LC#26: Roast Rules
Smith/Rock + three times a roast went emotionally weird.
I know you’re not dying for yet another take on the Smith/Rock incident. However, considering I started this newsletter as a sort of sandbox for thoughts and ideas I could digest in my own time, this is as topical as it’s going to get in here. And it’s not about the slap per se, we’ll see. Rather, I take the chance to discuss a more established power relationship at play in one of the most brutal (and popular) formats of comedy: the roast. Just about a half-second scroll from here.
I’m not really on top of viral content as I am trying to avoid social media as much as possible, but I have been enjoying this HBO series lately. Check out the trailer below, see if it’s your thing.
I am not sure what disturbed me the most about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. The joke was lazy and a little cruel, the violence definitely unacceptable. Perhaps, however, what’s more interesting to me is the incident encapsulated a cacophony of converging expectations: on one hand the hard-sought validation of careers within a small, very specific community, on the other the levity demanded by a global audience of industry outsiders. I do not usually care about the Oscars, but I have the feeling this clash (and the real or perceived drama surrounding it) has become increasingly important in the definition of this type of ceremony. People have been writing an saying lots about it, but I noticed two recurring perspectives that seem relevant: should the Oscars be a serious celebration of talent, with no comic relief, or is taking the showbiz elite down a notch one of the main reasons to watch the show? In other words: are the Oscars a roast or not?
If you read this newsletter you should know what I mean, but let’s just spell it out: a roast is a public event centered around an especially successful individual, whose achievements are celebrated by a range of speakers (usually friends, colleagues, or well-wishers) who take turns making fun of them. Originating in the 1950s at the New York Friars Club and popularized by the more recent Comedy Central incarnation, the roast is a truly carnivalesque genre, at least in the sense that hierarchies are seemingly suspended (at least temporarily) and normal people are encouraged to laugh at the expense of some of the most legendary achievers in the entertainment world.
Starting from the motto that inspires them (“We only roast the ones we love”), Comedy Central roasts in particular are especially interesting in terms of power relationships. Firstly, no matter how much fun the roasters have at the expense of their victim, the “career” itself — as a more or less abstract value or institution — is always invariably sanctified. The roastee does get completely destroyed by a mix of actual friends and semi-known comedy roast professionals in the making, but they are also granted the last word — which usually consists in some variation of “what happened to me, I’m being made fun of by nobodies” or another more affirmative take on the very same fame gap. This narrative is paramount: in pure carnival fashion, the people are only temporarily allowed to laugh at the king, and the comedians taking the stage are always humbling themselves by acknowledging their inferior industry status.
From the perspective of the celebrated victim, some roasts can do wonders for one’s public profile, and Donald Trump is a notable example of this. I remember Comedy Central UK airing a re-run of his special the night he was elected, and I could not help but wonder if the program had somehow helped him get there, in some sinister way. Not everyone comes out on top, however, or at least not gracefully, and in this respect the Chevy Chase event in 2002 was famously unsuccessful. Apparently there were several reasons: first, not many of his friends showed up, so the SNL legend was faced by a horde of soon-to-become roasting experts, who tore him to shreds. On top of that, instead of being a good sport about it, Chase sat passively, sporting a mysterious pair of sunglasses for a large portion of the show, and ultimately gave a bitterly dismissive closing speech that felt devoid of the usual feel-good quality of other roasts. No slaps or death stares here, but the implosion of an ego on public display.
It should also be clear a roast does not only celebrate the individual career of a roastee, it can also make or break the career of the roaster. To make just a few examples, comedians like Jeff Ross, Lisa Lampanelli and the much missed Greg Giraldo all gained substantial notoriety through the format, earning badges like “Roastmaster General” or “Queen of Mean”. However, things went the other way in at least one tragic case — I am talking about the Emmit Smith roast hosted by Jamie Foxx, which features what might well be the most infamous stage humiliation in the history of American comedy.
Theses could be written about this incident. After announcing Doug Williams, the only unknown comedian on the bill, Foxx gives the struggling colleague just a couple minutes of badly received, frankly lazy jokes before literally hi-jacking his set. Through a brutal yet genius gimmick, Foxx starts to talk over Williams from his seat, introducing himself as the comedian’s conscience — a conscience that, in its own words, is very much self-aware and definitely not comfortanle on stage. The killing is cruel albeit undeniably hilarious, and the bullying very much in line with career hierarchies: if Williams previusly says he got on stage for a deal, his conscience/Foxx sentences he will never get one. At the very end, the host even greets Doug by the wrong surname while he’s on the way out.
Despite its massively humiliating character and unfair premises, the execution was seen by many as necessary. As roast veteran Jeff Ross described it in a semi-recent interview, Foxx was saving his own show, going by the rule that “funny wins”. As for Williams himself, he described the incident as doubly tricky, because being able to take a joke is quite crucial to a comedian (and even more so at a roast, we might add). Nonetheless, occasionally some jokes necessarily hit differently, especially if revisited after a long time.
This is another roast moment that stuck with me because it appeared to reveal something beyond the joke matrix, a glimpse of real emotion coming through despite the professional bashing. It was at the Charlie Sheen roast, and it involved a few comedians whose careers later went stellar. During their sets, some of the roasters made jokes about Patrice O’Neal’s diabetes, so when his turn came the Boston comedian took a couple jabs at Jeselnik in particular. The jabs per se are quite dismissive, but they do not necessarily seem more heartfelt than the rest of the set (the level of aggressiveness is standard for a roast environment, as is the emphasis on Jeselnik’s status as an open-micer). At one point, however, O’Neal leans on the lectern and addresses the diabetes jokes: how can he be mean when other people are making fun of the disease that is killing him? The tragic thing about this is the illness eventually did kill O’Neal when he was only 41, so I am probably interpreting this differently because I know how things went. Nonetheless, while Patrice was a Boston comedy institution that would joke about anything, the possibility that there might have been some sincerity to that moment, a frustration bluntly expressed through the comedic frame of the roast format, is something I have been thinking about several times since first watching that clip.
All of the moments described above share one or more elements with the Oscars slap, most significantly because they involve both human relationships (how close the individuals on either end of the joke are) and industry status (the career narrative is somehow always there, even if delayed to the Oscars acceptance speech). That’s why roasting can get emotionally weird: sometimes the person roasting is not close enough to the roastee, others the roasters needs to take the brunt of the joke to keep the audience laughing. The format is simple enough, but it seems there is a chain of relationships involved that are all too human to fully control — and let’s be honest, it’s part of the thrill. So yeah, I’d rather watch a roast than the Oscars.