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Several years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to the legendary Friars Club in New York City as a guest for its roast of ex-Star Trek star and current professional kitschy gay man George Takei. By now just about everyone knows what a roast looks and sounds like but I can't stress enough the difference between watching one of these things on TV and actually being in a room with some of the funniest people on earth, minus any sacred cows, sense of decorum, good taste, or general concern for the feelings of others. The Friars Club has been the comedy universe for more than a century and its credo, the willingness to "go for the laugh at any expense," has sat at the center of the Friars Club itself. The roasts sponsored by the club have always been vicious and the ability to abandon all hope and check your sensitivities at the door were always a prerequisite to being a part of them.
What stopped any Friars roast from turning into a free-for-all was the fact that there was usually mutual respect among the comics and celebrities tearing each other apart and that most of the people involved in the roasts were actually comics. That got broadened out over the years, especially when Dean Martin took up the roasting mantle and brought it to network television throughout the 70s and 80s, but overall these were surgeons working within the Friars O.R. rather than laymen. As comedians, they were typically people who could not only dish it out exquisitely but who knew how to take it. The celebs may have gotten into the spirit of things, but there was always something special about seeing comedians going at each other, since nobody was more brutal.
The Comedy Central roasts have evolved into a different kind of beast over the years. Originally, Comedy Central merely produced and aired the Friars Club roasts, but around 12 years ago the network decided to start producing its own material based on the Friars' format. Things started off as you'd expect, with comedians beating the crap out of other comedians -- Denis Leary was the first to sit in the big chair -- but because Comedy Central made a fortune off the shows, given the ratings they pulled, they dug deeper and turned them into something that didn't always look like the original template from which they were modeled. In a lot of ways, what Comedy Central has done with their recent roasts is a lot more entertaining and much more in keeping with the times, but that means the loving spirit of the Friars Club ball-bustings had to be abandoned in favor of genuine hostility on the dais.
The 2011 Donald Trump roast was a prime example as one after another comedians and celebrities took the podium to shred an arrogant asshole none of them really liked or even respected. Roastmaster Seth MacFarlane introduced Trump by calling him "the second worst tragedy ever to hit New York City." Anthony Jeselnik's first crack also got right to the point. "They say you only roast the ones you love," he said. "So this is going to be short." He went on to get in one of the most vicious jabs of the night: "The only difference between you, Donald, and Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street is that nobody’s going to be sad when you get cancer." It wasn't about honoring somebody by ribbing him; it was about a series of proxies for the general public legitimately taking that person apart piece by piece as a kind of cathartic experience for country.
That was probably the thought that went into putting Justin Bieber in the hot seat for the latest roast. Granted, Bieber himself asked for it, in what to his credit has to be one of the cleverest P.R. moves in recent memory. Bieber either sincerely wished to cleanse himself by fire because his sudden bout of self-loathing is just that genuine, or he realized that there's no better act of public penance for his crimes -- figurative and literal -- than to allow stand-ins for each and every one of us to mock him mercilessly for two hours. There's just no redemption-and-reform tour that can hold a candle to Hannibal Buress saying to you, "I hate your music. I hate your music more than Bill Cosby hates my comedy." While the roast hasn't aired yet -- it's scheduled for March 30th -- Bieber admitted at the end of the taping of it last weekend that he got his "dick kicked in."
But a national television audience isn't the same thing is an intimate, closed setting where everybody's on the same page and no one can be accused of "going too far." Apparently, twice during the taping of the Bieber roast, the death of Paul Walker was mined for comedy by the roasters. Since Ludacris was one of those on the dais, Jeff Ross joked when going after him, "'Move Bitch, get out of the way!’ is what Paul Walker should’ve told that tree." When the crowd mostly groaned, Ross responded, “Too soon? Too fast? Too furious?” Then later, new SNL cast-member Pete Davidson cracked, "Just this past year, Justin got arrested for drag racing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t with Paul Walker." Again, some groans, to which Davidson shot back, "What? He’s doing great! He’s got a movie coming out!"
Comedy Central has now announced that the Walker jokes will be cut from the final product so America will never hear them. (Although now that the news of their existence is being heavily reported and Twitter is already responding about how you'd expect, what's the difference?) It's not the first time a joke that happened during a Comedy Central roast has been cut for broadcast, but it's the first time a series of jokes about a certain subject was deemed too offensive. If Luda gets offended at what happened inside the confines of the roast, that's one thing, but Comedy Central knows that if it sanctions that kind of thing on its air, an outraged torch-pitchfork-and-hashtag mob will be screaming for its blood.
Contrast that kind of decision with the "private" roast of Takei I went to in 2008, where one comic cracked, "That joke was deader than Shatner's wife at a pool party," another called Gilbert Gottfried "the most effeminate Jew in the closet since Anne Frank," and Gottfried himself took the podium and literally did about ten minutes of "faggot" jokes. It was the kind of thing that couldn't possibly be aired on television, but despite how jarringly offensive it was there was still something oddly sweet about the whole thing since people of different races, genders and ethnicities had come together to agree that for a little while there were no societal niceties, nothing was off-limits and nobody should be spared.
But that's the beauty of a roast: Everybody's in on it and everybody's equal. The color of your skin doesn't matter; your gender or sexual orientation or ethnicity doesn't matter; your personal sensitivities aren't indulged at all but neither are anyone else's. What you see at a roast is the egalitarian dream put forth by a million indignant crusaders across social media accomplished in a way they simply could never allow themselves to accept. The Walker joke is horribly insensitive, but the spirit of it isn't. Mocking Justin Bieber is something we all can get behind. Being inundated with brutal humor and watching somebody sit there and take it at this point feels like a way of administering a live vaccine to our culture against incessant outrage.
Maybe we need more of these things. Maybe all of us deserve to know we can be brought down to size and that we'll be respected by being able to take the lumps. Maybe the Friars Club roasts, no matter their tone -- respectful or vicious -- need to be shown publicly, far and wide. Maybe every joke should be included, even the ones that miss the mark. Simply being willing to push the envelope, the danger and release there, might be good for us in the end. Besides, if you didn't like, you could always just turn it off.