that.”
The comment seemed more like a come-on than a warning. For some time now, the Friars have slowly been letting the secrets of their ancient tradition leak into the civilized world. What was once the province of shtarker male comedians is now a coed event that, for the last three years, has been cablecast, in edited form, on Comedy Central-and will be again, when Playboy founder Hugh Hefner is roasted on Sept. 29.
And on June 9, the Friars took things to another level. Even before the Comedy Central specials began, comedy fans have been praying that the organization would find a way to market unexpurgated versions of its hallowed roasts (pay-per-view is often mentioned), and the Town Hall event-New Yorkers are fans of comedy and evisceration, after all-seemed a safe step in that direction.
But those who came thinking they were about to see a comic bloodletting of the first order would have to think again. There were certainly plenty of choice comic moments at Town Hall, but there were also unfunny stand-ups ( Bill Maher! ) and cheesy showbiz-bigshot cameos ( Barry Levinson! ) in between. It was like going to the theater to see Braveheart and finding out that it had been chopped up and spliced together with What Women Want .
Fortunately, the thread tying together these two disparate halves of the Town Hall event was Roastmaster Paul Shaffer. Contrary to the vanilla ice-cream suit and white-framed glasses that he wore for the evening, Mr. Shaffer showed a darker side of himself rarely on view as the leader of David Letterman’s Late Show band.
Usually it’s the Friars Abbot, Alan King, who sets the filthy tone of the evening, but this time around, the usually laser-sharp Mr. King seemed unfocused. After getting a nice laugh by reducing Mr. Belzer’s résumé to a single line-“He used to be funny, and he’s been on a cop show for nine years”-Mr. King then proceeded to walk the audience, at length, through his own autobiography-from Major Bowes to the bar mitzvah in Teaneck, N.J., that he suddenly left to play.
Although, at its best, a roast is the confrontation of mortality through comedy-the roast victim’s every shortcoming and failure is laid still quivering on the stage-Mr. King seemed preoccupied. “I’m aging. It’s not good. It’s not easy,” he said at one point to the receptive but mystified crowd, before recalling what his mentor George Burns had said on his 90th birthday about his sex life. “It’s like shooting pool with a rope,” Mr. Burns had said-and that , Mr. King continued after the laughter died down and before leaving the stage, was “how I feel about our guest of honor.”
“He’s a legend. He’s a survivor, really, more than a legend,” Mr. Shaffer said of Mr. King once he had been given the floor. “The man survived the advent of the talkies, the death of radio, 93 appearances on the Sullivan show” and, he added, “third-degree burns on his hand from jerking off Topo Gigio.”
Mr. Shaffer then said that the last time he’d been in Town Hall, “I was eating [the folk singer] Odetta.” When the half of the audience that got the joke roared its approval, Mr. Shaffer, reacting with a kind of mock surprise at his own insouciance, told them: “I don’t usually work blue. Uh, but tonight, at an event like this, it’s compulsory. This is what I was told: You gotta work blue. It behooves me to do that. So I want to tell you-fair warning, especially the ladies-the nicest word you’re likely to hear tonight is ‘cunt.’”
The formalities out of the way, Mr. Shaffer got down to the task of roasting his longtime friend. “Richard Belzer is a man who made us laugh so much and then stopped around 1991,” he said, noting that Mr. Belzer’s last HBO comedy special had been about one of the roastee’s favorite subjects: conspiracy theories. So Mr. Shaffer proposed a “Warren Commission to look into exactly how you died.”
From there, Mr. Shaffer touched on what would be the major comic themes of the evening: Mr. Belzer’s onetime dalliance with drugs, the testicle he lost to cancer, his tendency to recycle bits, his soft-core porn actress wife, Harley McBride and, of course, plenty of sexual deviance.
“I met him 27 years ago. That was when he still considered heroin one of the four basic food groups,” Mr. Shaffer said, tracing Mr. Belzer’s history to his current role as Detective Munch on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit .
“Detective Munch. Love that character,” Mr. Shaffer said, sounding a bit like Sammy Davis Jr. and adding that, coincidentally, “Detective Munch is Ellen DeGeneres’ party name.”
“What makes a man the Belz?” Mr. Shaffer asked. “A lot of people know that his lovely wife Harley has made a few soft-core adult films many years ago,” he said. How are these films different from hard-core porn? “In the soft-core,” he said, “it just looks like the chick is sucking a black guy’s ass.”
But Mr. Shaffer added, “that’s not what makes a man the Belz.”
Next, Mr. Shaffer recalled the time Mr. Belzer landed the role of “Seth, the gay stage manager,” in the Al Pacino film Author Author . “To prepare for the role,” Mr. Belzer, he continued, “went on a strict cock diet for two months. But that’s not what makes a man the Belz. I think it’s staying on that diet for six months after the film- that ,” the roastmaster said with utter conviction, “is what makes a man the Belz.”
