In December, 2019, Michael McElroy was visiting his parents in Washington, D.C. when the roasts started to roll in.
They came in slowly at first. “You look like Jim fucked Dwight,” jabbed one commentator. But soon they picked up speed, arriving in their tens, twenties, and thirties. “How’s life with one row of teeth?” asked another.
“My phone just kept buzzing and buzzing with each comment,” McElroy tells me. “I think my wife went upstairs for a nap when it hit 2k or so, and by the time she woke up it was over 30k. It was wild.”
McElroy is a former actor. In his twenties, he got a discount deal on some headshots through Groupon. He got what he paid for — some cringeworthy headshots that he now pulls out for a laugh. Hours earlier that day, McElroy had served those photos up to a far larger audience: a subreddit called r/RoastMe, where people intentionally post photos of themselves and invite the criticism of some 1.7 million anonymous strangers.
Getting roasted on r/RoastMe is easy. You supply a photo, a short bio, and hold up a sign to indicate your informed consent. Then you let the internet have at you. Collin Williams, a standup comedian and one of the moderators of r/RoastMe, calls it “simply the largest online comedy roasting community in the world.”
Once the roasters saw McElroy’s discount photos, they couldn’t get enough.
At the time of writing, McElroy’s photos are the second most popular r/RoastMe post of all time, with 2,300 comments and 60,000 upvotes. The attention eventually landed him on Reddit’s front page.
From an outside perspective, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever serve themselves up for this intense experience. u/Thumbs0fDestiny, another moderator of r/RoastMe, tells me that their mission is very simple. (He and several other moderators asked that Inverse use his screen name to identify him in this story.)
"The reason it makes people feel good is because it’s negative."
“We’re all that kid that sits in the back of class, or the person at the end of the bar that throws out a wisecrack every now and then for a laugh,” he says. “Deeper than that, joking about our faults makes those faults seem less important.”
If ever there was a place that bridged the gap between dark humor and the abyss of online abuse, it’s r/RoastMe. Establishing that balance has been a process of trial and error — one that has yielded one of the internet’s weirdest experiences.
I know this because some 3,000 redditors have told me how much I look like “the version of Kimmy Schmidt that they put back in the bunker,” reminded me of how doomed my journalistic career is, and likened me to an arthritic Ygritte from Game of Thrones. Yes, reader: I am a victim/volunteer on r/RoastMe, too.
The spirit of r/RoastMe
At its best, r/RoastMe exists in the tradition of the classic Comedy Central roast or the New York Friars Club. At least, that is the culture that the moderators work to cultivate. The first rule of r/RoastMe is that the jokes can be pointed and even borderline cruel, but above all, they must be funny, r/RoastMe moderator Rob Allam says.
“This is a funny sub, so let’s keep it funny and not make it vile or toxic. Even though it can tippy toe between those two things,” Allam says.
“We have a strong stance against a few things, like transphobic comments, racist comments, suicidal comments. They’re low-effort jokes that aren’t funny at all,” he says.
Some comments are harder to categorize. For those, there’s r/RoastMe’s rule number five: the “unfunny abuse rule”. It reads: “there’s a clear line between humor and abuse.” Any comment that crosses the line is removed by the moderators.
But the question is: Where is that line? Has r/RoastMe been able to find it? Scientists working in the lab have spent years trying to answer the first question. r/RoastMe, meanwhile, is a living experiment.
The popularity of r/RoastMe speaks for itself: The subreddit has 1.7 million members. On an average day, it gets 1,267,950 page views, Allam says. By comparison, its “foil” subreddit, r/ToastMe, has only 256,000 members. The even more benign r/FreeCompliments has 77,600 members.
If you ask Allam, the reason for the discrepancy is clear: As wholesome as they are, those other subreddits aren’t funny. Perhaps Mark Twain wasn’t wrong when he said, “The secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
Izzy Kalman, a school psychologist and bullying expert who has written about r/RoastMe in the past, goes so far to say that all humor is negative. He encourages those who feel bullied to use humor as a weapon to declaw pointed attacks.
“People think that humor is positive because it makes them feel good. But the reason it makes people feel good is because it’s negative. All comedy makes people look bad in some way," he says.
“What’s going on in the Reddit roasts, ideally, is that the participants want to be making humor. Hopefully the insults will be good ones,” he says.
