Roasts used to be the stuff of legends, gatherings that were talked about and expanded upon to the unwashed masses unable to originally attend. They were like Freemason meetings, only with a greater number of dick jokes. Over the years, these once private sessions grew in the interest and eye of the public, until they were whittled down to the homogenized brand that Comedy Central trots out on a semi-regular basis. Sure, these (occasional) comedies can swear more than those on Dean Martin’s old variety-hour brand of roasts, but in many ways the material presented in this Trump-tastic edition was somehow safer than ever before.
Not only is it not safer, but it no longer pretends to throw together a group of people with even a basic camaraderie with each other or the roastee. Sure, there were familiar faces tonight that known each other from previous events (Jeffrey Ross, Lisa Lampanelli, Whitney Cummings), but there were also a new cadre of performers that had tangential relationships to Donald Trump (Marlee Matlin) and some that had absolutely nothing to do with Trump at all (Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, Anthony Jeselnik). As such, what could have been biting instead turned into a series of jokes that were hit-or-miss funny but hardly approached anything on an actually personal level.
The format by now is tried-and-true, as cookie cutter as the various stand-up specials that Comedy Central produces as this point. The assembly line structure goes as follows: Roastmaster Seth MacFarlane makes a few jokes about the upcoming performer, said performer mocks everyone on the dais, tells a few jokes about a rich man they never met before that night, tells said rich man they were only kidding, and then ends his/her set. Lather, rinse, repeat. This meant that 80 percent of each presenter’s time was spent talking about the rest of the panel, each member taking part in the overall roasting circle jerk. The one exception to this staid formula? Matlin who not only used her translator as her “voice” onstage but also employed Gilbert Gottfried (recently of Aflac commercial fame) halfway through as her “interpreter.” And even then, the only difference was one of format, not content.
All of this proceeded banally for the first half of the show, until Sorrentino got up and did something that, had it been done by an Andy Kaufman, Norm MacDonald, or Zach Galifianakis, might have been called performance art. What he did was manage to stretch seven minutes of stage time into what felt like 36 hours of aural waterboarding. Trump, who was already a nearly invisible presence up until that point in the overall proceedings, receded even further as each ensuing comic opened up both barrels on The Situation, sensing blood in the water. Sorrentino’s performance will probably get the roast more publicity than anything else, but that’s part of the problem: The show clearly booked him so he’d bomb, not because he would do a good job.
And maybe that’s fine with you, if you enjoy train wrecks that involve baby seals and orphans inside said flaming train. Maybe that level of incompetence took a banal event and supercharged it. Personally, I enjoyed the sets by Snoop Dogg and roast newcomer Jeselnik the most, since those were actually funny. The former used the wit honed through countless verbal attacks during his music career to slam his way through the dais, and the latter came off like a Winklevoss with a cutting sense of humor. The line of the night came from Jeselnik: “Look at this dais: You’ve got a pimp, a murderer, a drug dealer, a pornographer, and then eight white people.” Absolutely perfect delivery there.
Other performers did what they always do, and your mileage will vary on whether or not that was successful. Larry King didn’t die (literally) onstage, so that’s a plus. Cummings substituted “volume” for “comedy” in her performance (as noted by Jeffrey Ross), and Lampanelli’s act is at this point as shocking as the latest James Blunt record. Ross himself did his usual schtick, although part of his act addressed the semi-elephant in the room all night. No, not Donald Trump’s lack of any noticeable reaction at anything going at any point, but the absence of deceased comic and long-time dais member Greg Giraldo. Maybe it’s reading too much into things to assign the overall malaise this year to Giraldo’s spectre hanging over the show, and every mention was out of simple respect and nothing more. But it’s hard to imagine that not only did some performers not have their hearts set on roasting Trump, but maybe had heavy hearts to start without Giraldo.
But while all returning members did their jobs competently, it did feel throughout as if they were in fact simply doing their jobs, not actively participating in a roast. That’s a problem with a format that should be at times dangerous, subversive, or at least surprising. On top of that, the telecast was produced within an inch of its life, which meant that all reaction shots were dutifully and crisply captured but lacked anything resembling spontaneity. Other than leaving Sorrentino out to dry, the show moved along at a brisk pace that nevertheless felt impersonal. Everyone joked about things they gleaned not from personal experience with Trump but simply by reading a newspaper or checking out TMZ: his wealth, his wives, his hair, his presidential ambitions. Nothing surprised comedically because none of the topics themselves surprised, either when directed at Trump’s head or Lampanelli’s vagina. Been there, done that. Well, you know, not literally. (Heyo! Fuck. Now it’s rubbing off on me. Wait, wrong choice of words again…)
- Lot of 9/11 humor tonight. Semi-fitting, since Trump’s associated with NYC. MacFarlane called him the “second-worst tragedy to ever hit” the city, and Gottfried called him “the 20th terrorist,” after doing so much damage to the New York skyline. I know all’s fair, but… yikes. At least the latter didn’t follow up with another rendition of “The Aristocrats.”
- A lot of the dais independently decided that Trump really likes his own penis, leading to an inordinate number of jokes about his M.C. Escher levels of masturbation.
- An example of how tired these events have become: Lampanelli essentially lifted an Amazon.com joke told/yelled by Cummings at last year’s Hasselhoff roast. I hate that I know that off the top of my head.
- The one thing I learned about Trump tonight: much like Ricky Stratton, Trump came from dough and wasn’t the self-made man he lets people like me believe he is. (MacFarlane: “He’s basically Jaden Smith with a combover.”) I wear my lack of Trump trivia knowledge proudly, people.
- Lampanelli to Matlin: “You read lips. What’s my camel toe saying?”
- Snoop on Trump’s Presidential desires: “It wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a black family outta their home.”
- MacFarlane on Sorrentino: “No need to clap; he already has it.”
- Jeselnik: “Whitney Cummings has had more undeserved opportunities than a Native American applying to college.”
- Jeselnik again: “Marlee Matlin: ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO ME?”
- Matlin: “I’ve been told that when I speak, it sounds like Whitney Cummings with a dick in her mouth.”
- Ross, on Gary Coleman: “He died of multiple aneurysms, which is a little like diff'rent strokes.”