Anyone who watched Mr. Belzer during Mr. Shaffer’s riff, and for the rest of the roast, would have been hard-pressed to think of a better candidate for the first man roasted in public. Though he was dressed in his trademark black and his eyes were masked by his omnipresent sunglasses, Mr. Belzer’s face came alive with sheer joy every time a good punch line was launched his way. He looked like he was thoroughly enjoying his vivisection, and this was helped the crowd enjoy themselves. Then again, Mr. Belzer was surrounded by a contingent of friends on the dais that included actors Ice T, Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Walken, director Barry Levinson, Oz creator Tom Fontana, comic and author Al Franken, Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher and Catch a Rising Star founder Rick Newman.
Before turning to the live participants, Mr. Shaffer introduced a series of videotapes sent by various celebrities, including Jay Leno, Regis Philbin, Billy Crystal and The Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart. “What a tremendous honor-you’re getting roasted at the Toyota Comedy Festival,” Mr. Stewart said in his. “Boy, who knows more about comedy than the Japanese auto-makers?” “You had two series on NBC at the same time, which leads me to think one thing,” Mr. Crystal said: “You have pictures of Bob Wright fucking a duck.” Then Mr. Crystal held up a Zip-Loc bag that contained what looked like an orb of uncooked chicken. Mr. Crystal reported that he was happy to have retrieved Mr. Belzer’s lost testicle. “I found it in Rick Newman’s ass,” he said.
“It was great of everybody to send those tapes,” Mr. Shaffer said after the lights came up. “Jay Leno would have liked to have been here, but he’s restoring an old rod. Enough about Regis’ cock.”
It was the last good laugh for a nice stretch. Robert Klein got up and did a bit in which the subtitle of Mr. Belzer’s series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit , became progressively more shabby. Then he inexplicably started thanking people on the dais until Mr. Roman yelled out: “I had to shave again!”
“You did a fair amount, too, you sonuvabitch,” Mr. Klein replied.
Next up was Mr. Fontana, the creator of HBO’s prison series, Oz . Mr. Fontana’s series inspired a lot of anal-rape jokes over the course of the evening, but once more, the best part of his routine was Mr. Shaffer’s introduction. “You know who should be on Oz ? Robert Downey Jr.!” Mr. Shaffer said, introducing Mr. Fontana. “You think he walks like Chaplin now!”
During Mr. Klein’s lengthy set, Politically Incorrect’ s Mr. Maher seemed to be squirming with boredom, and so when he took the podium, there was the sense that he would fire things up. “Some of the people up here so far really don’t know you that well, and I think that’s been reflected in their mediocre material,” Mr. Maher said, adding that his soon-to-be-deployed material “may not be funny, but it’s real. And it’s very personal.” Well, Mr. Maher was right. He was real, personal and not funny. Mr. Belzer, he said, “had a rough childhood. When his mother threw scraps on the table, the dog had to signal for a fair catch. And then his father killed himself.”
“Whew!” someone could be heard saying in the audience. Indeed, one person who repaired to the Friars Club after the roast overheard Mr. Belzer saying that the remark about his father was the only joke of the evening that pissed him off. But at the end of the evening, Mr. Belzer told the crowd: “Bill’s a great guy. The only time he has a funny bone in his body is when I fuck him in the ass.”
Barry Levinson followed. He wasn’t funny, either, but he got some nice laughs, for which he seemed grateful and relieved.
And then things got much better.
After Mr. Shaffer introduced comedian Jeffrey Ross as “the new kiss-ass king of the Friars,” Mr. Ross thanked him for the nice intro. Then he said that Mr. Shaffer looked like “Doc Severinsen fucked a turtle.”
Then Mr. Ross turned on the rest of the roasters, setting a precedent that would be repeated again and again. “This dais is lamer than Giuliani’s cock,” he said. Mr. Belzer looked “like Johnny Cash fucked a pockmark.”
“When I see Richard Belzer, at least I think of Homicide . When I see Al Franken, I think of suicide,” Mr. Ross continued. “Actually, all kidding aside, Al Franken gave me a copy of his new book, and I’m grateful because now I have something to give my maid’s husband for Kwanzaa.”
And spotting Mr. Roman, Mr. Ross said: “Freddie! Timothy McVeigh has a brighter future than you.”
After a brief musical interlude by Jerry Orbach, in which he rhymed “Belzer” with “seltzer” to the tune of “Mona Lisa,” Mr. Shaffer introduced Susie Essman by saying that she “recently starred Off-Broadway in The Vagina Monologues -playing the smell.”