If it is going to land, humor can’t be purely nasty. One theory, put forth by Peter McGraw at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Humor Research Lab, is that humor must be simultaneously benign (it can’t actually hurt you) and a violation (it threatens your beliefs about how the world should be or already is). It is both safe and perverse at the same time.
In a 2014 paper describing the theory, McGraw and his colleagues note that a violation can come off as benign if there’s a “playful motivational state,” or cues that you shouldn’t take the violation seriously. Maybe there’s an alternative explanation suggesting why the violation exists.
Other crucial ingredients include the knowledge that you are in a safe environment, and a sufficient “psychological distance” from the violation itself. Too short a psychological distance explains why it is considered poor taste to joke about a tragedy in the immediate aftermath — too soon, some might say — but not after enough time has passed. One study on Hurricane Sandy jokes suggested that 36 days post-crisis seems to be the moment when jokes about the catastrophe become funny and socially acceptable.
"If they can be insulted over and over again on Reddit, then they can handle insults and they won’t get upset in real life."
Some of those factors are accounted for explicitly on the r/rRoastMe subreddit — take rule number 12, for example: “don’t be evil,” which reminds roasters not to post anything that could imply they wish physical harm on the poster.
Still, you have to wonder why people seek out this kind of dark, self-deprecating humor in the first place — even if it is funny. One (counterintuitive) explanation may be that it makes us feel better about the existing negativity in our lives.
A small 2012 study on 40 participants in Switzerland suggests dark humor may act as a kind of psychological salve for those with negative feelings about themselves. The participants were shown two photos of negative things (think corpses, car accidents, dental exams or aggressive animals). Then, the participants were told to make up a positive, humorous story and a negative, humorous tale about the photographs.
Both types of humor helped people down-regulate their initial negative feelings about the upsetting photos — but the positive stories seemed to be more effective than the negative ones.
That said, there are situations in which dark humor just flows more naturally than “positive humor.” For example, a paper in the Journal of Aggression, Treatment and Trauma describes how Vietnam war veterans used humor to reframe traumatic war memories:
The sharing of humorous memories was also found to facilitate group bonding and provide participants with a new perspective for viewing the memories that haunted them,” the authors write.
Gallows humor has been used by first responders to process traumatic events. It’s also used by people who, by nature of their professions, process emotionally heavy loads every day. One survey of 142 nurses found that 21.4 percent used humor to get them through patient care.
There’s a certain degree of emotional processing going on in r/RoastMe too. Some posts reference traumatic life events like breakups, or terminal diagnoses. As moderator u/Thumbs0fDestiny tells me, r/RoastMe is intended to help us make light of things, large and small — with the crucial caveat that the jokes don’t compound existing stress and suffering.
“As long as we can laugh at ourselves, things are going to be OK,” he says.
If the jokes check all those boxes, people who get roasted are able to tolerate more than you’d think.
Take Katherine Carter, a student at the University of North Texas. Carter’s December 2019 post was one of several attempts at r/RoastMe. This time, she did it to keep herself entertained over winter break. Her post reads: “Best roast gets my number.”
“The whole ‘Best roast gets my number' part was a way of grabbing more attention since a large majority of Reddit users are men,” Carter says. “I figured it might get them riled up if they assumed that I expected them to create a better roast in order to get my number.”
It worked. The post got 11,700 upvotes and 5,800 comments.
“I have incredibly tough skin,” Carter says. “I really don’t mind the responses, in fact I think they can get quite creative and funny.”
Kalman, on the other hand, isn’t impressed with the jokes on r/RoastMe — but he does see its purpose. “Unfortunately a lot of the insults are nasty or stupid insults,” he says. “But occasionally you get a really good insult that makes people laugh.”
Experiences like Carter’s reflect the spirit of r/RoastMe that moderators are trying to achieve: The jokes are harsh, but still benign. That is the sweet spot r/RoastMe tries to occupy.
Getting there has been a long, harrowing process. “It came a long way,” Allam says.
Maintaining the sweet spot
Moderators review every post that goes on the subreddit. One of the rules is that the volunteer’s entire arm has to be visible in the shot inviting roasts — they want to make sure the poster is really game. Moderator u/Blank-Cheque tells me that they will ask for further verification on any post that seems “fishy.” Moderator u/Thumbs0fDestiny adds that they also continuously monitor the comments to make sure people stick to the rules of the sub.
“We’re here to roast people, not to be cruel or even to compliment,” u/Thumbs0fDestiny says.
But “fairly often” there are attempts to roast in bad faith, he says.
