The Big Mac Blog

An expert weighs in on the direction of the Comedy Central Roasts

Will Ferrell, here in character as legendary newsman Ron Burgundy, participated in the Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber on March 14, 2015 in SoCal. It aired on Comedy Central on Monday night.
Will Ferrell, here in character as legendary newsman Ron Burgundy, participated in the Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber on March 14, 2015 in SoCal. It aired on Comedy Central on Monday night. Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Are you a celebrity in need of a PR makeover? Looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow.

There is nothing better than to sign up to be roasted by a fleet of comics, or comedy writers, who will take delight in destroying every single thing you have ever accomplished in an effort to reduce you to nothing.

Singer Justin Bieber’s decision to sign up as the subject of Comedy Central’s latest roast was not because he has a great personality, but a calculated move to change the image that he is a self-important punk who takes himself too seriously. The show was another four-letter hilarious riot that was uncomfortable, and killed everybody on stage. Martha Stewart and Will Ferrell playing Ron Burgundy stole the show.

This was not about the comics, or celebs, having fun at Bieber’s expense. This was entirely about Bieber trying to restore his image. Even before the show, which aired Monday night, Bieber told the Comedy Central cameras: “I feel like this will be a turning point with me, not only in my career but to show people I can own up to what I’ve done.”

What in the name of Dean Martin? Back when Dean Martin held his legendary roasts of fellow celebs, and the Friars’ Club did the same, the Comedy Central Roasts have grown into a full frontal assault on the senses, and now a calculated move orchestrated by handlers. Nonetheless, even if you are braced for what is coming and are all in, these things are still a brutal personal siege on a person’s ego.

“I have been roasted a bunch of times before and I have done roasting before and I am telling you it takes real (rhymes with malls) to let people roast you,” veteran comic Tom Arnold told me on Monday in a phone interview. “It is uncomfortable to be roasted. And it’s really uncomfortable to roast people. It’s a, ‘How can I do this? I don’t feel comfortable doing this.’”

The change in roasts these days is that unlike when Martin and the Friar’s Club held its events, you don’t get the sense that everyone is in on, or OK with, the jokes. That these people are often strangers attacking lives and careers without having a personal relationship with the subject. The roasters can make a career with a good appearance, so they are motivated to obliterate the man of the hour.

“When I watch the old Dean Martin roasts, I am way more comfortable watching those because I am pretty certain they were all friends. That makes a difference,” Arnold said. “You are roasting people you know and like and you all know it’s a joke. But if you are getting roasted by someone you don’t know, you may want to take them to the parking lot and beat the (bleep) out of them.

“I have done a few, and when they had the one with (Arnold’s ex-wife) Roseanne (Barr), it made perfect sense. But, like the one I did for Joan Rivers? They asked me at the last minute, and I read the jokes they had written but I did them thinking, ‘How can I do this to Joan Rivers?’”

As brutal as these roasts have become, and as uncomfortable as the jokes often are, they are now an eagerly awaited part of Comedy Central’s annual schedule. The roast is an event, and celebs recognize their value. It’s cool to show the adoring public you can be the butt of a joke, too. And, in the spirit of comedy, if it’s funny, it’s funny.

“When one of those comics gets up there and it’s a great joke, it’s a great joke,” Arnold said. “If it’s a great joke and it’s not just to be shocking, because with all truly great jokes there is that little bit of truth to that joke. There is that personal aspect but the people that still do the great jokes is why I still watch, whether they know the person or not.”

Most of the Bieber roasters did not know the subject personally, but it didn’t matter. The fact that we laughed is an extra - the real winner in this was The Biebs.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @macengelprof