The organization traces its roots to 1904, when representatives of the Broadway theatres working with New York publicists organized the Press Agents' Association to exchange lists of people who were fraudulently receiving complimentary passes to shows. The group regularly met at Browne's Chop House. Shortly thereafter it began its tribute dinners to theatrical celebrities, the first being Clyde Fitch. The impresario Oscar Hammerstein was toasted in 1908, the year in which the Friars moved into a clubhouse at 107 West 47th Street.
The first Friars Frolics were held in 1911, with Abbot George M. Cohan working with Will Rogers, Irving Berlin (who wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band" for the event), and Victor Herbert; the money generated by the Frolics enabled them to purchase 106-108-110 West 48th Street. Under Abbot Cohan it laid a cornerstone on the building in 1915. In 1924 Walter Donaldson wrote the music for "My Blue Heaven" one afternoon while waiting in the club for his turn at the billiard table.
In 1950 Sam Levenson and fellow comedian Joe E. Lewis were the first members of the New York Friars Club to be roasted. The club has roasted a member every year since the inaugural roasting.
Between 1998 and 2002, the club's roasts were aired on Comedy Central, which then began organizing its own annual roasts.
The Friars Club moved into its current headquarters in 1957, an English Renaissance mansion built for Speyer & Company investment banker Martin Erdman by architects Alfredo S. G. Taylor and Levi in 1908. Friars Club roasts were first televised in the late 1960s, first as part of the Kraft Music Hall series and later The Dean Martin Show. From 1998 to 2002, the roasts were broadcast on Comedy Central.
In 1999 filmmaker Dean Ward's documentary Let Me In, I Hear Laughter: A Salute to the Friars Club was shown on Cinemax. It featured previously unseen footage of roasts and interviews with Friars such as Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, Henny Youngman, Jeffrey Ross, Larry King, Ed McMahon, and Phyllis Diller.
In 2001 Hugh Hefner's roast at the Friars Club was the scene of Gilbert Gottfried's public telling of the Aristocrats joke, made famous by the documentary of the same name. In 2004 the City of New York named the southeast corner of 55th Street, where the clubhouse stands, Friars Way.
In 2008, the Friars Club began a stand-up comedy competition, "So You Think You Can Roast!?" On October 24 of that year, the winner performed at the Friars Club roast of Matt Lauer. The inaugural Friar's Club Comedy Film Festival was held in September 2009, opening with the American premiere of the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man.