The final week of August was a rough one for the conservative commentator Ann Coulter. First, the release party for her new book, “In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!,” was rendered sombre after her subject promised a “softening” of his stance on immigration, just as Coulter’s book was touting its awesome hardness. Then, a few nights later, at the taping of Comedy Central’s roast of the actor Rob Lowe, where Coulter had agreed to appear in order to promote the book, her fellow-roasters (and their joke writers), perhaps recognizing that the handsome and likable Lowe was too bland a target, took aim at Coulter as well. Buzz about the vitriol of their remarks spread immediately following the taping, with many people wondering if the worst of the insults would survive the editing process. The episode, which aired on Monday, left them in: “The only person you will ever make happy is the Mexican who digs your grave” and “I haven’t seen you laugh this hard since Trayvon Martin got shot.”
Coulter is normally a canny performer, and she often seems to court, and even to revel in, a degree of abuse from her detractors. But, during the event, sitting straight-backed and stone-faced onstage among her fellow-roasters, each of whom had just taken a turn at ridiculing her, Coulter appeared surprised not only by the rawness of the jokes but also that she had been made the subject of them in the first place. She probably should have seen this coming: Comedy Central has been organizing these celebrity roasts since 2003, and the format encourages roasters to target each other nearly as often as they do the guest of honor. Still, never before had a panel done it quite so vigorously.
Coulter’s look of wounded bewilderment was catnip to many viewers; she has, after all, made her living as a kind of insult comic of the right, gleefully punching down at whatever marginalized group is in fist’s reach. Yet it was difficult to take much satisfaction in her comeuppance, such as it was. Instead, the jokes left a sordid feeling, partly because so many of the attacks were based on her looks: the retired quarterback Peyton Manning compared her to a horse; Rob Lowe said she appeared to be wearing a skeleton costume; the British comedian Jimmy Carr called her a “truck-stop transvestite whore” and suggested that she should kill herself. Some unlikely sympathizers argued that the jokes had gone too far.
The truth of it, however, is that the jokes didn’t go far enough to be funny. Despite the carefully dropped-in reaction shots of audience members with mouths agape, none of the ostensibly shocking things that were said about Coulter were, in the context of contemporary public conversation, very shocking at all. There was a time when hearing a woman called a Nazi, a “racist mutant,” and worse in public might have been enough to produce a transgressive thrill. But, today, you simply need to wade through Coulter’s mentions on Twitter to find such things written about her on a daily basis. The same is true of other famous people, especially women, including, recently, the comedian Leslie Jones, who has found herself besieged by threatening racist and sexist comments online and had her personal information hacked. Professional comedians ought to be able to do better; rather than join the worst parts of the general public in an arms race of menacing vulgarity, they might consider a different strategy. There was, in fact, only one really surprising line about Coulter in the whole show, and it came not from a comedian but from the singer Jewel, who began her routine by saying, “As a feminist, I can’t support everything that’s being said up here tonight. But as someone who hates Ann Coulter, I’m delighted.” It was the cleverest line of the night—the only joke that couldn’t have been written by a Twitter troll.
The current iteration of the celebrity roast owes its existence in large part to the Dean Martin roasts, a series of more than fifty events that aired on NBC from 1973 to 1984, and which were later packaged as a VHS set that was relentlessly hawked on daytime television in the nineties. Those roasts, of people such as Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Angie Dickinson, and Michael Landon, were shot in Vegas and appeared to be legitimately good-natured, booze-soaked affairs, featuring mostly men in tuxedos making fun of the many wives that the other men in attendance had married and divorced. The period misogyny was broken up from time to time by the appearance of someone slightly unexpected, like a truly famous actor, Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne, graying by that point and speaking lines a bit beneath their dignity, or a politician, like Barry Goldwater or Hubert Humphrey. Seen now, they represent a certain era of celebrity, best encapsulated by the roast, in 1973, of Ronald Reagan, who was the governor of California at the time and stood astride the various worlds of American fame. The roasts were ratings hits, perhaps because they provided a window, scripted but still organic-seeming, into the things that famous people said to each other off-set and offstage. It may have felt like being present at a very special party, back when the gates of such things remained difficult to crash.
