“Jerry, you comfortable there?”
From the Friars Club pulpit, Susie Essman stared down at fellow comedian and sitcom actor Jerry Stiller as he squirmed in a massive leather armchair that had been set out on the dais.
“Not really,” Mr. Stiller replied. He was slumped against one side of the chair, mashing his wiry hair–”the color of Tang,” as comedian Dick Capri would note later–into the leather.
Ms. Essman, a meat-and-potatoes Bebe Neuwirth, flashed a dangerous smile. She had just made Mr. Stiller cover his face with his hands by saying five short sentences: “I have to apologize. I have a sore throat. Jerry knows why. I know why. Enough said.”
The hard-eyed men and women who get to turn the spit at the annual Friars Club Roast always bring a certain zeal to their jobs, but this year’s roast victim was different from those who had come before. Unlike like last year’s honoree, sitcom star Drew Carey, Jerry Stiller was a man who, along with his longtime wife and comedy partner, Anne Meara, had managed a long career in show business without reverting to the prurient or the profane. “One of the dullest fucking men I have ever met,” said Friar abbot Alan King.
From The Ed Sullivan Show to those Blue Nun wine commercials to two successive hit sitcoms, NBC’s Seinfeld and CBS’ King of Queens, the 72-year-old Mr. Stiller has had a show-business run that is unimaginable in a time when fame rarely lasts longer than three years. And for this accomplishment, Mr. Stiller was to sit before Comedy Central television cameras and a dais that rivaled the wingspan of a B-52 bomber (“This should take us through Tisha Bov,” Friars Club dean Freddie Roman said as he undertook the task of introducing everyone), in order to be pelted with sex jokes and anatomical references that he wouldn’t touch in a million years. If that were not enough, his wife, son and daughter would not only watch, they would participate.
For some participants, the fact that Mr. Stiller’s rather large ears were relatively virgin ones made the event all the more enjoyable. “I know people enjoyed the fact that he was in hell,” said Janeane Garofalo, who sat on the dais next to Mr. Stiller’s son, Ben. “Jerry Stiller is the nicest, kindest father-figure who hates profanity,” she said. “He doesn’t like those sex jokes. So it’s kind of funny to watch him squirm in the giant chair.”
But Ms. Garofalo admitted that, were she ever to deserve such an honor, she would not want to be roasted. “I was talking to Danny Aiello, who said he cried after his roast because he didn’t understand, really; he didn’t really know that it was like the cruelest night of your life.”
Perhaps sensing that it might be difficult to roast such a virtuous man, Mr. King tried to relax the environment by ordering Mr. Stiller, “Just say after me, Fuck ! I want to hear you say it.”
Mr. Stiller opened his arms wide. He looked like one of those biblical images of a persecuted saint. One with a fancy mustache. “Fuck,” he said. He paused. “Freak, for the West Coast.”
From then on, it was clear that this was a feat of strength Mr. Stiller could handle, even if his eyes seemed a little moist at times. So when Ms. Essman suggested that a cushion be brought out for him, Mr. Stiller shrugged it off with Costanza-esque bravado: “That’s all right,” he said, “go on with the work!”
And what wet work it was. This Friars Club Roast, held Oct. 1 at the New York Hilton, was a smorgasbord of profane excess. Looking down into Mr. Stiller’s basset-hound eyes, Ms. Essman said she found it hard to say “all these mean sexual things” to him. “Then I look at this dais and think, These other miserable cocksuckers, I could have a field day!”
So Ms. Essman asked Mr. King, “Did you ever think you’d live long enough that your prostate would be as big as your ego?” The crowd sounded as if it had been goosed. But Ms. Essman was dais hunting, and Maury Povich was in her sights. She said she realized why the talk-show host had married Connie Chung: “Jews love to eat Chinese.”
Then came poor old Abe Beame. The diminutive Mr. Beame is getting on in years, but that didn’t stop Ms. Essman.
“Abe Beame is so old, even his cock drools,” she said. The crowd went wild. Except for Mr. Beame, who couldn’t hear the joke. So another wave of laughter broke over the room as David Dinkins whispered the line into Mr. Beame’s ear. Ms. Essman added, “For those of you who can’t see Abe Beame, there will be a second viewing.”
For Mr. Roman, though, Ms. Essman saved the coup de grâce : “Freddie, I wouldn’t fuck you with Dr. Ruth’s pussy.”
The Comedy Central camera whirled to Dr. Ruth Westheimer; sitting nearby was Police Commissioner Howard Safir, whose flushed face and uncomfortable smile were suddenly broadcast on the big screen behind the dais. The televised discomfort of a Giuliani administration official insured that Ms. Essman’s put-down was the joke to top, and Jeffrey Ross did a little later. Following Sandra Bernhard’s odd performance of Heart’s song “Magic Man” for Mr. Stiller, Mr. Ross got up and said: “I wouldn’t fuck Sandra Bernhard with Bea Arthur’s dick.” (After the roast, Ms. Arthur, who was in attendance, told The Transom that Mr. Ross was a “sweet, sweet man.”)
Mr. Ross does have a cherubic face but … “This isn’t a roast, this is a defrosting!” he said at the podium. Noting Jerry Seinfeld’s absence, he explained that the star had a prior engagement “to fuck a model on a pile of cash.” Of Mr. Stiller and Ms. Meara, he said: “We grew up watching them until we were old enough to realize they weren’t funny.” He added that “Poor Ben [Stiller] hasn’t been the same since he saw his mom going down on Señor Wences.”
