The Pointless, Nasty Spectacle of the Comedy Central Roast

The most recent special, mocking Rob Lowe, seemed to draw attention only for its attacks on Ann Coulter.

Comedy Central

The ostensible purpose of Comedy Central’s intermittent “Roast” specials has varied over the years. When the network began televising the classic Friars Club roasts of comedians like Chevy Chase or Denis Leary in the late ’90s, it offered fans an inside look at the back-patting boy’s club of stand-up, where comics would hurl insults at each other all in good fun. More recently, it’s evolved into a sort of extended mea culpa pulpit, an image-rehab opportunity for celebrities like Charlie Sheen, Justin Bieber, or Donald Trump to boost their reputation by proving they’re willing to “take a joke.” The newer roasts still allowed stand-ups to hone their skills at writing nasty jokes, but they were largely televised PR events. But with Sunday night’s Rob Lowe roast, the tradition seems to have entered a new era: one of utter irrelevance.

The roastmaster David Spade, who presided over the broadcast, summed up the pointlessness of the event early on when he said, “That’s right, we’re here to honor one of the biggest stars of 1987—with some of the biggest stars of 1984.” It’s hard to guess why Comedy Central decided to roast Lowe—he’s not exactly a ratings-grabbing name, and he has no upcoming projects to promote. But it makes sense why the most noteworthy part of the event was the cruelty lobbed at Ann Coulter, the conservative-media polemicist who inexplicably agreed to take part in the event and quickly became its most fascinating feature. If there was any narrative at all to the night, it was a surprising, unexpected one: Could Comedy Central viewers actually feel bad for Coulter?

Coulter, after all, has arguably based her entire profession on trolling TV viewers and political commentators with intentionally shocking, awful statements. To enumerate them all would be impossible—she’s less a pundit and more a vessel for free-associative hate speech, much of it recently directed against Mexican immigrants and Muslims living in the United States, all part of her devoted support for the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Her newsmaking brand isn’t dissimilar from the approach to writing a roast-appropriate joke: Craft an insult that’s as vicious as possible but still ends on a laugh line, a wink to the audience that suggests the whole thing is all in good fun. Coulter, however, mostly lacks that final element—her defenders might claim that she’s just trying to push buttons, but her arena isn’t the world of stand-up.

Still, it makes some vague sort of sense that Coulter might work within the medium, and she was clearly eager to promote her new book In Trump We Trust, a copy of which she brought to the stage with her. But the main reason to include her was obviously so Comedy Central could court some controversy. Surely few people were truly excited about Lowe being cut down to size, but part of the format of the special is that the roasters also turn on each other. And so the odd grab-bag of celebrities on the dais all gleefully turned their fire toward Coulter. The softball jokes about Lowe’s lack of fame and decades-old sex tape scandal harmlessly bounced off of their target, but the jokes directed at Coulter were genuinely raw and angry, and she seemed bewildered by what was happening.

Part of the theater of the roast is appearing to be in on the joke—it’s why a big celebrity like Justin Bieber will take part, to claim the cachet of being able to shrug off a mean dig with a smile. Coulter, instead, responded to the lines with a sort of frozen, tortured grin, rendering the whole thing deeply uncomfortable. Much of the material was about her right-wing politics, with multiple roasters joking that she was part of the Ku Klux Klan. “Last year we had Martha Stewart, who sells sheets, and now we have Ann Coulter, who cuts eyeholes in them,” Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson said. Plenty more, though, was directed at her looks—a not-uncommon subject for any roast, but in this case featuring some truly brutal, wince-inducing lines. “Ann Coulter is one of the most repugnant, hateful, hatchet-faced bitches alive,” the British comic Jimmy Carr said. “But it’s not too late to change, Ann—you could kill yourself.”

Even comparatively “harmless” non-comedians jumped in: The retired quarterback Peyton Manning compared Coulter to a horse. (Many of the jokes at the roasts are scripted by off-stage writers, and this was no different.) The singer Jewel summed up the bizarre event when she joked, “As a feminist, I can’t support everything that’s being said up here tonight, but as somebody who hates Ann Coulter, I’m delighted.” When Coulter finally took the stage, she bombed hard in front of the hostile crowd, stammering through many of her lines, and vigorously plugging her book to loud boos.

While there will always be washed-up stars from the ’80s and fringe media figures who are happy to throw themselves on the pyre of cheap publicity, it’s hard to know who benefits from something like Coulter’s impromptu public shaming, except for comedians like Jeff Ross who specialize in the format and otherwise tweet “clever” jokes like this one.

This is an era of comedy that’s increasingly suspicious of jokes that are cruel simply for cruelty’s sake, from the outrage over Kurt Metzger’s sexist tirades about rape culture to Daniel Tosh’s onstage rants at audience members. A few years ago, up-and-coming comics like Anthony Jeselnik, Whitney Cummings, and Amy Schumer established themselves as roasters before moving on to more thoughtful comedy, but it’s hard to argue now that the specials serve as a proving ground for young performers when the stage is crowded with figures like Coulter, Manning, Jewel, Spade, and The Karate Kid’s Ralph Macchio.

So it may be time to for Comedy Central to retire the roast. The only way that would likely happen would be if ratings cratered, but selecting throwback honorees like Lowe and promoting sadistic distractions doesn’t bode well for the network.