Sure, things change in the comedy world. Johnny Carson retires, handing the torch to Jay Leno, who in turn passes it on to Jimmy Fallon. Even though Jack Benny and Groucho Marx aren’t on Instagram and don’t have funny hashtags, Classic Friars Club Roasts understands that Golden Age comedians’ unique brand of humor lives on in modern comedians.
Paving the way for comediennes of the modern era, Lucille Ball was one of the first women roasted at the Friars Club. Hosted by the illustrious and hilarious Johnny Carson, her roast showed the world that Lucy could hold her own with the big boys of TV humor. With an amazing sense of timing and a way to make the ridiculous seem sane and vice versa, she inspired generations of women to pursue comedy as a livelihood. Lucy’s influence remains strong in present day funny women like Ellen DeGeneres and Melissa McCarthy, whose outrageous antics and sharp minds keep audiences on their toes, much like their comedic forbearer.
Uncle Miltie really knew how to bring down the house. With his dry wit and acidic smirk, “Mr. Television” was a consummate entertainer. Known as one of television’s top dogs, his Friars Club Roast was almost as much a watershed event as Woodstock and landing a man on the moon. Whether putting on a dress with sidesplitting results or scowling expressively at the camera, his legend lives on in modern-day hams like Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert. To this day, though, no one can punctuate a gag with a cigar like Milton Berle.
Before Seth Myers, before David Letterman, even before the great Johnny Carson, there was Steve Allen. The first host of the Tonight Show, Allen truly created the formula for which all late night television would follow. An amazing showman, gracious host, talented musician, and gifted comedian, Allen was also a regular roaster at the Friars Club. Any performer who steps onto the late night stage should first tip their hat to Steve Allen and the legacy he left for them.
Blessed with a rapier wit and the need to skewer anyone or anything on it, Don Rickles is the master of the barbed comment. Jerry Seinfeld’s backhanded compliments and Robert Smigel’s crass Triumph the Insult Comic Dog were both merely a twinkle in the eyes of comedy when Rickles took aim at some of Tinseltown’s biggest and most deserving celebrities. That’s why he truly transcended comedy. To this day, he remains a household name synonymous with snark. He’s influenced thousands of sarcastic young comics to roast their friends and neighbors before trying out their bitter tongues on the comedy circuit.
Along with her friend and mentor Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett was a true comedic innovator. She got her start working as a bit player and guest star on many shows, including the short-lived Stanley and The Jack Benny Program. Although popular, superstardom didn’t truly find her until her self-titled variety show, The Carol Burnett Show, aired in 1967. The show was an overnight success, quickly growing into one of the most popular shows on television, consistently bringing in solid ratings, and raking in Emmys and Golden Globes along the way. Burnett’s success proved that women not only have a place in physical comedy but could become masters of it—an honor The Friars Club returned when they roasted her in 1973.
Jack Benny was the original cheapskate that launched a thousand gags. Without Benny, now-classic characters like George Costanza on Seinfeld and renowned miser Mr. Burns of The Simpsons simply wouldn’t be as funny. As with many of his contemporaries, Benny successfully made the jump from radio to television as the audio medium declined in the 1950’s. His eponymous program featured many up and coming comedians such as Carol Burnett, Harry Shearer, and Mel Blanc—including some he wound up lampooning during Classic Friars Club Roasts. However, his comedic style made a greater impact than even his popular television program. Throughout the years, many comedians and actors have imitated his trademark weighted pause and deadpan gaze, but few have approached Benny’s level of talent.
No one in late night television will ever hold a candle to Johnny Carson. With wacky characters like Carnac the Magnificent, a trusty sidekick in Ed McMahon, and rakish interviews with Hollywood’s biggest stars, Carson transformed late night television from a cottage industry into a ratings powerhouse. Ruling the air for thirty years, even the brashest comedian would get a tingle when they heard that emblematic “Here’s Johnny” echo across the stage. Carson was also a regular at the Friars Club, happily jabbing away at his fellow comics, actors, and celebrities with a boyish grin on his face. Even the best and brightest of the contemporary late night generation, from Jon Stewart to John Oliver, owe a debt to his genius.
Even those of us born long after television’s golden age can still appreciate the warmth and laughter these titans of comedy brought to us. And their legacy lives on today. As television comedians continue their search for newer, funnier material, they shouldn’t forget their comedic predecessors. Classic Friars Club Roasts isn’t just for people who remember the amazing comedians and entertainers of TV’s golden age. A whole new generation can appreciate the comedic magic of one of television’s most magical eras as captured in these fun roasts. The entire family will chuckle along with the ribald antics of Johnny Carson, the dour expressions of Milton Berle, and the pregnant pauses of Jack Benny. Maybe they’ll even recognize the mannerisms of one of these TV greats in one their favorite modern comedians.
About Classic Friars Club Roasts: Classic Friars Roasts is a DVD collection of the best comedy roasts of all time. Order the Don Rickles Roasts, Johnny Carson DVD, or the Jerry Lewis Roast, or get the whole set and erupt in laughter as Johnny Carson roasts Don Rickles. Visit the website at http://www.classicfriarsroasts.com to learn more about the comedy sketches. “Like” the Facebook page for hilarious insights into Friars Club Roasts. Call 866-987-3678 to order Friars Club Roast videos for your summer viewing fun.