This weekend, Comedy Central will air its roast of Rosanne Barr. The timing for the comedienne seems simultaneously painful and fortuitous. Her NBC pilot Downwardly Mobile, an attempt to recreate the magic of Roseanne with its portrait of recession-wracked resident of a trailer park, wasn’t picked up. Her previous show, a reality program about her macadamia nut farm in Hawaii, was an embarrassment and failed to earn a renewal. Twitter’s provided Barr with a platform she’s frequently used in service of obscene and counterproductive political rants. And her campaign for president’s continued long past the point when it could be either a career-revitalizing stunt or a sharp jab at the major-party contenders. The roast will either be an embarrassment, or a chance for Barr to demonstrate a gameness that could revitalize her public persona.
But leading up to the taping and in the aftermath of it, the coverage has been dominated by insult comic and Friar’s Club Roastmaster General Jeffrey Ross, who showed up to the red carpet dressed as Joe Paterno and then joked that Seth Green, who is a redhead, hadn’t “gotten this much attention since you shot all those people in Aurora.” (Comedy Central subsequently said it would cut the joke.) I understand that the schtick is meant to be offensive, but in both cases they’re so anemic and grasping that it’s hard for me to muster much in the way of reaction to them. Especially given that they’re sort of lame by the kind of standards Ross has laid out for himself.
I’ve been spending some time with Ross’s I Only Roast the Ones I Love: How to Bust Balls Without Burning Bridges, in part because I recognize that insult comedy is not a form that I feel naturally comfortable assessing. And his intentions in it, as stated, make a lot of sense. “It is the Roastmaster’s belief that gracing someone you admire with unfiltered honesty is the highest form of respect you can pay them—especially when it’s delivered in the form of a well-crafted joke,” he writes.”When I was asked about producing a roast for boxer Mike Tyson I felt like I had to decline because under my own criteria he just didn’t seem a worthy recipient. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around honoring a convicted rapist and part-time cannibal.” That’s a really interesting intention, especially partnered with the mandate Ross lays out to insert some deep and genuine kindness in a roast, both to hammer down that the event is an honor, and because in the midst of peeling the skin off someone, saying what you love best about them has a greater impact.
The problem comes for insult comics, I think, when their jokes don’t live up to those intentions, which themselves lay out really rich and sensitive comedic territory. It’s not actually true, I don’t think, to say that Seth Green doesn’t have a lot of fun, because he seems to have a pretty awesome job for a grown person and a generally satisfactory life, and the joke doesn’t get at anything about either him, or the man who killed twelve people in Aurora, Colorado. Similarly, Ross cites Larry the Cable guy’s joke as part of what he’s learned to armor himself against, “I get a lot of flak from critics for being homophobic, but lemme tell you somethin’…I think having invited Jeff Ross here tonight proves how much I love the queers,” fails to live up to Ross’s roast standards. What ends up being revealing about that joke is precisely its dishonesty: Larry isn’t willing to declare himself either gay-friendly or a homophobobe, so he employs a “some of my best friends are” ruse that ALSO doesn’t reveal anything true about its subject.
I really think most comedy that fails and ends up being offensive or hurtful is reaching, in its tellers’ intentions, for some kind of truth, and fails when people have profoundly different visions of what’s true, or what the comic wants to argue against. Daniel Tosh set himself up to battle a straw feminist in suggesting that rape always is funny when all he had to argue is that under certain circumstances, jokes about sexual assault can be funny and powerful. He ended up singed, and apparently, rethinking his act. I think Dane Cook wanted to say something true about the awful mundanity of the Aurora shootings, but didn’t ground the routine in commonly-held feelings about The Dark Knight Rises, and was too soon besides. The mistake in situations like these is thinking the truth is obvious or close by, when in reality, it tends to require more careful excavation. That doesn’t mean comedians can’t play a part in that process, but that they sometimes deny themselves a useful role in it.