What if Leonardo da Vinci, Cleopatra, Christopher Columbus and Pocahontas could participate in the Comedy Central roasts? A troupe of comedians in DC wanted to find out.
The scene: a Saturday night in April at the prestigious and illustrious John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Patrons are dressed in suits and ties, underneath chandeliers. Mariinsky Ballet stages Le Corsaire at the Opera House. National Symphony Orchestra performs Debussy’s La mer and Ravel’s Shéhérazade in the Concert Hall. While upstairs, the Jazz Club hosts a comedy roast.
And not just any roast.
“Tonight, Marilyn Monroe is inside the Kennedy,” quipped Sacagawea. “Usually, it’s the other way around.”
Behold the most intellectual and informative roast you’ve ever seen. Local comedians dressed up as historical figures from all different eras to insult each other with jokes requiring extensive historical knowledge. If anything, “insult” might be too mild a word—they go for the jugular, with a solid number of jokes unsuitable for print in a family-friendly publication such as this.
It’s called The Time Machine Roast, a live show that debuted at DC Improv in April 2017, which has grown to become one of the DC region’s most buzzed about comedy events. And even the most beloved historical figures of all time, from Walt Disney to Princess Diana, aren’t immune from attack.
Once Upon a Time Machine
The roasts were originally organized by then-local comedian Ahmed Vallejos, who has since moved, at a small bar called Rendevous Lounge in Adams Morgan, which has since closed. In other words, the series easily could have withered on the vine before it ever broke out. But when performers Dylan Meyer and Benjy Himmelfarb took over producing the event, they moved the show to comedy club DC Improv, and fortunes quickly turned.
With a more established location and better promotion from the venue, they sold out the DC Improv’s 75-person lounge on their very first performance. Word of mouth quickly spread. Soon they were selling out the DC Improv’s main showroom and the DuPont Underground, both seating around 250 to 300. They’d originally announced just one show for the Kennedy Center, but sales proved so high that they added a second show the same night. Both sold out.
“When I started comedy, I used to wonder if I would ever get to go up last at the Drafthouse open mic without getting bumped three weeks in a row,” Himmelfarb wrote in a public Facebook post. “I never dreamed I’d be making jokes about a dead pornographer’s impotence while dressed up as a notorious dictator on two sold-out shows at the Kennedy Center. BUT HERE WE ARE.”
The notorious dictator in question was former Libyan despot and authoritarian Muammar Gaddafi, while the dead pornographer was Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner. “You are a disgusting pervert who took advantage of power dynamics to surround himself with vulnerable young women,” the tyrant told the mogul. “But other than that, I do not like you.”
The comedians are all friends in real life and recruit each other for the roasts, choosing their own historical figures a month or two before a performance to allow enough time for everyone to conduct research. The comedians often choose their own historical figures based on personal connections or interest. For example, Vallejos—a Mormon in real life—portrayed the religion’s founder Joseph Smith, good-naturedly weathering the slings and arrows of the myriad jokes about the religion directed his way.
DC Improv’s Marketing Director Chris White, a professional comedian for a decade, hosted the podcast series “Headliner of State,” in which he analyzed the humor of every president over 44 episodes. He ultimately concluded in the final episode that America’s funniest presidents were Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, but instead of choosing either of the two for the comedy show, he instead chose Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan.
Often ranked among the worst presidents in American history, Buchanan provided a history lesson in a manner that the far-more-widely remembered Lincoln and Reagan could not. “I did sit on my hands, I did do nothing while the South seceded, I did let the Civil War start,” Buchanan recounted to the audience at the Kennedy Center. “But that did lead to the end of slavery. So, to sum up, I ended slavery.”
Sometimes comedians take the opposite approach, intentionally portraying a historical figure who’s their exact opposite. Gender swapping has occurred several times, such as Naomi Karavani playing Christopher Columbus or Landon Letzkus playing Amelia Earhart. Natalie McGill was playing a famous male inventor on stage, when she was the recipient of this barb: “George Washington Carver, you’re the only person who becomes less famous the more you spell out your name.”
Comedians have also played historical figures of another race, such as African-American comedians Tanael Joachim playing inventor Nikola Tesla and Cerrome Russell playing Paul Revere. “Frank Sinatra, your liver is like Paul Revere,” religious leader Martin Luther said. “It’s not supposed to be black.”
Different comedians adopt different acting approaches. While all dress up as their character, some attempt full-on impersonations while others do not. Among the most memorable accents was Linsay Deming as television chef Julia Child, reading the following quote in Child’s multi-octave singsong French accent. “Titanic shipbuilder Thomas Andrews tried to bake a soufflé … but it sank,” she said. “He blamed it on the iceberg lettuce.”
Heating up the Roast
What are the most challenging aspects of running the shows?
“Producing is not an easy job, handling all those details like booking,” answers Himmelfarb, who has also portrayed Che Guavara, Benedict Arnold and Alexander the Great. “And there’s a lot—a lot—of writing and research. We decide the historical figures a whole month or two in advance.”
That is, most of the performers do a whole month or two of research in advance. “Cerrome Russell is so naturally funny and good at it, there were times when he was literally still writing jokes on stage,” Himmelfarb reveals of the comedian who has portrayed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and soul singer James Brown. “And he still crushed it.”
Indeed, ad-libbing or humor in the moment often produces the roasts’ best moments. Several roasters cite as the best example, simultaneously demonstrating quick wit while maintaining the insulting spirit, Meyer’s off-the-cuff line during a Time Machine roast at Joe Squared Basement in Baltimore. One fellow roaster received very few laughs and everyone in the room knew it. Right after that comedian sat back down, Meyer began his own set with: “Hey, we needed someone who could drive us to Baltimore.”
