There’s perhaps no TV brand less worthy of excitement than the Comedy Central Roast. The announcement that Justin Bieber would become the latest target of the sporadically aired special was greeted with eye-rolls from some and shrugs from most—he's the kind of widely reviled easy target who fits the bill for such a crass affair, where a mix of comedians and downward-trending celebrities line up to lob scripted zingers at their chosen victim. Nonetheless, the reaction reflects how the Roast has slowly transformed from a good-natured exercise in joke-writing among comedians to a choreographed event designed to massage the ego and inflate the image of the noted jerk du jour.
In the late '90s and early aughts, Comedy Central had a contract to televise the roasts of the Friars Club, including an especially lively takedown of Hugh Hefner and a much more depressing affair with a prickly Chevy Chase (who seemed not to recognize any of the comedians called on to satirize him). When that contract expired, Comedy Central simply started its own version, leading off with comedian Denis Leary, and getting the highest ratings in the network's history. After that, the network aired roasts once or twice a year, switching its targets between comics like Jeff Foxworthy and Bob Saget and easily mocked over-the-hill celebrities like Flavor Flav and William Shatner.
The name of the game was always to try and stand out—there are sets from these that still get passed around on social media. Norm MacDonald's series of hokey dad jokes at the Saget roast is a legendary bit of anti-comedy that pulled the rug out from under the usual format; Sarah Silverman ran right at Hugh Hefner's creepy cadre of Playboy Bunnies; Todd Barry was an early example of a more-alternative comedian being able to adapt his style to the hacky insult format.
The biggest turn came in 2010 with the Roast of David Hasselhoff, which evolved into a welcome-back party for a celebrity whose messy personal life and battle with alcoholism had been dragged through the tabloids in the preceding years. It got a ratings bounce and set the show's new format in stone. Are you a celebrity nobody really likes? Do you want to seem like a good sport as you grimace through an hour of mean gags (and be sure to tell us if there's any topics you'd like to avoid)? Then come on down! The apex was certainly the appearance of Charlie Sheen in 2011, airing in the wake of his much-publicized firing from Two and a Half Men and doubling the show's average ratings. Subsequent efforts with Roseanne Barr and James Franco felt like misfires—Franco's especially fell flat since it's hard to make fun of someone who seems to view everything he does as a performance art project.
With Bieber, Comedy Central has snapped back to its preferred methodology. The network announced a Twitter hashtag for the roast even before setting a date, because the name of the game at this point is stirring up Internet outrage. The usual bundle of comedy nerds who will tune in to see the latest additions to the dais don't guarantee the kind of attention these events need any more. Comedy Central also wants to attract Bieber's legions of easily outraged fans, who can generate enough online attention to get people to tune in live.
This bizarre mix has turned the roasts into a real proving ground for young comics with a mean streak. Amy Schumer's appearance on the Charlie Sheen roast helped seal her status as a rising star, and the brilliant Inside Amy Schumer was ordered to series by Comedy Central not long after. It also subjected her to waves of online harassment over a joke she made about the recently deceased Jackass star Ryan Dunn, which came off as a ridiculous double standard given the levels of nastiness generally on display. Anthony Jeselnik also turned his well-received (and just as cruel) roast sets into a TV deal, and within two years of her debut on the Joan Rivers roast, Whitney Cummings had created two sitcoms.
But these examples of quickly won success almost feel like side effects of the roasts' social media-baiting, instant-outrage approach. Land one good jab on someone really famous, and you'll have millions of eyes (and mean @-replies) on you all at once. The publicity tour for Bieber's roast is already in full force—we have anonymous folks telling TMZ it'll serve as "therapy" for the troubled popstar in an article filled with unsourced anecdotes claiming that he's on the road to being a better person after years beating up paparazzi and drinking and driving. He's an easy target, for sure, but he's not an unwitting one.
For years I have wanted Comedy Central to roast me. They said only if I provided them w/ more material so for a year now I have worked hard— Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) January 20, 2015