by: Pat Barker

Leah Kayajanian is a complete savage in the Roast Battle
ring. Trust me, I know. I’m one of her victims. It wasn’t always this way. This
time last year, her track record was spotty. She had a 2-2 record with a couple
of good performances and a couple of underwhelming ones. When she stepped on
stage to battle Olivia Grace, she was a severe underdog in the eyes of many. By
the end of the battle, she was widely accepted as one of the best doing it. The
two had an all-time classic battle that ended in a draw by decree of Jeff Ross.
It was mean, it was clever, and it was hilarious. The room exploded after
almost every joke, and by the time it ended Leah had sent a message. In case
the message wasn’t received, she used the battle to sneak in as the final
entrant in the first ever tournament. Once there, she ran roughshod over some
of the best battlers the Belly Room has to offer. Frank Castillo, the first
ever champion. Destroyed. Keith Carey, generally regarded as one of the top 3-4
people to ever do it. Crushed. Joe Dosch, the former (current?) champion.
Tossed aside. And it ended with yours truly at RiotLA.

Leah combines an assault of smart, biting material
with a likeability on stage that’s tough to match. Toss in a few carefully
planned rebuttals, and she’s got as strong of a repertoire as anyone else on
the roster. Since her dominance in the tournament, she’s hit a bit of a rough
patch, with consecutive losses to Alex Hooper and Olivia Grace (in a rematch
for Comedy Central). This Tuesday, she looks to turn it around with a main
event against Dan Nolan. Leah took a break from battle prep to talk about some
of her greatest Roast Battle moments with VerbalViolence.TV.

Why do you
battle?

At first, I did it
because it’s scary. Great comics are always so fearless onstage, so I’ve always
tried to put myself in situations that are uncomfortable because I figured
facing down my fears would make me a better performer. The Roast Battle was
another fear to face down. Now, I roast because it makes me a better writer. I
was initially worried that it took too much time away from my standup –
stopping everything to write a bunch of jokes that I’ll only use once – but
it’s actually good for standup. The more I make my brain write roast jokes, the
quicker I am onstage, and the better my timing gets. On top of that, Roast
Battle is the best show in Los Angeles because the energy in the room is
electric. When you’re on and the jokes are landing, it’s pure adrenaline mixed
with this constant fear brewing in your gut that the next joke might fall flat.
That mix of emotion, it’s thrilling. That feeling that you have to be ready for
anything – that’s why I got into standup in the first place.

What is your
favorite battle that you’ve ever been a part of?

Olivia Grace the first
time we battled. We did a main event last fall, and it ended in a draw – I’m
pretty sure it was the first draw the show ever had. Olivia was the favorite
going in, so I knew I’d have to keep the fight going with strategy. I used my
first round to set up my second round, and that second round is easily the best
thing I’ve ever done on the show. I knew I had to keep hitting her and never
let up to stay in the fight, and so I did. And she did. Back and forth, joke
for joke, hit after hit, until Jeff Ross called it a draw. Both of us were on
fire that night.

What is the
greatest joke anyone has used against you?

I have the worst
memory on the planet…Doug Fager had this joke that was something like, “On
Thanksgiving, Leah’s family doesn’t eat turkey. They talk about how it killed
their ancestors.” I’m sure I messed it up, but man, it was such a good joke.

What is the most
underappreciated joke you’ve ever told? One that didn’t work nearly as well as
you expected.

Against Frank
Castillo, I said, “Your head looks like someone rolled a wet volleyball through
a pile of Asian pubes.” I think I stumbled on the delivery a little, and maybe
that’s part of why it didn’t hit that hard, but the imagery still makes me
giggle.

Describe the process of preparing for battle.

I write about 20-30 jokes. A lot of people write more than that, but I usually stick to about that number and then just edit those jokes over and over again until they’re punchier. I spend a while trying to get one “you look like” joke that captures the essence of the person because I think the crowd likes it when you nail their essence. Then, I’ll send the jokes out to a group of “trusted advisers” and get their feedback – which ones they like best, any edits they have. While my friends are helpful, there’s a difference between reading the joke and hearing someone say it. A week before the battle, I’ll start to run the jokes at open mics. Some jokes that have crushed onstage get a bad reaction when I send them out, but something about me saying it out loud makes it work, so that step is really important to me. It’s hard to get laughs at an open mic in that context, but it’s a good way to get used to the rhythm of the joke by saying it out loud. I’d say about 95% of my roast joke writing is based on rhythm. I could write a perfect joke, but if I can’t say it in my speaking rhythm, I have to cut it or it’ll trip me up. Off-rhythm jokes always fall flat for me. I spend the last few days messing with the order, which is the thing I have the most trouble with. I’m focusing on that part going in to the battle versus Dan Nolan.

Who are your
favorite people to watch on nights where you’re not battling?

Earl Skakel, hands
down. Earl is the epitome of Roast Battle at its best. He’s a lovable villain,
and as a battler, he’s probably the hardest to beat. He’s great because he’ll
write a bunch of jokes going in, but he can also change it up at any moment and
destroy you off the cuff. He and Joe Dosch taking on judge Joe DeRosa was one
of the show’s finest moments this year. I love watching anything that Earl is a
part of.

What was your
favorite Wave moment?

When I was battling
Frank Castillo, I said he looked like an owl going through chemo, and the Wave
came out. Natasha Leggero was one of the judges, and she was like, “Um, did
anyone else see Jeremiah pull a plastic owl from out of nowhere? How did you do
that?” I just loved that she gave him props because they’re always so creative
so quickly, and they’re so seamless that most people don’t even notice how fast
they have to think.

You decide to
retire, but not before doing three more battles. Who are the opponents?

Jonathan Rowell – he’s
my favorite comedian in Los Angeles and has one of the most interesting and
creative perspectives I’ve ever heard. Connor McSpadden – Connor is
intimidating because his mind just seems like an endless well of insults, and
he’s got the delivery down perfectly. Earl Skakel – He’s the best. I’d want to
go head to head against the best, and then retire.

If you could
witness a Roast Battle between any two comics ever, who would you pick?

Jeff Sewing and Pat
Barker – the battle of the overweight sports dudes. I like the idea of that
battle because they’re both hard to write about (boring ass white dudes), but
they’re both such fantastic writers. I’d love to see what the two of them come
up with.

Should anything be off-limits in the Roast Battle?

No, nothing should be off limits. I personally don’t write jokes about certain topics. For the most part, I won’t write a joke attacking a battler’s girlfriend/boyfriend or family member because I don’t think it’s fair to drag other people into it unless they’re just devices set up to insult the battler. I just think about how pissed I would be if I wasn’t a comedian and I didn’t choose to be a part of this, but suddenly I’m being publicly called ugly or fat or slutty just because my boyfriend wanted to do a thing. I also don’t write jokes about death in peoples’ families, but that’s just a choice I make based on my own life experience. Maybe the fact that I’m not willing to go there puts me at a disadvantage, but I don’t mind. The biggest laughs I get are usually just from making fun of what the person looks like, and I’m first and foremost up there as a comic, looking to get laughs first.

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