As the Comedy Central roast reaches a new low with Charlie Sheen, Alan Siegel wonders how something so un-funny has stuck around for so long.
Before tuning in to the recently announced “Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen,” try thinking of five bad things to say about Charlie Sheen. Then, try thinking of five good things to say about Charlie Sheen. Now, which list took longer to compile? If anyone—besides the unhinged star’s immediate family and maybe his concubines—says the former, he or she is lying. It’s easy to shit on Charlie Sheen. Give me a minute and even I’ll be able to come up with a bunch of insults. Now, I’m not funny. But I have no doubt that Jeffrey Ross (Ross already has) or Gilbert Gottfried can dice up Sheen, and in the process, make me laugh.
Still, is the whole exercise really necessary? It’s not the potential offensiveness of the Sheen roast—which is scheduled to air on September 19, opposite Ashton Kutcher’s debut on Two and a Half Men—that bothers me. It’s that a Sheen roast is likely to be boring. He’s already been made fun of, ad nauseam, for the past six months. “Submission for Charlie Sheen Roast: ‘Charlie’s life is so drug-fueled and crazy,’” a rightfully annoyed Michael Schur wrote on Twitter last week, “‘he’s definitely going to die if he doesn’t get treatment!’” Sheen, like former Comedy Central roastees Bob Saget, Larry the Cable Guy, Flavor Flav, and Pamela Anderson*, is an easy target.
*Try the five bad thing/five good thing test with any of those four. It’s not easy coming up with good things, is it?
And so is the idea of a Comedy Central roast. On the humor tree, it’s a juicy, low-hanging fruit. (When news of the Sheen roast broke last week, the Internet groaned and rolled its eyes.) A bunch of mostly B-list celebrities feasting on fellow B-list celebrities isn’t exactly high comedy. Just look at some of the past Comedy Central roasters: Carrot Top, Gary Busey, Brigitte Nielsen, and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. That, as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog once told Simon Cowell, “is like poop telling vomit it stinks.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. Roasts can be funny.
Take, for example, Norm MacDonald’s performance at the Saget roast. Instead of working blue, he went with squeaky-clean, old-timey material. As MacDonald told The Big Lead in April:
So I thought I would do jokes that aren’t funny. Another thing is delivery. So what if I did the delivery wrong also. All that would be left would be context. Just the idea of someone doing bad jokes. I got the idea because the guy told me, “you’ve got to be shocking.” The producer of the show [said], “Just try to be shocking!” So I thought, well, that would be the most shocking thing to do would be… I found the jokes in a book my dad gave me when I was a kid called Jokes For Retirement Parties. When I started stand up, that’s when he gave it to me. It was really sweet of him. Like he had this stupid, fucking corny book, “Hey maybe this will help.” And it’s all these jokes for a guy’s retirement party. I’ll just take the jokes out of there. There are all these super old references. But that was just a little experiment. It angered a lot of people.
It was also brilliant, at least compared to everybody else. These roasts, in general, need better roasters. Reality stars might boost ratings, but they aren’t funny. Comedians are. So if you’re going to trot out The Situation, let him sit on stage, but muzzle him. Let the funny people work. And for god’s sake, please give us better roastees. (Sheen would’ve been a great choice—in 1989.) Otherwise, the Comedy Central roasts will remain the bastardized versions of the Friars Club roasts, which have been held officially since 1949. The Friars Club motto, “We only roast the ones we love,” clearly doesn’t apply to the Comedy Central roasts. David Hasselhoff and Donald Trump*—two more former Comedy Central roastees—aren’t exactly lovable.
*To be fair, the Friars Club has also roasted Trump.
Maybe that’s the point. The viewing public likes freak shows. Which brings us back to the Sheen roast. Inevitably, the made-for-television event will produce a few inspired moments. Like Norm’s “jokes that aren’t funny” bit. Or Ross, at the Anderson roast, with Courtney Love sitting nearby, asking, “How is it possible that Courtney Love looks worse than Kurt Cobain?” But mostly, it’ll be a collection of tired references to drugs and hookers. Kind of like Sheen’s life, but a hell of a lot more boring.
—Photo AP/Charles Sykes