November has been perhaps the most historically significant month in Roast Battle history. One year ago – almost to the day – a bunch of Roast Battle regulars filmed their television debuts for Season Two’s L.A. Regionals episode. It was a night that was about community celebration as much as anything else, the first time that a significant number of the Belly Room Regulars were getting their big shot on Comedy Central. Season One was a landmark event, but making the tournament seemed almost unattainable. Of the 16 combatants, only five (Earl Skakel, Sarah Tiana, Mike Lawrence, Matthew Broussard, and Olivia Grace) had ever performed on the regular Roast Battle show. Only Skakel and Grace could really be defined as “regulars”, and the bulk of Earl’s experience had come at the Haters Table. Even the L.A. Regional that season was somewhat lacking in the faces everyone recognized from three-plus years of cramming into the Belly Room every Tuesday. Olivia battled Leah Kayajanian and Joe Dosch battled Keith Carey, but that was about it in terms of battles you could expect to see on a random battle week. So when Season Two rolled around and the Regional was stacked with eight battles featuring nothing but Roast Battle Favorites, it felt like a victory for the community as much as anything else.
Since that night, it feels likes the focus of the show has shifted a little bit. The prospect of getting on television looms in the air constantly. Everyone strives to be a part of Season Three in some capacity. Never mind that there’s no concrete word on when or even if Season Three will become a reality. It’s the dangling carrot that the show oftentimes feels centered around. But god damn it, I remember a simpler time. A time before everyone dreamed of holding up a big trophy on Comedy Central while confetti rained down on them. A time where the show was simply about battling it out with your good friends for the entertainment of a packed room of bloodthirsty strangers. And the crown jewel of the pre-TV era was the First (and to date, Only) Tournament, which started one year earlier in November 2015.
The tournament was the brainchild of the polarizing Josh Waldron, original creator of the Roast Report. There always seems to be conflicting opinions of the work Waldron did on the blog (he got fired from a free thing that he created, if that’s any indication), but there can be no arguments about the tournament – it was a complete and total success. He rounded up 16 of the top names in the show at the time, a healthy mix of more seasoned veterans from the very beginning of the show and young upstarts. The result was a handful of great battles, and, more importantly, a star-making experience as the tournament highlighted and elevated comics like Leah Kayajanian (the eventual winner), myself, and others. The finals were held at a big theater downtown on a Saturday night at the Riot LA Comedy Festival, and the spot on the show served as incentive to make the finals. Sure, that comes along with vague bullshit about career benefits (“There’s gonna be a lot of industry there!”, they said), but the comics in the tournament did it mainly for the love of the game and a chance to be recognized by their peers. I miss that competitiveness a little bit.
The actual group of 16 serves as a fascinating time capsule for what the Roast Battle landscape looked like two years ago. You can split the list directly down the middle. Eight of the 16 are still regular Belly Room killers, while the other eight are barely involved in the show at all anymore. Luke Schwartz took a first-round loss and never battled again. Ditto for Pete Cornacchione following his quarterfinals defeat. Jerron Horton, once one of the most feared battlers in the game, never did it again outside of a one-off appearance at a truly bizarre pop-up show at the Hammer Museum in September 2016. Rich Slaton, Stuart Thompson, and Hormoz Rashidi all disappeared from the show after their tournament runs ended – all three have since returned but in very limited roles (I believe they have six battles between them in the two years since). And then you have Frank Castillo and Joe Dosch, who both appeared on the final night of the Season Two tournament and then moved on from battling (minus Frank’s disastrous tag team battle this August) as their careers have progressed.
The other eight have remained active in the battle scene since the conclusion of the tournament. I’ve got eleven more battles under my belt. Jay Light might have even more. Omid Singh has set the all-time record for most Roast Battle wins with a staggering 16, while Alex Hooper began a second run as champion that lasted nearly a full year. Doug Fager has emerged as one of the show’s top talents, while Kim Congdon has been utterly dominant during her current seven fight win streak. Leah Kayajanian cemented her main event status with the tournament win and rode it to two separate TV appearances. Keith Carey is arguably the greatest battler in the history of the show. All are still ranked in the top 15. They’ve combined for an incredible 166 battles and 102 wins. And while they’re still a dominant force in the main events, they’re now part of a talent pool that’s much, much deeper than it was two years ago.
The level of battling talent in the Belly Room is scary good right now, but only a few outside of this group have managed to make that jump to top tier. Toby Muresianu is surely one of them by virtue of not losing a single battle since August of 2015. So that’s one way to become a star – don’t take a loss for two-plus years. (Sidebar: can we take a moment to recognize how completely insane that is? No losses for 27 straight months? If you told me that the guy who just took a loss to Jeff Amaral to fall to 2-3 would go 8-0-1 in his next nine fights, almost all against top flight competitors, I’d say you were crazy. (Side-sidebar: is Jeff Amaral over Toby Muresianu the biggest upset in Roast Battle history using the power of hindsight? I’d say so.)) Outside of Toby, Connor McSpadden is clearly a star as well. So that’s two. Jeanne Whitney has used convincing wins over some established veterans to earn a current number four ranking, so that’s three. Others teeter on that group – I’d put Alex Duong in there despite a couple of recent missteps. Jeff Sewing is certainly talented enough but mostly inactive. Anna Valenzuela and Dan Nolan have both proven themselves as three-round main event battlers several times over; so the end result is six, maybe seven more top-of-the-food-chain types.
What you’re left with, outside of that group, is a bunch of battlers with unlimited potential who just haven’t had that moment to firmly establish themselves as superstars. The Mike Schmidts and Sarah Kellers and Quentin Thomases of the world. I, for one, would love to see that happen. The Roastmasters show in New York is excellent at doing these sorts of things. They just concluded a tournament that featured the previously unheralded Dina Hashem wreaking havoc on everyone and earning a title shot against Eli Sairs at the New York Comedy Festival. I think it’s time that we take some of the same steps in the Belly Room to find out who makes up the next great crop of battlers. My proposal: another 16-person tournament with some of our top-ranked fighters, excluding everyone who was in the first tournament and the aforementioned group of Muresianu, McSpadden, Whitney, Duong, Valenzuela, and Nolan – all of whom have proven themselves and had regular opportunities to do countless main events. I’ve designed hypothetical brackets based on the top 16 ranked battlers eligible for the tournament and included them below, just to give an idea as to what it might look like.
Ultimately, this will come down to the battlers and whether they’re ready to go through the ultimate roast gauntlet. Whether all of these 16 are down or not, the depth of our current talent pool assures us a limitless supply of deserving alternates (a list that would include killers like Armando Torres, Heather Marulli, Isaac Hirsch, Greg Roque, April Lotshaw, and on and on and on). There really aren’t any reasons I can come up with why we shouldn’t do this. Hopefully the Roast Gods can make this happen.