Jonas Larsen on Roasting Roseanne

by Daina Amorosano, Viacom

Roastee Roseanne Barr onstage at The "Roast of Roseanne" at the Hollywood Palladium. The show airs on Sunday, August 12 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. (Photo by Bucci/PictureGroup)

Tonight, the world will see Roast Master Jane Lynch and a dais that includes a range of celebrities and comics from Gilbert Gottfried and Jeff Ross to Carey Fisher and Ellen Barkin have a go at jabbing every facet of Roseanne’s personal and professional life.

Like roastees past, Roseanne Barr — known by most as simply “Roseanne” — has a storied career and a personal life riddled with the ups and downs that make for a rich roast.

But the roast this year has a different feel. A lot of comics revere Roseanne for her legacy, and she’s become a feminist icon. Right down to the surprise set from her ex-husband Tom Arnold, this show is truly a celebration of Roseanne and the inspiration she’s been to female comics and comedians in general, to working mothers and to all women.

We caught up with Jonas Larsen, SVP of Talent and Specials for Comedy Central, one of the execs behind some of the network’s highest rated roasts (including David Hasselhoff’s and Charlie Sheen’s), for some color on choosing Roseanne, as well as the thought process behind this year’s show, how they managed to get Tom Arnold to participate, and who he’d love to see up next for a roast.

Daina Amorosano: What distinguishes The Roast of Roseanne from roasts past?

Jonas Larsen: When we set out to do this roast we wanted to change it up a bit and do something different. One thing we zeroed in on was making it more intimate. At its core, a roast is a celebration of someone – a pop culture icon, a comedy icon – and we wanted it to be more of an intimate experience for the roastee and the roasters. So we changed venue from the sound stage at Sony to the Palladium in Hollywood, which has a slightly different layout and creates a different feel – both in terms of how it felt in the room and at home when you’re watching it.

DA: Can you tell me a little bit about the thought process behind picking the roastee — why Roseanne?

JL: Roseanne is a comedic icon. She has just one name – she’s just Roseanne. For us, that was kind of a no-brainer. She’s been a huge influence on comedy, comedians, on female comedians; had an incredible rise to stardom; a pretty public divorce and scandals – so there was a lot of material on her that sort of made sense.

And she’s someone who can take it. That’s the other part of it. You want the roastee to have a sense of humor about themselves, who they are and where they came from. Roseanne has that in spades. She has a great sense of humor about herself and her predicament – herself, her ex-husband, the fat jokes. In fact she paved the way for us to do these roasts, because of how she pushed the envelope on her shows.

DA: How about choosing the roasters?

JL: We always try to balance the dais – half comedians and half celebrity friends. The comedians are there to ensure that we have some really funny stuff, and the celebrity friends are there of course to celebrate their friend.

We try to find a dais that represents the roastee’s life. We try to find people that know them, want to come and honor them, and take the abuse themselves, as you have to on a roast – that’s the hardest thing to convince people to do.

We try to put together a dais that can speak to personal experiences with the roastee – this time we really had a nice makeup of people. Everybody had had an experience or connection to Roseanne. Jane [Lynch] felt that she belonged there for the work that Roseanne has done for the gay community. She was obviously a huge fan of Roseanne and honored to be the Roast Master.

DA: What does getting roasted mean for a comedian’s career?

JL: That I can’t say. I can say it is one of those things where you can’t roast someone who’s only been around for a few years. It’s got to be someone who has a history, a significant body of work, is part of our vocabulary in a way. What makes a really great roastee is depth in personal and professional lives that we can mine for comedy: a person who has a body of work that’s legendary and has had ups and downs in their personal lives that makes them interesting to make jokes about.

DA: How does Comedy Central’s younger, male-skewing viewership factor in to roasting an older female comedian like Roseanne?

JL: We’ve done roasts for a long time – we’ve roasted other female comics, like Joan Rivers.

It’s hard to find a young comic or celebrity that sort of feels right for a roast. You’re always looking in icon area, and when you do that, they tend to be a little bit older. The one thing I can say: Roseanne is still sort of America’s mom. A lot of people grew up with her as a TV mom. She’s still part of most of our lives to some degree.

Roasts hit a very broad demographic – we don’t get too hung up on just serving our core demographic. We want to make sure we bring them in and give them a reason to tune-in – roasters Amy [Schumer] and Anthony [Jeselnick] provided that gateway to come and watch. But the roast really reaches beyond the core Comedy Central demo.

DA: How did you ever manage to get Tom Arnold into it?

JL: He had said “no thanks” originally. As we got closer and closer, Roseanne saw an opportunity to close the door on a part of her life – in a public way – that had been out there for a long time. She reached out to him and said, “Hey, do this with me. Let’s put this behind us.” That’s what he responded to, ultimately. The only ones that knew were Roseanne and Jane just before the show. It was quite a moment. It was wild, getting to that place.

DA: Looking ahead…who do you think is deserving of the next roast?

JL: I’d love to see Howard Stern. That would be great.

The Roast of Roseanne airs tonight at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Comedy Central.

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