Bad-faith posters might photoshop a consent sign, serving up a friend, neighbor, or romantic partner without their permission. Williams, another moderator, says the approval process has helped catch people with bad intent.
“I've actually been able to stop bad-faith posts that would have gone up on different platforms with automatic approval like Twitter or Youtube that don't review posts. It's a lot, a lot, a lot of work for us as moderators, but we do it because we understand and appreciate the benefit of comedy,” Williams says.
But even this pain-staking approval process can't stop a bad-faith roaster — at least, not right away. The redditors on r/RoastMe can have a dark side. Again, I know this from experience: After a good, funny start, my own roast quickly spiraled out of control.
The morning after I posted my roast, I wake up to a text from my college rowing coach. “When your roast me makes the front page…” she wrote. “I hope you’re doing ok.”
Overnight, the post made its way to the front page of Reddit. Nervous to see the damage, I ask my boyfriend to take the temperature of the comments for me before I read any myself.
The ones we had found funny the night before were still high performers (one of my favorites, by the way, u/nikded’s “Her professional bio reads: “Never getting my letter from Hogwarts, I…”).
But my boyfriend has some bad news: Overnight, the commentary had started to fall out of benign territory. You could call it nasty.
Later that morning, I see that a moderator, u/alsoweavves, stepped in to quell the roasters. (I did not ask for intervention.)
“Things are getting a little vitriolic, heated and decidedly unfunny in here,” u/alsoweavves said. He reminded the community of two rules: the “unfunny abuse rule,” and the “don’t be evil rule.”
That same morning, I call Allam. I ask him how my roast compared to others. Numerically, he says that the roast did far better than the usual 5,000 to 10,000 upvotes (mine has about 23,000). It was the unique nature of my experiment — a journalist volunteering for a roast — and the fact that it had been a slow day on r/RoastMe that pushed it to the top, he says.
He also confirms my boyfriend and I’s suspicions. “You got destroyed.”
We laugh about it. I tell him it felt like sitting in a carnival dunk tank. You don’t think that anyone is really going to hit the target and send you splashing into the cold water. Until, of course, someone gets lucky. The redditors of r/RoastMe hurled a virtual insult or two that struck right at my deepest insecurities. Redditor u/know_comment hit a bullseye: “Those teeth are clearly representative of OP’s journalism career: yellow and full of gaps.”
Allam can relate. Four years ago, he posted his own roast. It reads: “I have readied my anus, Reddit. Roast away.” The post got 1,200 comments and 7,700 upvotes.
He calls his roast “beautiful,” but also “terrible.” Users joked about his looks, his bright pink t-shirt, and his beard. The top comment on Allam’s roast? “Your face says ISIS, but your shirt says Forever 21.”
“I’m half Greek, half Lebanese, so there were a lot of terrorist jokes, but hilariously so,” Allam says. “I got destroyed, too.”
“You’re laughing, reading through comments, and you stop and say ‘Wait a fucking second! That actually hurts!’”
That sting, though, is why some people go to r/RoastMe in the first place. They’re hoping to use the experience and have a lasting impact on their emotional lives.
If r/RoastMe has one silver lining, perhaps it is that it helps us take criticism in real life.
That, at least, is how user u/jeryche, another r/RoastMe poster, decided to use the subreddit.
In u/jeryche's post on r/RoastMe, they include a short bio outlining their struggle with an “overwhelming fear of rejection and criticism.” Their therapist took the photo. “Be as cruel as possible to help cure me!” the post says.
Kalman agrees that r/RoastMe is a good place to get an education in taking criticism. Sure, people go there looking for a laugh. But maybe, like u/jeryche, they are in search of something more — they want to cultivate resilience.
“If they can be insulted over and over again on Reddit, then they can handle insults and they won’t get upset in real life. They become emotionally more healthy if they can handle it,” Kalman says.
u/jeryche was scared of what the roasters might surface, but overall, the roast was “massively helpful,” they say.
“It's so rare that people actually open themselves up to honest, negative feedback about themselves, especially about the way they look. I wasn't expecting it, but it actually opened up some major issues I have about my body image that I'm now working up in therapy,” they say.
u/jeryche knows their experience may not apply to everyone. “I imagine for people with more features that don't meet society's beauty standards, r/RoastMe would be a lot more distressing and hurtful.”
"This community is amazingly warm and caring, and it shows."
From my own experience, I agree that r/RoastMe does have some resilience-building power. If resilience can be cultivated through practice, you might consider r/RoastMe the equivalent of stepping into the boxing ring for thousands of never-ending rounds. You come out bruised, yes, but tougher.
