SI 60 Q&A: Jeff MacGregor on the Don King roast and unprintable jokes
Throughout his long career as a boxing promoter, Don King has been the subject of several excellent pieces in Sports Illustrated. In advance of the 1975 Thrilla In Manila between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier that King promoted, Mark Kram wrote a cover story for the magazine called "There Ain't No Others Like Me," which gave readers what was likely their first detailed look at King's life and career to that point. In 1990, around the time King had become well-known for his association with Mike Tyson, SI's Franz Lidz wrote a bonus piece of nearly 5,000 words about King's hair, or, as the magazine referred to it, his "folicles of fabulous fecundity."
As good as those stories were, the best and perhaps funniest came in 2006, when SI published Jeff MacGregor's account of the Friars Club's roast of King. It ran in the Feb. 13, 2006 issue with the headline "Let Us Now Raze Famous Men." MacGregor responded to some emailed questions about the piece.
SI: Whose idea was it to do this story and why?
MACGREGOR: All credit for this story idea goes to my editor Bob Roe, who saw a small newspaper item about the Friars Club Roast calendar and thought the upcoming combination of Don King and Donald Trump and rubber chicken and every comic in New York might be irresistible. He was right.
SI: What were your impressions of Don King before you wrote it? Had you ever met him/covered him/interacted with him?
MACGREGOR: For every American of a certain age, Don King was the face and haircut of modern boxing. I'd never met him, but going all the way back to Ali-Foreman in Zaire in 1974, he seemed to have a hand in every big fight that was made or unmade. By the time I met him I'd read a great deal about him, and there was nothing in boxing across those 30 years that didn't bend itself to him, or around him. Like all truly great villains, he's very charming. A terrific character to write about.
SI: Had you ever been to a Friars Club roast before? Was it basically what you were expecting?
MACGREGOR: I had not, but I knew pretty well what to expect. All TV roasts, from Comedy Central to Dean Martin, are a footnote to the original Friars Club roasts. And some of it was very funny. Freddie Roman and Pat Cooper, certainly. Lisa Lampanelli killed. Particularly funny was how unfunny Mr. Trump is when trying to be funny.
SI: Did you have any marching orders for the story? What were you hoping to get out of it?
MACGREGOR: No orders, no roadmap. No instructions at all, in fact. I never did at SI. No preconceptions. I was always just hoping to find whatever there was to find -- in this case a very American celebration of excess and obscenity -- and write about it.
SI: You had a Lisa Lampanelli joke in the story that was basically nothing but dashes. Were most of the jokes ones you couldn't use?
MACGREGOR: Most of that material is still so dirty I can't use it. In fact, nothing Lisa Lampanelli has ever said into a microphone can ever be printed anywhere. She's great!
SI: What did you make of the spectacle of this roast? The story points out how absurd it all was.
MACGREGOR: The very idea of a "roast" -- that you "love" and "respect" someone enough to publicly humiliate them -- is an absurdity. That this one was held in celebration of the greatest huckster/showman/evil genius in boxing history only made it better. That it was held in midmorning at the midtown Hilton in Manhattan, in a ballroom fit for Louis the XIVth -- if Louis the XIVth had driven in from Hackensack -- made it perfect.
SI: Did you have a lot of time and space to write what you wanted?
MACGREGOR: I had plenty of time. And I remember transcribing a lot of tapes. Many tapes. A LOT of tapes. Not only had I recorded the performances at the roast itself, but I'd spent a few weeks interviewing comics and hanging out at the Friars Club. To say nothing of the week I spent following Don King around listening to him talk. And talk. So many tapes.
SI: Did you ever hear from King or anyone at the Friars Club about it?
MACGREGOR: Don King liked the piece a lot, despite its honesty, and thought it was very fair. He knows better than anyone what role he plays in the American experiment. His publicist referred to it as King's 'Lion In Winter' story. To this day we're on very cordial terms. The comics all liked it, too. Mr. Trump? Probably not so much.
SI: Was there any other notable reaction to the story?
MACGREGOR: A healthy stream of nice letters and emails over the years. Of my own work, it's certainly one of my favorites. And people still remember David Bergman's terrific lead photo from the story, too.