Roasts have long been a guilty pleasure of mine. As a comedy geek, I love that they keep alive a dying comedy world redolent of the borscht belt and vaudeville and The Catskills. I love the weird sense of community engendered by roasts, as comedians who’ve known each other for years sling barbs coated in affection. I love the rhythms and conventions and pageantry and alternating currents of tongue-in-cheek mockery and sentimentality.
During tonight’s Roast of Joan Rivers something changed. One of my most dependable guilty pleasures began to seem all guilt, no pleasure. Roasts are comic comfort food: you know exactly what people are going to say and how they’ll say it. In the past I’ve derived comfort and pleasure in this predictability. Tonight familiarity bred, if not contempt, than at the very least tedium and mild irritation. In perhaps the show’s most representative moment, Jeffrey Ross recycled his famous line about how he wouldn’t fuck Sandra Bernhard (or was it Courtney Love?) with Bea Arthur’s dick by subbing in Rivers and a post-operative Chastity Bono.
As a roast subject, Joan Rivers is both ideal and tricky. She is, like the subjects of all Comedy Central roasts, a walking punchline. But Rivers has spent so many decades making fun of herself that mocking her seems redundant.
I’ve even come to love the low-wattage team of second and third string comedians and pop-culture also-rans that populate these events, even if they only appear on television to make wise about Lisa Lampanelli’s love of black cock or Mario Cantone’s homosexuality. To the outside world, Greg Giraldo is a nobody. In the world of Comedy Central Roasts he’s a rock star.
But tonight I found myself annoyed by the dearth of names on the dais. They couldn’t even get Lisa Lampanelli for this? Fetching newcomer Whitney “Who needs material when you’ve got gams like these?” Cummings filled out the “who the fuck is this person?” role in tonight’s proceedings but she was had many peers in anonymity. You’ve got a fucking legend like Joan Rivers as your roastee and Gilbert Gottfried is the best you can do for final roaster?
It wasn’t just the familiar faces giggling at their own lame one-liners that made tonight relatively painful. Multiple David Carradine jokes? Zingers aplenty about Bernie Madoff? Ah, but on to the performers. Fake breasts hovering just under her chin, Kathy Griffin did a yeoman job as roastmaster. She kept the proceedings moving smoothly, segueing effortlessly from one self-satisfied, underperforming roaster to the next. Everyone was on autopilot. If Carl Reiner hadn’t uttered the word “cunt” tonight would have lacked even a single moment of spontaneity.
As is his custom, Greg Giraldo killed. He’s made the Comedy Central Roast his artform of choice, which is both impressive and sad. He was followed by Mario Cantone, who mustered up strained smiles and fake laughs as roasters made punishingly unfunny jokes about his sex life. See, he’s gay! And enjoys having gay sex! With other people. Of the same gender! On account of he’s gay. Have I mentioned his sexuality?
It’s a testament to how badly Cantone misread the temperature of the room that his material proved far too gay for a fucking Joan Rivers roast. By the time he launched into a rambling, flopsweat-laden bit about Betty Davis and Rivers’ trolling for jokes he was unmistakably bombing. Also bombing: fucking Tom Arnold, who lived up to his reputation as a hack comedian stumbling nervously through trainwreck material. But they were noble exemplars of wit and trenchant satire comparison to gargantuan funnyman Brad Garrett, whose set made up for what it lacked in laughs with racism.
Poor Robin Quivers. She sat there, Mario Cantone-style, with a big fake perma-smile during one racist joke after another. Racist jokes are inherently tricky and problematic; terrible, unfunny racists jokes, the likes of which we saw in abundance tonight, are inexcusable. The Roast ritual of comedians being gracious and pretending to enjoy themselves while being zinged by their peers felt especially artificial and joyless this evening.
Highlights were few and far between. Carl Reiner was adorable trotting out curse words he’d never had the freedom or chutzpah to use on national television before. I want him to be my grandfather. The old folks trumped the kids. Rivers used her closing slot to tear apart the dais. At the end of an evening long on stale gags and short on wit, her rage seemed less comic than justified; who were these no-hopers and professional non-entities roasting her?
In a weird parody of George C. Scott’s big speech in Patton, Rivers vowed never to retire, lest the comedy world become the exclusive domain of her overmatched, self-satisfied and hacky roasters. It was terribly considerate for just about everyone on the dais to justify her closing rant by delivering such mediocre-to-terrible material.
—Favorite/least favorite lines?
—Gottfried was definitely going for broke but he neglected to be, you know, funny, a pretty major problem with tonight’s roast
—Now that I really think about it, Rivers' extensive cosmetic surgery choices may have been ill-advised! Perhaps those funsters were on to something after all.
—I watched this Roast completely sober. Big mistake.