Future historians will look back at Comedy Central’s Roast Of Roseanne and think, “My, how quaint. There once was a time in which the celebrities being roasted at such events actually found it necessary to show up.” Having covered the last two Comedy Central roasts for The A.V. Club, I can detect a subtle but clear trend: The person being roasted is increasingly irrelevant. Now, that’s not to say the roastees themselves are actually irrelevant at the stage of their respective careers in which they find themselves on a tackily designed, overly lit stage. Rather, the reason to gather a list of celebrities and comedians to celebrate this star is increasingly arbitrary. There’s usually some tangential reason as to why Comedy Central picks a certain person to be the focal point of its latest roast. But that reason gets subsumed into the “festivities,” a word I put in quotations because this network’s roasts have become more automated than an assembly line in a car factory.
Now, the rhythms of a roast were set in stone long before Comedy Central started to air its versions of them, so it’s not as if these shows have somehow wildly veered off-course from the original format. However, it has diluted these roasts to the point of converting a once wildly original form into to a series of easy-to-follow steps, akin to those found in IKEA packaging. To wit: Let me type out every single sequence, more or less, in Roast Of Roseanne. (This isn’t the shooting script for the show, at least as far as I know.)
Jane Lynch: Here’s a semi-mean joke about the next presenter, which I’ll quickly undo with an “Oh my God, I couldn’t be happier” smile to let everyone know I was kidding!
Presenter: Thanks, lesbian! Carrie Fisher, you’re a drug addict! Jeff Ross, you’re creepy! Amy Schumer, you like to blow dudes! Anthony Jeselnik, you look like a rapist! Ellen Barkin, you looked old even in the ’80s! Wayne Brady, you’re so white! Seth Green, you’re puny! Gilbert Gottfried, you squint a lot! Katey Sagal, I’m kind of afraid to make fun of you lest Kurt Sutter punch me! Oh, right, and Roseanne: I don’t really know you, but you’re a [insert “icon/hero/role model/truth talker”] and I thank you for being here.
In other words: Everyone onstage was reduced to a single, predetermined characteristics before the taping even started, suggesting network-mandated talking points that were filtered to whomever wrote the jokes for the performers onstage. It’s like The Breakfast Club, only with more regret and self-loathing. On one level, that creates a scenario in which people are forced to come up with the best version of a certain archetypical joke. On the other hand, it yields seemingly dozens of variations on the same tired theme. (If you drank every time someone mentioned the voices in Roseanne’s head, you’re probably reading this in the emergency room.) That made Fisher’s section all the more remarkable, since she pulled a Norm Macdonald and exposed the tropes for what they are. Considering how miserable she looked as performer after performer mocked her drug-addled past, she certainly shone when it came to mocking the art and artifice of roasts.
That’s different from saying she actually did service to Roseanne Barr herself, who has already become as forgotten in this review as she was onstage. Part of the “script” I alluded to before called for 90 percent of any particular roaster’s segment to be focused on other members of the dais. That left only a few precious seconds for any performer to even acknowledge the nominal reason he or she was brought to the stage in the first place. To be fair: Most of tonight’s performers seemed to have more of a direct relationship with Roseanne than they did during the squirm-inducing 2002 Chevy Chase roast. Even if the younger comedians seemed to do their research on Netflix and Wikipedia rather than autobiographical experience, it was clear that at least half of those onstage had at least some working relationship with Roseanne in the past. But even if one could sense a shared history through direct or indirect allusion by a roaster, one got little sense of any actual enlightenment about Roseanne herself. In other words: Did we actually learn more about Roseanne through what was said than previously known? Did any joke actually uncover a new piece of her biography, or shed fresh light on a previously known piece of her life? By and large, throughout the first hour, the answer was a resounding “no.”
That made Tom Arnold’s “surprise” appearance all the more meaningful. Given Roseanne’s end-of-show jokes about him, it couldn’t have been too surprising that he showed up. Either she knew he would be there, or prepared accordingly. But in any case, she certainly seemed surprised by the content of his monologue. Sure, Arnold got in plenty of jabs about how difficult it was being married to Roseanne during their tumultuous time together. But he also offered up specifics that gave context to those squabbles. The litany of things she asked him to do spoke volumes about both her legendary temper but also to the bond between the pair at the time. It’s not just that she ordered him to go after Arsenio Hall. It’s that he gladly did it for her. Moreover, Arnold was the sole person to mention Roseanne’s initial appearance on The Tonight Show, which provided context to her career sorely lacking in other presentations. It also led into a sweet send-off statement at the end his speech. “You were my Johnny Carson. Thank you for letting me sit on your couch for a little bit,” he told her before leaving the stage. Was it a calculated move on his part? Perhaps. But it didn’t adhere to the script everyone else was executing, and thus felt fresh and heartfelt.