But Ms. Essman set things right when she got up to the podium. “I had no idea you were so funny,” she told Mr. Shaffer. “And such a sharp tongue! That must really hurt David’s ass.
“You know, I’m the only woman roasting tonight. And I feel like the belle of the ball,” Ms. Essman said, “which I think is appropriate, because we’re honoring the ball of the Belz.”
Of Mr. Belzer, Ms. Essman said: “I know you love women-as opposed to these other cocksucking misogynists on the dais. The people like Bill Maher Bill’s the kind of guy who calls out his own name when he’s coming.” Then, referring to Ice T, Ms. Essman said, “I’m sure the word ‘bitch’ never crossed your lips.”
Even Danny Aiello wasn’t spared. “Apparently what happened is, a couple of months ago, Belz walked in on Danny screwing Harley,” Ms. Essman said. “Belz said, ‘Danny, what are you doing?’ And Danny said, ‘Well, I’ve got a movie coming out this fall, a miniseries . ‘”
Mr. Shaffer introduced comedian Dom Irrera as hailing from Philadelphia, “the City of Brotherly Love, which explains why he likes sucking dick so much.” Once again, Mr. Shaffer explained, “I don’t do this kind of stuff, but it behooves me.”
“Jerry Orbach did my fucking song!” Mr. Irrera said in a mock panic. “Now what am I going to do?” It didn’t take him long to recover. “Anyway, I was fucking Belzer in the ass one day,” Mr. Irrera said. “Not in a gay way-like a Viking. I had my hands on the horns of his metal helmet.”
Mr. Franken scored with an ass joke, too. But first he had to be introduced by Mr. Shaffer. “As you know, Al had his own television show, which was entitled Lateline ,” the roastmaster said. “Let me say in all candor, though, that I took a shit today that was darker, funnier and better constructed than that show. And more people saw it. I sold it to Lifetime.”
Mr. Franken told Mr. Fontana: “I wish I had a piece of the syndication action on Oz . It’s going to be very big on the soon-to-be-launched Ass-Fuck Channel.”
Turning to Mr. Belzer, Mr. Franken said: “Richard is what I call the comedian’s comedian. And it’s not because he makes us laugh, which he does, it’s that he almost never makes a real audience laugh.” Mr. Franken chalked this up to the fact that Mr. Belzer hadn’t written any new material in 20 years. “I mean, he’s still doing the Dylan-as-an-old-Jew bit. It was funny-in 1973,” he said. “Who knew he’d still be doing it after Dylan had actually become an old Jew?”
The high point of the evening came with Gilbert Gottfried’s screaming, soaring performance.
“Well, I didn’t have that much time to prepare tonight,” Mr. Gottfried said, at a volume three times higher than his fellow roasters. But he explained that roasting was really about just telling a bunch of “really old dirty jokes” and personalizing them with the roastee’s name. Mr. Gottfried explained that he didn’t have time to take this last step, “so you’ll just have to put the name into it.”
“A man walks into his son’s room,” Mr. Gottfried said, beginning his roll. “He goes, ‘Son, you could keep doing that, you’ll go blind.’ The son goes, ‘I’m over here, Dad.’”
The crowd screamed louder than Mr. Gottfried.
“A little boy goes up to his father and goes, ‘Dad, can I have $50 for blowjob?’” The father’s reply, according to Mr. Gottfried: “Son, hang on-you any good?”
“You just put his name in there,” Mr. Gottfried added.
And then: “A woman gets into a car accident. The husband rushes to the hospital. The doctor comes out and goes, ‘Look, it’s bad news. Your wife is crippled from the neck down. She can’t speak. Her body is mangled. You’ll have to take care of her 24 hours a day. And she has no control over her bowels or bladder. She can’t feed herself.’”
Mr. Gottfried paused a millisecond. “The man starts crying. The doctor goes, ‘I’m just fucking with ya. She’s already dead!’”
As Mr. Gottfried left the podium, the crowd cheered wildly. They stopped and then they started up all over again.
There was nowhere to go but down. But Ice T did surprisingly well. “The last time I looked at a box like this,” he said, looking back at the all-white dais, “I was on fucking trial for murder.”
Then it was Mr. Shaffer’s last chance. He got up to introduce Professor Irwin Corey, who would do, as he had been doing for decades, his great abstract mess of a speech that begins with “However!”
“He’s here, but he doesn’t know he’s here,” Mr. Shaffer said of the Friars veteran. “He thinks he’s at the strip club on 52nd Street. How else would you explain the dollar bill stuck in Mariska Hargitay’s snatch?” Ms. Hargitay looked a little flustered. Mr. Belzer’s jaw was dropping in admiration. The Town Hall audience went wild one more time.
“It behooves me to do blue,” Mr. Shaffer said.
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