Soon the camera locked on Mr. Safir again because Mr. Ross had said: “Howard, hold up your plunger so people know who you are.”
When Mr. Ross left the stage, Jason Alexander, who played Mr. Stiller’s son George on Seinfeld and who was playing the evening’s roast master, said: “I hope that Bea Arthur kicks his ass, and I know that Bea Arthur can.”
For an actor, Mr. Alexander was impressive as roast master. He sang, he ad-libbed, he even made you forget that he was reading from a Teleprompter. And when the Comedy Central producers stopped the proceedings at one point because of a taping problem, Mr. Alexander did not crumble. “You know, I don’t think the television aspect cuts the spontaneity,” Mr. Alexander told the crowd.
“Serenity now!” barked Mr. Stiller.
“Serenity now!” said Mr. Alexander.
“Funny, George!” a woman called out.
“George! That’s my tombstone!” said Mr. Alexander.
Mr. Alexander explained to the crowd that his roast-master chores were actually fulfilling the “community-service portion” of a prison sentence. “If someone had told me that working my shaft outside Gwyneth Paltrow’s window was illegal …” he said. Then he gave a crash course in Yiddish for the gentiles in the room, explaining that “all Yiddish refers to penises and food” and, that said, it was important not to mix up one’s terminology because “in certain neighborhoods, asking for a nice, juicy schvantz ” could bring unexpected results.
Even if Oz creator Tom Fontana hadn’t been on the dais, a Friars Roast is a guarantee that at least one comedian will relate some tale involving the roastee, his schvantz and someone else’s tuchas . During his time at the podium, Larry Miller was that comedian. He called Mr. Stiller a “good kisser … so sweet that a lot of the rough stuff took me by surprise.” He recounted when Mr. Stiller pulled him into a small office at NBC: “Your pants are on, your pants are off,” said Mr. Miller, who recalled Mr. Stiller “spreading the lotion on my buttocks.” (At the after-party at China Grill, Mr. Miller, who said this was his first roast, seemed torn. “In my world if I want to honor a friend, I think about going all the way with a bottle of something,” he said. “I don’t tell you you’re an asshole, you’re old or you’re fat.”)
Friars veteran Dick Capri didn’t have that problem. Taking the podium, Mr. Capri said of Mr. Stiller, “I want to make it big when I’m 70” and go from sitcom to sitcom playing “essentially the same character” with “a delivery that’s as subtle as a fart in a wind tunnel.”
Mr. Alexander introduced the Vulcan-like Mr. Roman, who told how Mr. Stiller bought flowers for his wife, and she said, “I suppose you want me to lie in bed naked all week with my legs apart.” Mr. Roman said that Mr. Stiller replied, “What’s a matter, you don’t have a vase?”
The Stiller family’s turns at the microphone were markedly mild. Ben told the crowd, “My dad’s aversion to any sort of bad word” brought the roast to a “whole other level of enjoyment” for him. Stiller fils then made a threatening motion toward his father and said the word “cock,” and Stiller père feigned a heart attack.
After wondering about profanity and “the wit that entails,” Ms. Meara told the dais, “When it comes to humiliating my husband, you are amateurs.” Yet, she was nothing but tender. “Of all the alterkockers here, Jerry is the only one who doesn’t need Viagra,” she said.
“Not when I’m with you, sweetheart,” replied Mr. Stiller.
But Mr. Stiller was not out of the woods yet. Wendy Liebman told the audience, “We’re here to celebrate Jerry Stiller. My grandmother’s favorite actor. She says you make her damp.” Ms. Liebman told Mr. Stiller, “I love you like a father. A father who grabs my tits.”
The show peaked with Robert Schimmel, who looked the way a Hell’s Angel might look if he were forced to wear a tux. Mr. Schimmel told a tale about Mr. Stiller offering to help a kid starting out in show business. “If you let me suck your dick, I’ll see what I can do,” Mr. Stiller said, according to Mr. Schimmel, who added: “That kid today is Ellen DeGeneres.”
Closing a Friars Roast is a tough job. All of the jokes have been used up, and everyone wants to go home. For many years this has been a job for Pat Cooper, but Mr. Cooper turned down the Friars this year. Mr. Cooper told The Transom that he’s angry at the Friars. “You know what, I call them a bunch of prejudiced bastards, I call them cliques,” he said. He explained that it’s a courtesy among the members to send out flyers saying who’s performing where. “They never send out flyers where I’m working,” said Mr. Cooper. “I said, What nice people you are. Shove the Friars up your ass. Get somebody else to close the show. You ain’t seein’ me there no more. I’d rather clean fish.”
So this year, Paul Rodriguez was brought in, but by the time he took the stage, he seemed to be deflated from the jokes the other comedians had made at his expense. “Paul Rodriguez is to the Latino community what Jerry Stiller is to the Latino community,” said Mr. Ross. Ms. Essman said that if Freddie Prinze hadn’t died, Mr. Rodriguez would still be mowing lawns in Los Angeles.
Mr. Rodriguez did a funny bit, a quick-change into a white food-service coat and yelling, “I touched your food!” to the dais members. Still, he said people seemed to be picking on him. “I don’t take it personally,” Mr. Rodriguez told The Transom, “but out of all the people on the dais, I got it the most. Why would they attack me when Patty Hearst was sitting right next to me?”
When the roast was over, Mr. Stiller summed up his scorching in a profanity-free line: “Now I know what it feels like to be a Reform Jew in Borough Park.”
Others, like Ms. Garofalo, seemed almost glad it was over. “To see Jerry, tiny Jerry, in that big chair with wet eyes …” she said.