I hadn't battled since last November, and, frankly, was skittish about returning to the ring. The battles I fought in the spring and summer had me feeling incredible highs, with opportunities to battle at South by Southwest and in front of the likes of Dave Chappelle and Jim Carrey. Chappelle asked Roast Battle to be his opening act on a secret show in an Echo Park salsa club, and I get the nod to compete. My ego soars, roaring like an F-16 breaking the sound barrier. Then, I lose twice in a row.
My loss against Kim Congdon is close enough to keep me from spiraling, and the fact that I walk out of the show alive on a night that a man gets murdered outside the club just makes me feel worse that Kim's victory goes unrecognized. My loss against Hormoz Rashidi, in the first round of a Roast Battle tournament I want to be the champion of, hits me hard enough to keep me out of the ring for a while. No one challenges me, and I doubt I would have taken a turn in the ring even if someone asked. But I knew I wouldn't be leaving the Roast Battle team any time soon. I was running the Periscope feed, helping new battlers write jokes, and making sure new main event contenders knew what they were in for - even if they didn't always listen to my advice.
~ ~ ~
In February, Moses approaches me about battling someone again, on a night that's being taped for TV. I know immediately that there is only one comic I wanted to take on: Keith Carey. He's a battler I've long admired, with immense wit and the swagger of a silverback gorilla. I'd have to bring my best if I hoped to contend with him. After months of moping, I decide I'm ready to get back into fighting shape.
Roast Battle is curious. On its face, the show is about being mean, but the prep work involved does nothing but endear you to your opponent. It's easy to forget that you're roasting another person, a fellow comedian with a life and a story to tell and, more often than not, a hard road fought through the wilderness of the ever-growing LA scene to get to where they are now. I don't think Jeff Ross was 100% accurate when he said we only roast the ones we love, but it sure does make writing roast jokes a hell of a lot easier. I've never seen a battle between two people who actually had beef with each other go well.
I write for weeks, trying to come up with something new every day. I feel like a farmer in harvest season. Some days, the yield is huge. Others, it's fallow.
I listen to podcasts on airplanes and watch old stand-up sets on YouTube, trying to weasel my way into the nooks and crannies of Keith's life, aching for information I can turn against him. I can't speak for the rest of Roast Battle's finest, but this isn't uncommon for me. For all my battles, I make sure to put in hours of due diligence, trying to find as many cold hard facts as possible, since every fact is just a potential set up. Like Sun Tzu said, you have to know your enemy if you want to stand a chance of winning, and boy, did I ever get to know Keith.
About a month before Keith and I are set to battle, Moses texts me with some news: the deal's fallen through. I'm jarred, but not surprised. I hit up Keith, who's also disappointed, but we confirm that our mutual desire to battle hasn't waned. We've got bloodlust in our veins.
Moses moves our bout up a week earlier. I kick my writing into high gear. By the time the week before the battle rolls around, I have close to eighty jokes. Now it's time to try them out at open mics and see what sticks.
I trot out my jokes for the first time at a coffee shop down the street from my apartment in West Hollywood. I tell all but the ones I know are absolute garbage. I whittle down from eighty to twenty-five, keeping a few personal favorites that didn't hit at that mic in the running for the final set. Over the course of the next few days, I hone my material wherever I can. Sometimes, the difference between a joke hitting and a joke bombing is a simple word swap, or maybe your cadence needs some changing.
I whittle down to seventeen. Eleven jokes for the battle, a handful of comebacks, and a few alternates for potential overtime. I run the set in order at an open mic in the back of a Polish restaurant on the Westside, trying to be fully memorized for the first time in my history of battling. While onlookers watch from couches, I find myself feeling calmer than I ever have before a fight.
I get antsy right beforehand. I like to have a quiet place to get in the right mind. I used to take a shot or two before I started battles. Now I try breathing exercises and a little stretching. I still hang out on the back stairs, where I know I'll be uninterrupted.
In the back bar, the TV plays a live feed of what's going on upstairs. They've made it to the third undercard, but you can't hear a thing over the chatter of regulars and people waiting for the main event to get going. I get a rigorous massage from Hollywood Jesus, who happens to be hanging out a little earlier than he usually rolls in to the Store. He tells me to stay relaxed, and the tension in my shoulders starts to drop. Everyone is asking me if I'm ready. I nod, keeping my jokes to myself. I get a refill on my soda water.
I head upstairs. Pat Regan is just finishing his weekly wailing. The room braces itself for the main event. Keith and I exchange a knowing nod. He tells me he thinks my sweater is badass as we make our way to the lane that has been cleared for us to approach the stage.
Moses introduces us. We get into it. It's difficult to describe how you feel on that stage, facing a completely full room, judged not only by people with careers you dream of having some day, but by people who want the tiny bit of traction you have. It's surreal. The only places I feel more under pressure than on the Belly Room stage are at rooms I'm performing in for the first time. Though, like usual, as soon as the first joke gets a laugh, the fear and anxiety keeping my muscles tight slips away.
Every joke lands. The crowd goes wilder and wilder as they realize that between Keith and I, we've written no duds. The best part is always catching the judges' reactions to my jokes, which is something that's become easier as I battle more often and figure out how to be in both the zone and the moment. While Keith talks shit on my lips and lily-white skin, I can barely keep it together, prancing in place like a giddy elementary schooler. Doing well in Roast Battle makes me feel like I got picked first for the kickball team at recess. By the end of the battle, we've both gotten so much effusive praise from the crowd and judges that my eventual loss doesn't feel like a loss. As much as I used to espouse that ranks and records don't matter on this show, I never believed my own platitudes. I took this show too seriously. I forgot to just have fun. Tonight, I feel like a winner.
~ ~ ~
One night in the fall, when Dave Chappelle decides to drop in, he unfortunately has to witness a few bullshit battles. But he says something that sticks with me: the beauty is in the attempt.
This show intentionally puts people outside of their comfort zones. I never liked to think of myself as a mean person until I did an inordinate amount of self-reflection and discovered that I'm a deeply judgmental asshole who holds grudges too long and avoids beating up others because it's easier to beat up himself. Roast Battle fits my comedic sensibilities to a T, because now I understand the need to push yourself outside of what makes you comfortable. Doing what you know leads to growing stagnant. If there's anything that my peers and the comics I look up to have taught me, it's that there's no room in this business for status quo. If you want to be a great artist - and good God do I want that - then you have to work at it, even when the end result might still see you with another loss added to your record.
If you're a comic and you're scared to do Roast Battle, write jokes about your emotions instead of your observations, or even strike up a conversation with a fellow funny person you respect, get over yourself and do it. Growth doesn't happen without a few growing pains here and there.