But the potential hurt from these insults may not be especially high in the first place. When insults come from someone you love and respect, the barb can be much more poignant. It was harder to have people I know in real life read the comments back to me (or send screenshots) than it was to see them attributed to anonymous usernames online.
The anonymity of r/RoastMe gives people license to “get away with vile behavior,” but it also allows them to be honest for the sake of the joke, Allam says.
“If you had someone you care about roast you, it might be hilarious, but it also might be uncalled for, because they know how to hurt you,” he says. “Internet strangers just press your buttons whenever you least expect it.”
In that way, r/RoastMe’s anonymity provides its greatest weakness and its greatest liability. You’ll be roasted with gusto, but it’s never personal.
Still, r/RoastMe takes on great responsibility. Chief among them is making sure that those who post on the subreddit are seeking the roast for the right reasons.
Going on the subreddit looking to improve your tolerance to criticism is one thing. Going on seeking confirmation of negative feelings will only make those feelings worse, Melanie Greenberg, a psychologist who writes for Psychology Today, tells me.
“There’s some research in social psychology that people seek out information that confirms their own beliefs about themselves. People might be using this to confirm these beliefs they have for negative reasons, like they’ve been abused, or bullied or rejected,” Greenberg says.
“I don’t think it’s healthy to confirm those beliefs.”
The moderators know not everyone is looking for fun when they come to r/RoastMe. Some are seeking pure negativity — and they receive it. How that affects their mental health plays out in real life, not on the internet.
I ask Allam if he felt a responsibility to follow up with roasters to check and see how they’re doing, or provide additional resources. r/RoastMe commenters have jokingly compared it to digital BDSM. But even BDSM includes aftercare, a practice where people check in with each other after the intense sexual experience.
The subreddit doesn’t allow posts suggesting intent to self-harm, and moderators redirect those users to counseling resources or hotlines. The accounts of those indicating self-harm are passed on to Reddit administration. And you can’t post under the age of 18.
But following up with each person would be “virtually impossible,” he says. There are too many posts, and moderating r/RoastMe is a hobby, not a full-time job.
“At the end of the day, we’re just mods on a subreddit. We can offer as safe a community as we can get,” he says.
The moderators have faith in r/RoastMe. That’s because the top r/RoastMe post of all time has nothing to do with humorous insults. It’s a story of restraint.
In February 2019, a redditor named u/MustafaQuePasa posted: “17 year old Russian suffering from crippling depression,” the post reads. “Give me a reason to end it all.”
En masse, the roasters refused.
“No, I, and most others refuse,” said one commenter. “Buddy, you stumbled into a pit of some of the most vicious vipers on the internet, and we’re all rooting for you. Virtual hug, my brother,” said another.
Moderator u/Thumbs0fDestiny says that is the post that characterizes the intent of r/RoastMe. Sensing that a line had been crossed, the roasters stepped back of their own accord.
“There weren’t any moderators forcing people to play nice, it was organic and beautiful. Because of responses like this we’ve seen a noticeable decline in people posting ‘edgy’ titles just to be funny,” he says. “This community is amazingly warm and caring, and it shows.”
It’s hard to say how much we should praise r/RoastMe for not doing the unthinkable: abusing someone who has indicated a clear intent to self-harm.
But it does show that the subreddit is as capable of exercising mass restraint as it is of inducing mass hysteria. Every day, r/RoastMe peers over the top at true darkness. Crucially, the majority of users do seem to know where the line between dark humor and bleak cruelty lies.
Living through a roast is exhilarating and terrifying. But living with it for weeks can be trying. You can always delete your roast, but not everyone does. McElroy, the actor with the second most popular post of all, hasn’t deleted his.
But getting compared to one of the McPoyles from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia yet again (current count: at least 80 times, by his estimate) gets tiresome after a month or so.
“I'm still getting 5 or 6 new comments each day, and there are times when it gets old,” he says. “Like I'll be in a meeting at work and check my phone and see a notification that someone on the internet has, again, made fun of my hairline…”
Reading through my own comments, it can feel overwhelming when the same joke is made over and over again (ask r/RoastMe if gingers have souls). But the good insults really do shine in comparison.
This humor isn’t for everyone — I’m not even sure if it’s for me. But if the stories of 1.7 million roasters say anything at all, it’s definitely for someone. And yes, I am OK, in case you were wondering.