The Allure—and Danger—of Comedy Roasts

Deprecating humor is satisfying because it helps make people feel superior, but it can also help produce a social environment more accepting of intolerance.
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Justin Bieber at his Comedy Central roast. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Justin Bieber at his Comedy Central roast. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Tonight, Comedy Central will air its 14th celebrity roast. A line of celebrities will take their turn spewing good-hearted insults and vitriol, all directed at another celebrity: Justin Bieber. As with all celebrity roasts, it seems there was (the event was pre-taped) enough disparagement to keep the crowd, and the panel of roasters, entertained.

“Tonight we’re going to give what his parents and the legal system should have done years ago,” Kevin Hart said of the 21-year-old guest of honor. “We’re going to give this boy an ass-whoopin’.”

“Roasts point out moments in which people are stupid, clumsy, defective, and unfortunate. In that moment, we feel good, because we’re not by comparison defective.”

Shaquille O'Neal got in on the fun too: “Last year, you were ranked the fifth most hated person of all time. Kim Jong-Un didn’t rank that low. And he uses your music to torture people.”

Thanks in part to these Comedy Central’s broadcasts, roasting has become something of a time-honored tradition—a playful way of paying tribute to a celebrity, usually by discussing their (very public) controversies. But beyond the comedic value, these roasts reveal how our culture approaches humor, and in turn how humor shapes our culture.

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“It’s become a national pastime,” says Barry Dougherty, a comedic jack of all trades for New York City's iconic Friars Club—the birthplace of celebrity roasts. "Let’s make fun of people."

Dougherty is at once the Friars Club's communications director, historian, and—perhaps most impressive—roast writer, having worked as the head writer on roasts for Jack Black, Quentin Tarantino, and Betty White, among others.

The Friars Club first formed in 1904, after a group of frustrated New York City press agents created a weekly meeting to inform one another of fraudulent “reporters” seeking out complimentary tickets to shows. Even after the faux-reporter issue had been solved, these press agents, operating under the decidedly unfunny name Press Agents Association, decided to continue their regular hangouts. Eventually the name was changed to the Friars Club (friar stemming from the Latin “frater,” or brother) and scores of musicians and actors began joining the weekly gabfest.

This soon blossomed into something more formal: black-tie dinners, often with a traditional guest of honor. Perhaps because these private events catered to the entertainment elite, these affairs quickly became known as much for their humor as their clientele; celebrities were strutting around the Friars Club’s private stage, putting their best—and most controversial—sarcasm and irreverence on full display. This was a place where celebrities could poke fun at one another behind closed doors, while still earning the admiration and applause of their peers.

“Because the Friars were more show business people, they brought their snark,” Dougherty says. “So pretty much right out of the gate, they weren’t so stuffy. They were making jabs at the guest of honor.”

An influential 2008 study by two psychology professors, Thomas Ford and Mark Ferguson, sheds light on why roasting caught on so quickly and has survived for so long. Looking at disparagement humor—jokes like the ones featured in the roasts—through a psychological lens, Ford and Ferguson found that hostile jokes provide audience members with a feeling of superiority. It’s a concept that stretches back to Aristotle, who suggested that the difference between comedy and tragedy is merely that comedy portrays a worse version of our true selves, while tragedy depicts a better version. Disparagement humor, Ford and Ferguson wrote, can generate a self-esteem lift for its audience.

“Roasts point out moments in which people are stupid, clumsy, defective, and unfortunate,” Ford says. “In that moment, we feel good, because we’re not by comparison defective. So we can get a lot of amusement by getting that sudden boost in self-esteem, because we’re not as idiotic as the person being roasted.”

These Friars Club roasts first received mainstream media attention with a 1910 New York Times report headlined: “FRIARS KID MR. HARRIS: Veteran Theatrical Manager Butt of Jokes at Dinner.” The club has maintained its reputation as a place for biting humor ever since.

Comedian Seth Rogen hosts the Comedy Central Roast of James Franco. (Photo: Lester Cohen/WIREIMAGE)

Comedian Seth Rogen hosts the Comedy Central Roast of James Franco. (Photo: Lester Cohen/WIREIMAGE)

As the club grew over the years, celebrity memberships and televised roasts followed. Not for everyone, though: The Friars Club was a male-only roasting event until 1988, when Liza Minnelli became the first female member. That lack of comedic diversity has continued in some forms today, which is why the tone of these events can sometimes shift from merely disparaging to cruel and intolerant.

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In the Bieber roast, all jokes about Paul Walker—the Fast and the Furious star who died tragically in a car accident almost two years ago—were cut from the broadcast. One particularly tasteless joke, according to the Hollywood Reporter, came from comedian Jeff Ross, who said, “'Move bitch, get out of the way!' is what Paul Walker should've told that tree. Too soon? Too fast? Too furious?”

The danger of these more malicious jokes, according to Ford and Ferguson, isn’t that they increase prejudice within people, but rather that they create a social environment more accepting of prejudiced forms of expression.

As arguably poor in taste as Ross’ joke is, it’s certainly not the first time a Comedy Central roast has faced backlash. Most recently, the 2013 roast of James Franco, though generally well received, was criticized for its abundance of gay jokes. “Franco’s got a couple of interesting projects coming out,” wrote Salon’s Neil Drumming, “but clearly none that his famous friends thought would be more exciting than outing him.”

If prior Comedy Central roasts are any indication, we can probably expect a measure of gay, racist, and sexist humor tonight as well. Sometimes the quickest way to get an audience to feel superior—to guarantee a laugh—is to marginalize your target. The danger of these more malicious jokes, according to Ford and Ferguson, isn’t that they increase prejudice within people, but rather that they create a social environment more accepting of prejudiced forms of expression. "It doesn’t make the non-sexist any more sexist, and it doesn’t make the sexist guys any more sexist," Ford says. “But it changes the perceptions of the social context, so that the usual non-sexist egalitarian norms that in a sense pervade all of our daily lives are replaced by a norm of tolerance of expressions of sexism."

In effect, humor can tell us that we should be tolerant of others' opinions, regardless of how hurtful they might be. "So when we’re sitting around and we encounter the sexist jokes," Ford says, "we in a sense negotiate in agreement within ourselves that it’s OK in this context for that sort of thing, to express that sentiment.”

Hopefully, this time, the roasters will rely on the subject's long list of public fiascos for ammunition and ignore the homophobic humor that so many of their predecessors have reveled in.

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