Historical Roasts: From Nerdmelt to Netflix Hit
If you haven’t caught it yet, Netflix’s new show Historical Roasts with Jeff Ross is one of the funniest shows in its recent line-up. It takes the classic structure of a Dean Martin/Comedy Central roast, but places its crosshairs on long-dead historical figures played by some of your favorite comedians and actors. We recently sat down with Ryan Pigg and Eddie Furth, the creators behind the original idea and live comedy show the Netflix version is based on. The show is entertaining in and of itself, but their journey on how the showrunners got there is just as exciting.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length
Let’s start at the very beginning: How did you two meet?
Eddie: Ryan and I and Samee Junio, our third producer, were all interns at NerdMelt Theater — It was in the back of Meltdown Comics, and a part of The Nerdist podcast. Chris Hardwick had made this dedicated theater so he could perform there, and they recorded podcasts upstairs.
Ryan: Months into it, we had been interning there for a while now, and we kind of got a feel for the shows they were putting up. It was essentially Chris Hardwick’s comedy cellar. It was like this place comedians could put something up — not only go up and try new stuff out but also try new shows. The formats were very different.
Eddie: The two most popular shows that were there were The Meltdown with Jonah [Ray] and Kumail [Nanjiani] — that was every Wednesday night, and that got turned into the Comedy Central series where they did three or four seasons. They also had Dan Harmon’s HarmonTown, and those were the two staples. So every Sunday and every Wednesday, you’re talking about 150 people fitting into this tiny theater in the back of MeltDown.
One of the first shows I saw there was called Babytalk with Dan Levy, where they would get a child actor to come and talk to a panel of guests like Bo Burnham. They turned it into a web series. It was kind of like Kids Say the Darndest Things, but a different spin on it, with a panel of guests.
They had all these alternate format shows which were fun and quirky. Julia Prescott was running the Sequels show, where they had fake movie sequels.
Ryan: They had Simpsons trivia nights, they would show B-movies where the audience could heckle — people would get rewards for the best heckles. There were a lot of great shows going on there that you would just never see anywhere else.
Eddie: But they were all alternate format — a way to present comedy and present stand-up comedy that was not simply a line-up full of comedians doing their individual sets, because there’s a lot of places and a lot of clubs that you can see that in town. This was like, let’s bring it outside of that.
So how did the idea for this show come about?
Eddie: There was one night, I had the night off, we were going to see Justin Willman, the magician, who is a good friend of ours. He was prepping Sleight of Mouth. Eventually that show turned into Magic for Humans which is on Netflix now, which is an amazing show.
One of the other interns called out sick and they needed help turning the room over, so they asked if I could help out.
Ryan: And like so many moments in my life, Eddie just kind of showed up out of nowhere, and started helping with things.
Eddie: And then, out of nowhere, I can’t even tell you why I started this conversation. We were by the back bar, and one of the calendars was on the bulletin board, and I looked at it, and I looked at Ryan and I asked, “What’s missing from this schedule? What isn’t being done here that could be done?”
Ryan: There were no roasts. There weren’t any roasts going on. But then I thought, there was no one to roast that we could book, that would draw an audience. Even for comedians like Chris Hardwick or Jonah and Kumail, as interns we wouldn’t have been able to get them for a roast, and the only people we knew wouldn’t have been headlining acts.
Eddie: Ryan from the first moment was also always worried that if a person was alive, they would sue you. So when I asked “Well who would we roast?” he said, “Well they can’t sue us if they’re dead.” Even though that’s never how roasts have ever been…
Ryan: Before I moved to Hollywood, the worst thing I assumed could happen to you is you get sued. I don’t know why — to this day I’m still like “I just hope I don’t get sued,” walking across the street…
Eddie: So I said “If they’re not alive, you mean like historical figures then?”
Ryan: In my mind I was immediately thinking “well how would we do that?” and of course, Eddie says “We dress up our friends like historical figures and we have them roast each other!”
Ryan: And we figured it would be a great way to not only just have fun learning, but you can have fun with comedians dressing up and learning and roasting with all this new information that we never knew.
Eddie: To me it was a very clear idea once we spelled it out — it’s a Dean Martin, celebrity-style, Friars Club, Comedy Central Roast — but instead of Bruce Willis, it’s Abe Lincoln.
Talk me through these original shows.
Eddie: Immediately we knew we needed to bring a third person to produce, which is when we brought on Sammee Junio. Ryan and I knew we were going to host it.
Ryan: When we first pitched to NerdMelt, they said “You know, the shows we have right now have been going for a while and they have some credit. With you guys, this is just an idea.”
Eddie: We had never produced a show, we didn’t have any major credits, we had no track record with the theater, no proof that we could put a show on, even though the concept looked good.
So the idea they gave us was, “You guys take this to the Nerdist Improv School,” which was adjacent in the building next door. It was a smaller space. And the idea was, just pilot it. If we could do three of these, if we could get comedians who draw, we can do proof-of-concept and get this thing running, then we could be brought over to the main room and give it a shot on the big stage.
Essentially, Nerdist gave us a no. But in no way were Ryan and I discouraged, we just sat down and thought, “Challenge accepted, let’s do this. Let’s just go all out, they’re giving us a chance, and we believed in the idea enough that we figured let’s give it a shot.”
We did five shows at the Nerdist School. I always romanticize them as these mythical, original five. We were booked month to month, we had no idea what the show was even going to be or what it would look like, if we’d get another date, if people were going to like it, every single one was just like this magical thing. The first one drew about 30-35 people, then the next one drew about 40, then 50, then 60. There was one show where people were literally outside the theater watching through the door because there wasn’t enough room.
Ryan: People were standing in the aisles.
Eddie: We felt so satisfied with having taken the idea and done it that way.
