James Franco has made a career out of being simultaneously enviable and laughable, but he’s an odd (if calculated) choice for a Comedy Central roast—a bit suave, a bit debonair, and way, way too good-looking. Comedy Central and the hip, young comedians Franco hangs out with are wooing each other in this 90-minute special, in which Seth Rogen corrals several different comedians at varying stages of mastery to do their worst against Franco. Franco has obliged us all by building up a life story doing many things that sound really dumb—and therefore make good insults.
Roasts are not the most pleasant viewing experiences. They’re not for the faint of heart, anyway. They get vicious, fast; and because the comedy world is so small, there’s an insular subtext underneath the insults that looks something like narcissism and flattery. It’s also a specific, barbed kind of humor, one that makes no attempt to be anything but personal. There are so many fat jokes, slut jokes, and homophobic jokes in tonight’s roast that at first it’s an assault of political incorrectness, and by the end it’s so obvious as to be boring. A roast is savage and mean-spirited, and the best comedians know how to make people laugh at your expense better than anyone else.
But this is all fine if it manages to be funny.
The Comedy Central Roast Of James Franco is only funny sometimes; the rest is a little too glad-handy to be comedic. Seth Rogen is a fine host and most of the comedians are fine as roasters, with a few notable exceptions. But this particular generation of comedians feels a little too polished for the post-empire decadence of a roast. There isn’t that same bloody minded savagery, borne of whatever comedians have to go through to become the slightly brittle funny people they are. There isn’t desperation.
The comedians who do stand out are either the ones that opt out of the format entirely—Andy Samberg pulls a Norm MacDonald by acting so awkward and self-effacing that no actual roasting takes place—or the ones who seem to be a little more connected to the dog-eat-dog mentality of comedy. Sarah Silverman is her typical unexpectedly vulgar self; Natasha Leggero is quick and cutting; and Jeff Ross has a few jokes he’s practiced that land rather well. But the rest of the cast—all beloved comedians, like Nick Kroll, Aziz Ansari, and Bill Hader—are just a little too nice to really come down hard on Franco. The material repeats over and over again—Franco squints; he phoned-in his Oscars gig; he does a lot of things that are “artsy” and “boring.” Oh, and Jonah Hill is fat, and many of our comedians are Jewish, and Silverman and Leggero are female, and Ansari is Indian, in case you forgot. It’s all a little too easy. Ansari and Hill in particular seem to be checked out of the proceedings, perhaps because they couldn’t think of anything all that mean to say about Franco. What’s there to say, that couldn’t be easily said about them?
Weirdly, it feels more like the comedians are all there to roast Hill instead of Franco—Hill easily bears the brunt of a quarter of the insults all on his own, and almost all are about his weight. Maybe the roasters feel more comfortable making fun of him than they do of Franco—who brought his younger brother and grandmother to the event, to listen to Sarah Silverman explaining exactly how Natasha Leggero got so much Mexican spermatozoa in her vagina.
Look, it’s a fine roast. It’s not bad, and the Samberg and Hader bits are classic. Kroll makes a good showing, too. But maybe our generation, or this generation of actors, just isn’t much into roasts anymore. Franco says something intriguing in his closing remarks, as he tries to respond to the many insults directed against him—“This isn’t a roast. This is my greatest art installation yet.” And then he turns to the dais and signs his name on it, with spray paint. “James Franco, bitches.” He’s grinning as he does it, but you know what? He believes it. In these final moments, Franco is a little defensive, trying to retain his dignity by telling us—as is always the case with his work!—that he might look stupid, but the joke is truly on us.
And that’s just it. It’s not art, James Franco! It’s not art, and it’s not about you, it’s about the awful, excoriating humor that rips apart any shred of sensitivity and throws it into the faces of a million viewers watching live. But there are almost no comedians on that stage who are really there for the joke, for the pure joy of the coldblooded insult. Most of them just aren’t bloodthirsty enough. Which is why, rather than a battle waged through humor, The Comedy Central Roast Of James Franco feels more like a talent show.
- “Franco, you look sleepy. Have you been reading one of those James Franco books?”
- “What is this, The Comedy Central Audit Of James Franco?”
- Bill Hader’s reactions to Andy Samberg are almost as good as Samberg’s whole bit. It looks like Samberg leaves Hader out of his remarks on purpose, to slight Hader, but Hader is laughing so hard that Samberg breaks character to say: “Thanks, Bill.” It’s kind of classic.
- “You made me do something I thought I’d never do. You made me like Anne Hathaway.”