Times have changed, but the jokes mostly haven’t. Whether the subject of these modern Comedy Central roasts has been William Shatner, James Franco, or Justin Bieber, the humor still leans heavily on gay jokes, fat jokes, and your-face-is-so-ugly jokes. Loose men are teased as sexual conquerors while loose women are mocked as whores or sluts. This stuff wasn’t very funny when it was delivered with winking innuendo by Dean Martin, and it’s no funnier in the unabashed manner of the current “Roastmaster General,” Jeff Ross, who, at the Rob Lowe roast, appeared dressed as Prince, in what he seemed to consider a tribute to the late musician. The principal jokes directed at Lowe were based on the fact that he had, in 1988, recorded a sex tape with a young woman who was only sixteen years old, and that, in subsequent years, he had been mired in lawsuits with former nannies employed by his family, who accused him, among other things, of sexual harassment. Lowe, who clearly viewed this evening as a certain kind of showbiz honor, gamely laughed along at the reminiscences of these unfunny things. He looked consistently delighted, showing off his thousand-dollar haircut and bazillion-dollar smile, while the show’s host, David Spade, who made his name on “Saturday Night Live,” in the nineties, by caustically mocking celebrities, looked rightly pained by the entire affair.
There have been a few sparks of genius at the Comedy Central roasts over the years, such as Norm Macdonald’s deadpan recitation of antiquated joke-book one-liners during the Bob Saget roast, in 2008, or Bill Hader, at the roast of James Franco, in 2013, playing a character called the President of Hollywood, who was a hyper-obscene version of the superproducer Robert Evans. But both of these performances stood out because they ridiculed the genre itself. By comparison, the roasters who play it straight, escalating into further flights of brutishness, end up sounding like hacks doing bad Aristocrats routines.
Yet the real problem with these roasts is not that they have crossed some final line of propriety, or even that they are mostly humorless. The crime is how brazenly they reveal themselves to be pseudo-events, contrived for the very purpose of seeming newsworthy and thus being widely shared. For Comedy Central, these roasts produce exactly the viral readymades that television networks are so eager to wring out of their shows—disseminated in the form of YouTube clips and curated by Web sites as, in this case, the eleven most shocking things that comedians said about Ann Coulter.
There is something dismal about watching comedians read insults off of a teleprompter. And there is something very dismal about knowing how the sausage at these events gets made—that the performers occasionally flub their lines and have to reshoot the jokes for a second or third time, to what, we must assume, is ever depreciating laughter from the audience. Coulter was there to promote her book, and even made a show of putting a copy of it on the podium as she spoke, which is both refreshingly artless and impossibly galling at the same time. Her only connection to Rob Lowe was that both are famous, and both seemed to think that this show would be a further boon to their fame. The same was true of most of the other roasters as well, whose relationship to Lowe could not even be said to rise to the level of what Martin Short refers to as “fake show-business friendships.” Many began their sets by attempting to answer the unasked question, Why am I here? Coulter’s principal mistake, and the reason that most people are talking about the roast at all, was that she couldn’t manage to do the smart thing and laugh along.
Coulter might have taken a cue from her current political hero, Donald Trump, who, in 2011, back when he was merely a threat to good taste, was himself the subject of a Comedy Central roast—the one after David Hasselhoff and before Charlie Sheen. Trump sat goofily onstage, leaning forward with his hands in his lap, his face fixed in what for him is the approximation of a game grin, as a series of semi-famous strangers made tepid jokes about his hair and, yes, his several wives. Trump must have figured that consenting to a roast would reveal his ability to take a joke, and he was smart enough to insure that at least one subject remained off limits. According to a recent post by Aaron Lee, one of the writers of the show, the only demand he made was that no one suggest he “is not actually as wealthy as he claims to be.” Some jokes, it seems, really can go too far.
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