Netflix let Jeff Ross play with the concept of “Historical Roasts” for six half-hour installments, and the results were pretty mixed. Supported by a rotating cast of comedians and actors, Ross took on Abraham Lincoln, Freddie Mercury, Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr., Cleopatra, and Muhammad Ali. (Yes, they really roasted Anne Frank. More on that later.)
In typical roast format, each historical figure was lampooned by a handful of relevant friends and enemies. John Stamos, for instance, was on hand to roast Bob Saget’s Abraham Lincoln as John Wilkes Booth. Cleopatra was roasted by Julius Caesar (Ryan Phillippe), Mark Antony (Ken Marino), and Isis (Bridget Everett).
Counterintuitively, the concept is well-suited for the moment at hand—a showcase of comedy’s ability to relieve tension with jest and disrupt staid politics with candor. But the execution was mostly unsuccessful.
I watched the controversial episodes first, knowing that’s typically where Ross shines, and assuming the subject matter would yield better results. It actually turned out to be the other way around.
The Anne Frank roast, which features Gilbert Gottfried as Hitler and Jon Lovitz as FDR, is mostly just a roast of Hitler, and entails some moments of serious reverence for Frank. But the comedy is too mediocre to justify the leap into sensitive territory. Ultimately it lacks purpose, which is fine if you’re roasting a singer, but not so much a beloved Holocaust victim. If you’re going to make a joke at Anne Frank’s expense, maybe be better than calling her “the inventor of the staycation.”
“You reached puberty while you were stuck in the attic with your family, making World War II the second-worst period of your life” is a joke Ross actually tells. In a word, the whole just affair feels cheap, a string of mediocre jabs at the lowest-hanging fruit without successfully conveying any meaningful point. (Gottfried’s Hitler worries at one point that he left his oven on.)
Thanks to an amusing Nelson Mandela impression, the roast of Martin Luther King Jr. is a little bit better. Sasheer Zamata has some good moments as Rosa Parks. But overall the episode suffers from the same problem: too many lame jokes about serious topics, lazily relying more on shock value than good content.
Consider this line Ross could have cribbed from a Boomer Facebook meme: “President Obama really broke down barriers for people of color, because now we have our first orange-American president.”
“We went from we shall overcome to we shall comb over!” he jokes.
The less fraught roasts are actually much better. When Nikki Glaser’s Kurt Cobain takes the stage to roast Freddie Mercury, she opens with, “Sorry, I’m a little nervous. My head is all over the place,” later adding, “I’m mostly used to roasting spoons.” Philippe, Marino, and Everett are hilarious as Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Isis in the roast of Cleopatra.
The difference in quality is probably explained by the relative lack of pressure involved with roasting a rock star, not a beloved Holocaust victim. If we roast the ones we love, you can see how it’s maybe possible to take on Martin Luther King Jr. as an opportunity to mock his racist detractors and celebrate his legacy. But that’s incredibly difficult to pull off, and “Historical Roasts” just didn’t figure it out.