Ryan: The person over at NerdMelt finally told us we could come over to the main stage. And that was the big dream, because we were just interns. It was like “Wow, can it get any better than this?”
Eddie: And it’s interesting, because so much of what we did in those first five shows wound up in the Netflix show…It was more than just jokes as a roast, it was [the] bits, and it was sketches. And all those bits and all those things all started in the first five shows. We brought in improv people, we brought in sketch people. It was stand-up at its core, but we had people from all walks of life.
Ryan: It’s important to mention, these comedians doing the show, they research and write these roast jokes for these dead famous people. They just go on Wikipedia, look up the people, write their jokes. They’re all total pros. And a lot of them are like our heroes, really fantastic comedians. Don’t say comedians are lazy, because they’re definitely not.
Eddie: We basically ask them to write a book report, but also to make sure that it’s funny.
And where is the live show now?
Ryan: We’re still doing it, we just did a roast of Mother Teresa last week. We perform at The Comedy Store, and then we also do Dynasty Typewriter [at the Hayworth Theater]. We started at The Comedy Store about two and a half years ago.
And when did you start pursuing a television version?
Eddie: About a year into the live show was when we started working with AJ Tesler on pitching it for television. Ryan and I figured it would take about two years before we started pursuing it for TV, but ahead of schedule, AJ actually approached us after a show. So we figured why not just start.
And about a year into that process was when OBB Pictures and Michael Ratner signed on, and said they wanted to make it for television. And then it was two years ago in May when Jeff Ross started to become involved in it. In first talks with him he had said, “Absolutely, this is up my alley, I’d love to be apart of it.”
That has to be an awesome feeling.
Ryan: Yeah. When you’re doing a roast show, you want Jeff Ross.
How was working with Jeff on a show like this?
Eddie: Jeff worked very closely with us to understand what the show was, and what made it unique, and what made it special when we were doing it. And he did an amazing job of making sure that translated and honoring what we did and bringing us into the process and then making the show a version of that show. It’s not like he came in and rewrote the format — he paid attention to everything we said made our show different.
And then last year he took us out for pitches, brought us around town, and then we wound up at Netflix.
That all just sounds like the Hollywood Dream.
Ryan: Absolutely. When I first moved here, my goal was to be in a writers room by the time I was 28, five years after I moved here. I didn’t think it would be the writers room of a show I created! That was not part of the plan.
It’s one of those idea where you just think, damn, why didn’t I think of that?
Eddie: I’ve said this from day one. When we came to this idea, I was shocked no one had done it yet. I used to joke, Steve Martin should have done [this] 30 years ago, I’m not sure why he didn’t. I’ve always just felt we were fortunate to be the ones to put the pieces together.
It sounds like you guys had a lot of say in how the show was transitioned to Netflix.
Eddie: My experience from day one has been, everybody from our production company to Jeff Ross to Netflix has only been supportive. We were included, what we did mattered, we were valued, we were a part of the process the entire time and that is full credit to our production company, OBB, Michael Ratner and especially Jeff Ross, for including us.
Ryan: And everyone who worked on it was super excited for the premise and the idea. Everyone from wardrobe, to make-up, to hair, they were all so excited to recreate these people.
Eddie: We were spoiled with this show. How it came together, how much everyone loved to work on it. There were no issues, we never ran late, everyone was on their shit.
Ryan: We somehow dressed up the entire audience each show in period-specific wardrobe.
That may be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a show.
Eddie: Roger Forker was our costume designer, he worked with Erica Schwartz in costuming, I always give them so much credit — on top of wardrobing six different period costumes for the actors, they then costumed the entire studio audience as they came in — which, as far as I can tell, has never been done in the history of television. We’re talking over 100 costumes, sight unseen, no sizing charts, Roger would find costumes for people as they walked in. And we started taping on time for every show.
What would you say were some of the best moments of making the show?
Ryan: Being in the writers room was amazing. We had to refigure out the format, going from an hour-and-a-half live show down to half-hour episodes. Then figuring out who we were roasting, who would be on the dais. And then the really fun part was writing the jokes, because all of the writers we had were extremely intelligent and quick.
Eddie: And some of them were our best friends. Over half of the writing staff on our show had done the live show, some of them multiple times.
Ryan: And then Bob Saget would come in, or Jaleel White, and hear our pitches and read the script and bring in their own thoughts. I mean when you’re talking about the Hollywood Dream, going from the back of a comic book shop, to hanging out with Bob Saget and John Stamos.
It’s great how educational and informed the writing on the show is.
Eddie: And we hope completely palatable. We wanted to ride that fine line between being too educational and being a show that’s just about jokes. That’s why there are Hitler ball[s] jokes. There is silliness, and we didn’t want to take anything too seriously, but at the same time, we hope our audience learns something.
So what’s next?
Eddie: The live show is something we want to continue to grow. And this is sort of a whole rebirth for us, we’re hoping the Netflix show draws a whole new audience to the live show. We’re four and half years and 70 roasts in, and we still have historical figures we want to roast. We would also love to take the show on the road and tour the country, take it to Canada, take it to the U.K., to Australia, anywhere that would have us. Obviously season 2 is the big thing on our minds, so we will see.
Ryan: We also have Fictional Roasts, where we roast characters from Star Wars or Back to the Future or Harry Potter. That’s another live show we currently have going that we hope to grow further as well that people should definitely check out.
Check out Historical Roasts with Jeff Ross on Netflix, and stop by the Historial Roasts live show at The Comedy Store on June 19, July 17, or August 14 at 10:30 p.m., or at Dynasty Typewriter August 6 at 8 p.m. You can also check out Fictional Roast at Dynasty Typewriter on July 9 at 8 p.m.