Trying to grade the actual performers themselves is always a tricky business, with comedy being incredibly subjective under the best of circumstances. Gottfried’s set got the most laughs out of me, and painted a vivid picture of “Rosilla” at the peak of her fame and popularity, trampling Hollywood like a movie monster. I’ve already praised Fisher’s performance, which was as self-knowing and self-lacerating as her one-woman shows. Schumer and Jeselnik are both pros, with Jeselnik delivering probably the funniest line of the night. (“In 1998, you had gastric bypass surgery… and then you beat it.”) Ross’ attempts at shock humor were neutered by Comedy Central’s censors, but Ross has gone on record saying the act of saying it at all was the point of his set. Green and Sagal are both enormously talented people that seemed slightly out of their element. Brady tried to recapture, with a modicum of success, some of the edge he exhibited during his infamous episode of Chappelle’s Show, even going so far as to ask Jane Lynch if he was “going to have to choke a butch”. Barkin’s performance was enjoyable loopy, although it seemed like she was playing the part of someone too drunk to actually deliver a roast. Still, I’ll take that any day over The Situation playing the part of someone who actually thinks he is funny.
Making the stage feel like a small, dysfunctional family is key to engendering a good roast. But when it’s clear that half the dais met each other while PAs attached microphones to their lapels, camaraderie is difficult to achieve. Insults hurled back and forth bounced harmlessly off the intended victim, powerless without context or shared history. At one point, Ellen Barkin asked Amy Schumer what the former had ever done to the latter. The answer? Absolutely nothing, although Schumer couldn’t overtly state that onstage without revealing the entire proceedings to be a sham. The rules of the roast superseded any need for shared history between performers. And while most roasters tonight got off at least a few good zingers, the ceiling for comedic achievement was fairly low before the show even started. Arnold’s history brought a depth to both the comedic and dramatic parts of his speech. That lack of history on the part of the other performers cut the roast off at its knees.
If you want to know how marginalized Roseanne was tonight, just look at the set design. In past roasts, the roastee sat center stage, alone, powerless to hide from the roaster that came off the dais to verbally confront him or her. Tonight? Roseanne sat near the middle of a semi-circle, stage left of the podium. Lynch, for her part, sat in the chair vacated by the roaster. The interchangeability and decentralization of the staging didn’t integrate Roseanne so much as push her into the background of her own roast, as close to the podium as Green. The large sign above the state swallowed them all, suggesting some Platonic, non-corporeal ideal of ROSEANNE, supplanting the actual one onstage. I very much doubt this marginalization was intentional. But knowing so few new things about Roseanne after a 100-minute roast seems like a missed opportunity, if not an actual tragedy. By spending too much time on each other, these performers didn’t pay tribute to the [insert “icon/hero/role model/truth talker”] so much as disrespect her legacy. Explaining how her career influenced their own might have given context to their constant ribbing of one another. Instead, even though Roseanne was lumped in with them onstage, she still felt worlds apart for most of the night.
- Jane Lynch’s performance as Sue Sylvester is approximately 40 times more impressive after seeing how difficult it was for her to be mean-spirited tonight.
- As risqué as Ross’ material was supposed to be, Jeselnik’s joke about 8 Simple Rules as “the show that killed John Ritter” might have gotten the most shocked groans.
- Glee’s Chris Colfer was shown briefly in the audience, which led to me fantasizing about a 2020 roast in which the cast lays into Ryan Murphy.
- Ross’ upcoming show The Burn could be great, or be a terrible fucking idea. The idea of “roasting the news” sounds fine, until you realize approximately a dozen other shows already do exactly this.
- Comedy Central should look to comedic podcasts for examples of how a tightly knit group of performers can yield exponential results.
- Second favorite line of the night: Ross asking Brady, “How did you make a career out of corporate team-building exercises?” (That’s it for the quotes. I’m sure you’ll provide close to a full transcript in the comments, should history be a good guide.)