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Guilty Pleasure Monday: Comedy Central Roasts

When Dean Martin began broadcasting celebrity roasts in the sixties and seventies audiences got to feel like they'd been granted entry into a secret Hollywood tradition of boozy barbs and loving abuse, a cherished show business institution redolent of the Borscht Belt and the Catskills. Though cleaned up and watered down for public broadcast, these roasts presented at least the appearance of intimacy between the roasters and the people being roasted: obviously Frank Sinatra wasn't about to let anyone who wasn't part of his inner circle talk shit about him in public and walk away unharmed.

But when Comedy Central brought back roasts earlier in the decade it became blindingly apparent that the roasters were generally little more than fans of the person they were showering with comic vitriol. The roast became less of an intimate gathering amongst friends than a showcase for journeyman stand-up comedians eager to peddle their wares for a large, receptive audience. The same B and C list comedians began popping up in roast after roast and they seemed to spend as much time making jokes at each other's expense as they did lampooning the big-name celebrities in the hot seat.

What these newfangled roasters lacked in star quality they made up for in familiarity: watching a Comedy Central Roast it's easy to feel like you're part of a nomadic community of struggling joke-slingers forever angling for that big break that'll put them over the top. After some initial resistance I came to perversely relish the off-topic nature of so many of the jokes, the way comedians ignored the people they were ostensibly supposed to be mocking so they could send barbs their friends' way.

I similarly came to enjoy seeing how many variations the not-so-distinguished dais could spin out of a few tried and true comic conceits, whether it's Hugh Hefner status as a thousand-year-old man with an army of identical bleached blonde concuskanks, Pamela Anderson's super-charged libido and dearth of modesty or William Shatner's abundant failings as a thespian and human being.

These roasts provide a vital proving ground for comedians I'd never seek out on my own accord but who always kill in this context, like Greg Giraldo and Lisa Lampanelli. And though ritual and repetition fuel these affairs there's always the exhilarating possibility that a sentient train wreck like Courtney Love or Andy Dick will run amok in fascinating and/or mortifying ways. It's always interesting seeing how the roasted holds up under fire: who could have guessed that William Shatner would show up most of the professional comedians at his own roast? Also, these roasts are sometimes really fucking funny. Sometimes.

That said, I couldn't bring myself to watch the Flavor Flav roast, in part because I still want to live in a world where Flavor Flav mysteriously disappeared somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle sometime early in 2003 before he could devolve into grotesque self-parody in a series of dispiriting, soul-crushing reality shows. Past roast recipients like Drew Carey and Chevy Chase never meant shit to me: they're simple and plain. Motherfuck them and John Wayne. But Flavor Flav used to stand for something. How do you roast somebody who's already done such a bang-up job of turning himself into a sad, sick joke?