In case you needed any proof that teaching history via bad comedy was stupid, here’s all the proof you need.
I’ve written before about how sometimes the worst way of learning something is to be taught it directly, and Netflix’s new six-part comedy series Historical Roasts operates on the same principle. Hosted by Jeff Ross posing as the Roastmaster General of the Union Army, the goal is ostensibly to teach young people about various important figures throughout history via the medium of the scathing roast. It’s a silly idea in theory and a terrible one in practice, and the only thing anyone is likely to learn from it is that perhaps there’s value in just sitting in a classroom and reading books after all.
The inherent problem is this: The entire point of a roast is that the person being roasted is present for it. They have to sit there and pretend to find all the jokes funny, as all their most embarrassing personal and professional foibles are ridiculed for the enjoyment of everyone involved. Obviously, most of Jeff Ross’s targets in Historical Roasts — from Abe Lincoln through to Anne Frank and Muhammad Ali — are dead; they’re being played here in dress-up by various comedians. And the effect just isn’t the same.
That, and the material itself is mostly garbage. It should go without saying that comedy is subjective and that there will be a market for Historical Roasts, but then again there’s a market for organ trafficking, so I’m not sure that’s a point in its favor. Obvious and potentially significant gags about Civil Rights and politics and genocide draw fewer guffaws from the studio audience than dopey slapstick, singing intermissions, and a raised middle finger, which makes you wonder whether the intended audience is really going to be receptive to this whole thing as a kind of low-key history lesson.
The facts and figures are there if you’re listening out for them, but they feel like material stuffed in to justify the dressing up rather than an essential part of the project. And if the history portion of Historical Roasts is completely secondary, what, then, is the point of it? To tell bad jokes about people who aren’t alive to defend themselves? To give comedians an excuse to dress up as historical figures and play-act their idols? If that’s the case, then it’s probably fitting that this self-indulgent and nonsensical tripe has no point at all.