Sadly, Meyer, who co-produced the series, died in May 2018—but not before the comedian had opportunities to portray Leonardo da Vinci, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and explorer Leif Erikson. In his honor, every show always includes an empty chair on the dais draped in a brightly patterned shirt and hat, which was Meyer’s signature look (in real life, not when portraying da Vinci).
Denise Taylor, one of the roasts’ most frequent performers, provides a similarly sartorial response when asked who has been her favorite character to play. “Just costume-wise, Marie Antoinette,” answers Taylor, who has also portrayed Pocahontas, Annie Oakley, Cleopatra and Joan of Arc.
“It’s a good extra layer of protection, when nobody’s portraying themselves,” continues Taylor, who works for the federal government in her day job. “You can be as mean as you want to be, but no one is really hurt.” Let’s hope no one is really hurt, because the roasters have certainly tackled topics considered taboo by polite society.
Fair and Balanced
But at least when doing so, the roasters are equal opportunity offenders.
They’ve made fun of both right-wing politics …
“We’ve got three scientists here tonight,” Babe Ruth counted, gesturing at the dais that included Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver and Marie Curie. “Which is three more scientists than the entire Trump administration.”
… and leftist politics.
“Fidel Castro left his tropical island paradise for a trip to Soviet Russia, where everybody was literally freezing and starving to death,” described former Sen. Ted Kennedy. “And he thought, ‘We need more of this back home.’”
They’ve made fun of the physical appearance of men …
“Benjamin Franklin, you invented bifocals, the lightning rod and the male pattern baldness mullet. A letter survives in which you advised a friend to marry an older woman, because they have more experience, more money and, ‘In the dark, it is impossible to tell a young woman from an old one.’ But did you ever consider why women of all ages were turning out the lights when they slept with you?”
… and the physical appearance of women.
“Is that actually what you looked like?” psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud asked Russian leader Catherine the Great. “Or were people just really bad at painting back then?”
“They say you had a face that launched a thousand ships,” 1970s funk singer Rick James told Helen of Troy. “You couldn’t even get my Cadillac to move.”
They’ve made fun of both male scientists …
“In his divorce settlement, Albert Einstein pledged that if he ever won the Nobel Prize, his ex-wife would receive half his earnings. A few years later, he won the Nobel Prize and one million dollars,” quipped Julia Child. “Marking the first time anybody ever sarcastically said, ‘Way to go, Einstein.’”
… and female scientists.
“When you were pregnant, people would say, ‘You’re glowing!’” Babe Ruth told Marie Curie. “No seriously, you’re glowing.”
They’ve made fun of larger people …
“J. Edgar Hoover, look at you. I didn’t know state secrets were edible,” Gaddafi told the conspiratorial FBI director. “You put the pie in spy.”
“Truman Capote, you wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” noted Freud. “But it appears you also had lunch at Tiffany’s, dinner at Tiffany’s and a 2 a.m. extra-value meal at Tiffany’s.”
… and smaller people.
“Gandhi, you served six years of prison time for sedition against the British government,” President Buchanan reminded the Indian civil rights leader. “How close together were the bars in that prison?”
“You spent your life debunking psychics,” Sacagawea told the 5-foot-six-inch magician Harry Houdini. “But you don’t have to hate mediums, just because you’re an extra-small.”
They’ve made fun of the most heroic and beloved figures in history …
“Before battle, William Wallace from Braveheart painted his face blue and white,” explained first lady Nancy Reagan. “Because when it comes to fighting the English, nothing’s more intimidating than a guy who looks like toothpaste.”
… and the most despicable.
“Osama bin Laden attended a fundamentalist Islamic high school, where he was taught”—this fact is actually true—“that masturbation was forbidden, except under situations of extreme duress,” recounted Alexander the Great. “This was the first time bin Laden ever declared himself an extremist.”
Himmelfarb cites as two ultimate hopeful possibilities, a national tour or getting picked up by a national network/channel. Indeed, similar media offerings about “history turned on its end” are skyrocketing in popularity.
Broadway’s Hamilton has proven theater’s biggest hit of the decade, with plenty of “roasts” in two Cabinet Rap Battle songs during which the title Secretary of the Treasury debates Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson with plenty of ad hominem attacks thrown in.
YouTube’s viral video series “Epic Rap Battles of History” boasts more than 14 million subscribers, including more than 100 million views for such installments as Rasputin vs. Stalin and Master Chief [the playable soldier from the Xbox video game franchise Halo] vs. Leonidas [the real-life soldier from the Spartan army made famous from the movie 300].
Comedy Central’s Drunk History has proven one of the network’s most popular offerings in recent years, with its sixth season airing earlier this year. The program features historical reenactments from comedians including Will Ferrell as Abraham Lincoln, Jack Black as Mona Lisa thief Vincenzo Peruggia, Weird Al Yankovic as Nazi official Adolf Eichmann and Seth Rogen as Vlad the Impaler, the cruel prince who inspired Count Dracula.
But there’s something about live entertainment that just can’t be replicated. And for that, the DC region has provided an unparalleled experience, a combination of intellectualism and quirkiness which you’d be hard-pressed to find in equal amounts anywhere else.
The Time Machine Roast is next appearing at DC Improv on July 17 at 7:30 p.m.; tickets, $15
This post was originally published in our July 2019 issue. Want to stay up to date with all of the latest entertainment coming to NoVA? Subscribe to our monthly print magazine and weekly e-newsletters.