Back in the day, a group of press agents who would give out free tickets to reporters to cover their Broadway shows realized not all of these so-called journalists were legit. They decided to gather at Browne’s Chop House in New York City to discuss the problem–which they did over a period of several weeks–then just blacklisted the crooks in question. But something much more important, not to mention monumental, came out of their meetings–they found they enjoyed hanging out together, swapping stories, telling jokes, drinking and smoking together and whatnot. So much so that they continued to meet on a regular basis and soon formed a club: The National Press Agents Association.
It was a boring albeit accurate name until the actors and musicians started joining them at the various chophouses they began frequenting on a regular basis. George M. Cohan, Victor Herbert, Irving Berlin and tons of other celebrities and superstars of the day joined up. That’s when they renamed themselves the Friars, whose Latin name referred to the brotherhood they were fast becoming, forming a fraternal order that had absolutely nothing to do with religion. Which is a good thing considering their future reputation and all.
The Friars Club quickly established itself as the hip, hot, happening place to be and started honoring their own with lavish black tie dinners utilizing the enormous talent that the members from the Broadway stages possessed. Even as early as 1910 they were known for their unorthodox and rowdy ways. “FRIARS KID MR. HARRIS: Veteran Theatrical Manager Butt of Jokes at Dinner,” read the headline of the December 10, 1910 issue of the New York Tribune. They’ve been making headlines ever since.
These events morphed into their hugely popular roast that has become a household word among those with a slightly alternate sense of humor. Because their stodgy dinners weren’t so stuffy anymore they needed a venue to separate the men from the boys, so to speak. One in which women weren’t allowed to even think of attending, where waiters were ordered from the ballrooms so only the Friars themselves could be privy to the slaughtering of the guest of honor’s ego. Where self esteem was eviscerated and grown men reduced to tears–of laughter over the hilarious commentaries made of their careers, marriages, sex lives, physical attributes and anything else the comics could think of–nothing was off limits. Thankfully, that still stands today.
All the Friars need to do is recite their beloved mantra over and over to each guest of honor–“We only roast the ones we love”–and that makes it all ok. Works every time. Add their personal friends to join in the skewering and it makes it not only fair but also worthwhile since they know where the bodies are buried. Rob Reiner said of his buddy Billy Crystal, “What can I say about Billy? He’s my best friend. I think sick twisted Jew just about sums it up.” Robin Williams said of his best friend Richard Pryor, “It seems strange to have a roast for a man who did it to himself.” Best buds are clearly who you want to see on that roast dais.
Phyllis Diller was so curious as to what went on at these roasts that she dressed as a man and snuck into the Sid Caesar roast in 1983. A dead ringer for “Claude Rains” (her words) she pulled it off and didn’t get busted until the end. Diller admits, “It was the funniest and dirtiest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
They still honored women, however, with dinners and roasts over the years. Frank Sinatra serenaded Sophie Tucker at her 1953 roast with a special song noting she was “The only Friar without balls (and we’re not certain),” while Johnny Carson introduced Lucille Ball at her roast in 1961 as “Lucille Testicle” and Carol Burnett was hit in the face with a pie at her Testimonial Dinner in 1973. They got even with Phyllis Diller by tossing her a roast of her own in 1985.
So it was only a matter of time for women to join the Friars and in 1988 they allowed women to be card-carrying members with Liza Minnelli being first on the roster. This opened the doors to no more stag roasts and Joy Behar holds the title of being the first female to be Roastmaster when she helmed Danny Aiello’s event in 1997.
Showman Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash while on the way to his Friars Club Testimonial Dinner. His wife, Elizabeth Taylor stayed home with a cold or would have joined him on that flight. Kelsey Grammer’s roast was delayed owing to his entering the Betty Ford Clinic the day before his scheduled roast. Talk about a good sport though, he showed up a month later to let the party commence. Johnny Carson had to relieve himself on the dais of his very long dinner with Buddy Hackett supplying the champagne bucket. The stories are endless and each one a gem.
Over the years the Friars have tantalized television viewers with broadcasting their sometimes-salacious roasts. They love a good tease and every so often dangle that carrot and the promise of a good time to panting audiences who can’t get enough of the Friars forbidden nectar of laughs. Only to find the doors shut time and time again to keep those skeletons from wandering too far outside their hallowed halls.
While the Friars have a home they call the Monastery where they hang out, drink, eat, and do the merry thing, it’s their roasts that have put them on the map. It’s one of the most imitated events in history and who doesn’t love a little flattery. They’re willing to share the spotlight but let it be known that the Friars own special brand of pluckiness, when mixed with a jarring wit and sprinkled with copious amounts of sarcasm and cynicism produces the heartiest laughs known to man.
Friars Club Historian and Author