Justin Bieber's music is bad, he's small and effeminate, he's roundly despised by millions despite his worldwide legions of teenage fans, and he's not helping his case by frequently getting arrested for various misdemeanor crimes. Ask any person on the street to come up with material for a Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber, and these are probably the topics they'd hew to. So it was depressingly predictable to see a dais of professional comedians (and drunk celebrities) hit the same notes for two hours last night. Sadder still was the obvious pageantry on display. At the end of the night, having largely shrugged off flimsy insults for two hours, Bieber took to the podium and delivered a stilted, scripted apology for his misdeeds, walking off stage to a standing ovation. The entire event felt like a show trial, but one where the suspect was guaranteed to be acquitted.
This isn't to say there wasn't the occasional searing line. Saturday Night Live's Pete Davidson took aim at Bieber's deadbeat father, saying, "I lost my dad on 9/11, and I always regretted growing up without a dad, until I met your dad, Justin. Now I'm glad mine's dead." As harsh as that line was, the ostensible purpose of the Comedy Central Roast is to give comedians the chance to work out their nastiest material—the Friars Club events they evolved from were all about finding the best way to sell the meanest jokes about the most untouchable subjects.
But at this point, the Comedy Central Roast exists for an entirely different purpose—it's an exercise in being a good sport for a celebrity who isn't usually considered one. Donald Trump, David Hasselhoff, Charlie Sheen—most recent targets of the Roast have taken the stage looking to repair their shattered reputations by taking a few nasty jokes on the chin before concluding the event by making a few of their own. The Roasts are at this point heavily scripted—while there were a few actual stand-up comedians on stage last night (Kevin Hart, Hannibal Burress, Natasha Leggero, Chris D'Elia, Davidson, and the Roast fixture Jeff Ross) there were also plenty of celebrities lobbing softballs. Shaquille O'Neal took potshots at the current depleted Lakers squad, Ludacris bragged that Bieber's success was thanks to his collaboration with him on the single "Baby," Snoop Dogg mostly enquired after the romantic status of Leggero, and Martha Stewart unsurprisingly focused on her stint in prison.
Bieber did his part sitting and grinning through the prepared insults all night, with the occasional play-acted gasp at a particularly mean jab, and without fail, every roaster ended his or her set with a moment of genuine sincerity, praising Bieber for being willing to suffer through such an event. The only comedian who couldn't quite stick to the script was Burress, who could only offer the praise, "You seem like a shrewd businessman."
That was, indeed, the underlying message of the evening: Even though Bieber is despised by large swaths of the country and hasn't produced an album in three years, it's hard to deny his prominence. This defies the point of a roast—it should be taken for granted, and quickly dismissed, that the target is famous—but Bieber was granted an extraordinary amount of credit for managing to stay relevant despite doing nothing of merit since initially rocketing to fame. Perhaps everyone would've been meaner if they were actually close to Bieber—Comedy Central's best roasts are the ones of Denis Leary and Bob Saget, who were mocked by many of their personal friends. Instead, even the nastiest material felt restrained, and it was hard not to notice that one of the first names credited as an executive producer of the show was Scooter Braun, Bieber's long-time manager.
At one point, Jeff Ross called Bieber the "King Joffrey of pop," and after that, the image of Game of Thrones' evil little monarch was hard to shake, especially during the frequent cuts to Bieber's blank grins. The final insult was Bieber's scripted rebuttal, where he stumbled through some parting shots at the assembled comedians before telling the crowd, "Let's get serious for a second." He then spoke of being thrown into fame at 12 years old and being disappointed about a lot of moments in his life. "I'm a kind-hearted person who loves people," he insisted, speaking with his hands in his pockets and swaying from side to side like a child being forced to apologize to a grown-up for some transgression.
It seems insensitive to not consider giving Bieber the benefit of the doubt—perhaps this is the beginning of some genuine apology tour as he looks to re-focus on making music and leave behind stories of driving under the influence or publicly urinating in a mop bucket. But his "apology" could not have sounded more forced: On a night where most performers were obviously reading their jokes off of cue cards, Bieber was the only one who made no effort to sell his scripted material. Whether or not it works, the Roast's intended effect was clear: convince the audience that Bieber's self-aware about his flaws, that he's still human even after all the tabloid stories one might have read about him. But that'd be easier to accomplish if the seams weren't showing the entire time.