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?