Preview: Whitney Cummings on roasting Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers got roasted on Sunday night in Los Angeles, and Comedy Central will broadcast an edited version of The Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers on Aug. 9, 2009. You'll see some of the usual suspects on the dais (Jeffrey Ross, Greg Giraldo, Gilbert Gottfried), but no Lisa Lampanelli, and the early reports from the scene all seemed to agree that Whitney Cummings made the most of her onscreen debut as a roaster. Let's roll a clip, and then we'll talk with Cummings all about it.

Hey Whitney! This was your first big roast, correct? If not, then please correct me! "I've been a writer on the roast for the past couple years so I'm very familiar with them and roast jokewriting but yes, this is my first big Comedy Central roast as a roaster. I had done a charity roast for a producer in LA named Steve Tisch. Tom Arnold was there, Pete Berg, a bunch of athletes. It was taped and Comedy Central saw it so I'm sure that played a big part in me getting a spot as a roaster."

How did you go about writing your roast jokes? What kind of tone were you going for? Were you trying to balance out the barbs among everyone on the dais? Did you write them all yourself? (I know some stand-ups who help write for others) "When I was a writer on the roast in previous years, we would start about two weeks out, but sometimes the best jokes are written the day of or the day before. The roasters are always dropping out and being added. For example two weeks prior we had Lily Tomlin, then it was Suzanne Somers, then Tom Arnold was added two days before this year. So you overwrite a ton. Last year Artie Lange dropped out the morning and Garlin was added, etc. So you're writing until the last minute.
it's just crazy because when you're in roast writing mode, jokes hit you all the time. You'll be walking by Subway and you'll be like "Tom Arnold is like a Meatball Sandwich…blah blah blah joke" or I'll wake up in the middle of the night and be scribbling in a notebook and the next day I'll be trying to make it out and its just like, the words "balls" and "obama." And you're like "what was the balls obama joke?"
Any L.A. comic can tell you that a week leading up to the roast I was running around to clubs and trying jokes out onstage. Everyone who ran rooms were supportive, letting me pop up in the middle of shows. When I'd come off stage comics were so supportive and throwing out tags. So, I would say I got a lot of help and support in that regard. Even comics saying "that's going to kill" is really helpful. If a comedian thinks it's funny, it's probably funny."

What went through your head when you were standing at the podium roasting? "The roast is obviously a very classic and important part of comedy history, dating of course back to the Friars roasts, so it felt pretty cool to be a part of that tradition. To see Joan Rivers on one side and Carl Reiner on the other should have been intimidating, but it was more just inspiring. In my head I felt like I had a lot to prove and was like "i want them to see the influence they've, had and I want them to be proud of my generation of comics."
Also, the roast is an environment that celebrates "jokie jokes," which I love but am not doing in my act anymore, so it's so great to be able to get to do them. I'm also making my stand up as clean as possible, so it's nice to get the filth out of my system in a place where it's welcome."

What about when you're sitting and getting roasted? How does your mindset change from before it's your turn to roast, to then afterward? "It's such an honor to be up there that it's hard to have any complaints. Since most of the jabs to me this year was about me being the least known, it put the pressure on to kill and I think it motivated me to just go up and rip it."

What was your favorite line you got off?
I think one of the biggest hits was when I got to Joan: "Joan, I loved you in The Wrestler."

How about the favorite line someone else said? "Greg Giraldo always kills me. He always has my favorite jokes. I can't remember it exactly but he had an amazing AIDS quilt joke." (You can watch a preview of Giraldo's roast material here)

Were there any lines about you that you thought, good one? How about lines about you that actually offended you? "I'm dead inside. Nothing offends me. Greg said, 'Whitney Cummings is here for some reason.' It was hilarious and sort of true until I proved myself. But the more I got hit the more I felt like I was getting set up to surprise everyone. I also loved that Kathy Griffin brought me up as 'Chelsea Hand-Job.'"

Anything great happen either onstage or backstage that you're fairly sure we'll never see on Comedy Central? "Joan's manager told me that this roast for me is like Joan's first set on Carson for her. That was pretty amazing. And then Joan said, "You're the real deal, you're going all the way." I just thought it was cool that she took time to talk to me much less say that. And only in our line of work can we insult someone for 10 minutes, and them be like "Hey, kid, you're going to make it."

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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