By Derek Lawrence
May 23, 2019 at 11:12 AM EDT
Historical Roasts Season 1, Episode 2 Natasha Leggero and Jeff Ross CR: Lara Solanki/Netflix
Credit: Lara Solanki/Netflix

Only one man can say he’s roasted Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln: Jeff Ross.

The self-proclaimed Roastmaster General took on the future president back in 2011 for Comedy Central, and now, he’s going even further back to roast Martin Luther King Jr., Cleopatra, Lincoln, and more for Netflix’s Historical Roasts.

“I notice dead people don’t complain as much,” cracks Ross. “People would always ask me who my dream roast was and I tend to look back and go, ‘It would have been interesting to find out if certain people would have had a sense of humor.’ These are people who I would have loved to talk to and become friends and roasted.”

But, just to be clear, Ross doesn’t want to be friends with everyone featured on the show — like Adolf Hitler, who is a member of the dais in the Anne Frank episode. “Everybody would say, ‘Why don’t you roast Hitler, that would be hilarious,'” recalls Ross. “But I have to stay true to my mission of only roasting people that I admire. I only roast the ones I love. With Anne Frank, it seemed like too many people were forgetting her story. In order to never forget, you have to be enlightened to what happened.”

Historical Roasts began as a small Los Angeles-based comedy show, before OBB Pictures CEO Michael D. Ratner saw a live performance and thought it could be much more. And he knew exactly who he needed. “If you want to make something top-tier in the roast space, you get Jeff Ross,” says Ratner, who serves as executive producer and directed the Muhammad Ali episode. “It would have been like an amateur version without him.”

Ross admits that he used to feel “pigeonholed” as the roast guy, but eventually decided to go all in. “I thought, if that’s going to be my lane, I need to expand it into a six-lane highway,” he explains. So after helping popularize celebrity roasts and hosting Comedy Central’s Roast Battle, he went back in time for Historical Roasts, while still sticking to his usual script. “I always would do a lot of research before the celebrity roasts,” he shares. “I would hang up pictures, whether it was Justin Bieber or Bruce Willis, all over my house and my office. I call it method roasting. So it was natural to do that with historical figures, where there’s endless amount of research you can do. I read all about these people, I would watch documentaries, and I’d roast them from inside out and setting myself up as if I was there. ‘What would have made Martin Luther King Jr. or Anne Frank laugh?'”

The goal for Ross and Ratner isn’t just to make people laugh, but also hopefully for them to learn something. “It’s a history lesson for millennials,” says Ratner, while Ross adds, “It was intimidating at first to take on history. But I thought let’s do some real honest, truthful comedy. Jokes work best when they are based in fact. I was proud when I saw one of my Vietnamase comedy writers taking home his copy of The Diary of Anne Frank to read over the weekend. There’s a nice pattern of turning millennials on to historical figures that they might have never known about or just forgotten about.”

To do so, Ross enlisted many celebrity friends and comedians like Bob Saget, John Stamos, Seth Green, Nikki Glaser, Natasha Leggero, and more. But he’s got his eye on even bigger names for the next Comedy Central Roast. “We really do hold out for a big, big fish,” he says of the special, which last featured Willis in 2018, and before that roasted the likes of Trump, Bieber, and Roseanne Barr. “We want a whale. A lot of people want to be roasted, but we are very particular. We want somebody who’s not just a big star with lots of material to make fun of, but has a great sense of humor; thick skin is such a big part of this.”

And he has one in mind: “Kanye, are you listening? That might need to be a three-part miniseries.”

Historical Roasts premieres Monday on Netflix.

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